Wartime sacrifice on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 is well known—massive casualties, but ultimately successful. Allied soldiers, numbering over 156,000, managed to penetrate into German-occupied France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and stoutly held their positions despite repeated counter-attacks by German divisions.
Today, the remains of vast quantities of Allied and German war material lie embedded in the beaches of Normandy, mixed in with the natural grains of sand. Shrapnel, bullet casings and armour plate are still there, 70 years later, transformed by the sea, salt, and sun into an array of micro-artifacts that span the divide between technology and nature. Archaeologists have said that up to 8 percent of this sand is made up of war shrapnel. Waves, storms, and rust will wipe this microscopic archaeology from coastal Normandy in another hundred years, and with it, the physical remembrances of WWII.
In June of 2013, I walked the beaches of coastal Normandy, the same month of the Allied invasion, collecting hundreds of sand samples from each of the five D-Day landing beaches (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword). I sent these back to Canada.
Working closely with Kevin Robbie of the Department of Physics at Queen’s University, we utilized a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and optical microscope to photograph the recovered sand. These microscopes have the ability to see things invisible to the naked eye, and allowed us to look at the chemical composition of the samples and to see which particles were war detritus.
It was here that I found trace evidence of the war effort from this pivotal moment in WWII and intimately recorded that which time and nature are progressively eroding from our collective memory.
I returned later that year to photograph the beaches themselves, as they are today. There, so many different elements came into play: the intensity of the landscape, the loneliness and beauty of the beaches packed up for the winter, the wind and the unpredictable weather. These beaches bore little resemblance to the images I knew from LIFE magazine and the history books.
War Sand asks questions about history and geology, and about memory and time.
Beaches and Seascapes (selected)
The above is a small selection from the larger project. Contact the gallery for more information, including current availability and pricing.