I was invited to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth to discuss a request to research for my current essay ‘Curating Exhibitions’. Curators Will Troughton and Simon Evans had agreed to discuss their role in curating the amazing Philip Jones Griffiths exhibition of 2015. They introduced their astounding collection of photograph prints, 35mm slides, cameras, books and the life of Philip Jones Griffiths. They showed me the care and attention they invest in the remarkable collection of Griffiths’ work and life and I’m most grateful for their invaluable time and information.
During our discussion I mentioned that I had visited Aberfan in October 2016 to document the village 50 years after the terrible disaster of 1966 and it been my intention to write a blog on my visit. Simon advised me that there was a current exhibition at the library of the work of I.C. Rapoport who produced a body of work on the disaster entitled ‘Nightmares of a Disaster. Amongst the collection of excellent photographs in the exhibition I came across two that had captions that looked beyond the immediacy of the disaster:
‘A retired miner gazes out of the pub window at the wrecked school site and blames himself for digging up and adding to the bloody slag that fell upon the school.’
‘An anxious bride awaits her wedding, hoping future anniversaries will not conjure up only memories of the tragedy.’
Seeing the photos and reading the captions reminded me of my intention to write a blog on my visit last year, so I’m very grateful to Simon for the ‘nudge’.
I can recall, at the age of 17, watching the tragedy at Pantglas Junior School, Aberfan unfolding on our family television. As a school kid I had an awareness and a little knowledge of Wales as I had hitch-hiked with a school chum to West Wales from our home-town of Godalming in Surry when we were 15. We had witnessed the construction of the first River Severn Bridge as we crossed the river in 1964 on the Aust Ferry and marvelled at the towering edifice above us as we traversed the river on the diminutive ferry.
I visited Merthyr Tydfil to document the activities of a group of protestors objecting to the proposed increase of open cast mining in the area and as I approached Merthyr I saw a road sign for Aberfan and was immediately transported to those TV images 50 years earlier. On completion of my photo-assignment I drove into Aberfan without knowing why, perhaps it was morbid curiosity that drew me to the town; I just felt an inner compulsion to visit the town I had seen on the TV all those years ago. But I had a feeling of an intruder and only took a few random photos before continuing my journey home.
The thoughts of Aberfan didn’t leave my consciousness and I followed-up on my visit to the town with some internet searches and found that a 40 year memorial was held in the town in 2006 and 50-year commemorative planned for October with an ITV documentary film planned, so I had decided to revisit Aberfan on Friday 21st October 2016 to see this town 50 years on from the disaster of 1966. I purposely arrived after the ceremonies and the majority of the families had left the cemetery and engaged in conversation with a couple of people as they left the cemetery and later I had a chat with an ex resident of Aberfan in the Megabytes Café. I visited the village-curated exhibition in a 19th century chapel that had been repurposed as a Tourist Information Centre and browsed the displayed photos of the tragedy and the books available for perusal. I later wandered down the hill to the site of Pantglas School and witnessed the plethora of news gatherers and TV trucks with their satellite antenna all crammed into the little car park adjacent to the village community centre where everyone was waiting for the arrival of Prince Charles.
The news media had taken-over the children’s play area which was evident by the number of video cameramen and stills photographers wandering about and seemingly eager to interview anyone who would give them the time to speak into the camera. What intrigued me was the two young girls who seemed oblivious to the activities of the news teams and determined not to have their enjoyment of the swing and slide disrupted and continued to amuse themselves regardless of the large tripods and cameras.
Susan Sontag sums up my feelings after researching the images and news film of the time.
‘They were only photographs – of an event I had scarcely heard of and could do nothing to affect, of suffering I could hardly imagine and could do nothing to relieve. When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only of that horror; irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still dead.’
Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’