Tiny remnants of bullets and bombs intermingle with grains of sand on the Normandy beaches, making for a bracing encounter with the past in the photographer's new book
“Great storytelling is never merely about facts,” explains Donald Weber. “D-Day actually happened, and as such it can be studied in detail. As an historical event, however, it has the potential to vibrate myth. Together, quantifiable and relative aspects are defining the essence of storytelling which, in itself, is the ultimate art performed in War Sand.”
Weber is referring to his latest project, born of the idea that sand is mnemonic and, for this photographer, it is a repository that has retained the war stories of his grandfather, a commando in the Canadian army. Shortly after publishing Interrogations in 2011, Weber says he “needed to recover from my experiences in Ukraine, where I documented all-too-real interrogations of suspected criminals”.
“Around that time, I felt the urge to take a step away from the rather claustrophobic realm of photojournalism,” he adds. “I also realised it was about time to allow myself to engage with a life-long interest in D-Day, be it that I initially had no intention to end up with such an impressively complex and layered dossier. All I knew for sure was that it should end up as being a book.”
In 2013, Donald showed a few images and a brief outline to Teun van der Heijden, the designer who helped to connect the dots of what is now War Sand, published by Polygon. “Probably Teun didn’t fully understand my endeavour initially, as neither did I at the time,” says Weber.
“But now, in its articulated form, there are a lot of inter-relationships between all the various elements. It’s all connected, be it that really getting a firm grip on the rapport and its concord requires some effort. I think it’s rewarding though to find all the Easter eggs.”
War Sand is set up in such a way that the pages move from an almost unrestricted macro angle to a microscopic concentration on the smallest possible particles of the seafront: the sand of the Normandy beaches, once bearing the weight of the soldiers who landed there on 06 June 1944. “I wanted the narrative to take off as an intuitive, and perhaps even naive orientation,” says Weber.
“The ‘overture’ starts from the serene cover, which sets the sombre-yet-playful tone of it all. It then continues with a range of ‘cloudscapes’ with no horizon, followed by wide open ‘seascapes’, and then by a more acclimatised positioning of the beaches and their direct hinterland. From there it progresses towards a more narrative experience, as this is where the sources of inspiration – films, dioramas and the stories of my grandfather – all come alive.”
The book is based on meticulous research and creatively structured so that the ever- growing pool of elements slowly but surely raises our awareness of the subject matter. So, by flipping the pages, it becomes apparent that all the elements are concerned with one and the same event.
“The conscientious, and perhaps a bit nerdy, study of grains of sand arriving from the D-Day beaches might not be an everyman’s hobby,” explains Weber. “But I’m convinced that if an author genuinely cares about something then the people are willing to pay attention to what he or she has to share about it.”