When photographer Jeffrey Gusky was given exclusive access to records all but forgotten of the underground cities of World War One lying beneath private farms in France, he had no idea what to expect or the impact it would have on others. Now captured in thousands of striking images, Gusky has titled the collection The Hidden World of WWI. The beautiful art and emotionally charged inscriptions, carved in stone by WWI soldiers, have been virtually untouched for almost 100 years. They are a direct human connection between then and now.
Gusky, a Dallas emergency physician, fine-art photographer and explorer, is believed to be the first person to bring to light the large number of underground cities beneath the trenches of WWI. The Hidden World of WWI reveals the artifacts, sculptures and evocative graffiti left behind by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Landowners determined to preserve the past have zealously protected these underground treasures for decades.
Messages to the Future
“Seeing these subterranean cities for the first time was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” Gusky says. “Finding hundreds and hundreds of messages to the future, written by soldiers in their own hand, made time seem to stand still. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the people who trusted me enough to share their secrets about these places. It was also amazing to realize that while some people knew about some of these spaces, no one knew about all of them.”
While visiting France to photograph another project, Gusky had a chance meeting with a French official – which resulted in his first meetings with local WWI enthusiasts and several landowners along the Western Front. Gusky’s passion for the story and his commitment to protecting these hidden treasures earned their trust and eventually led to encounters with many more people who helped him find and photograph dozens of underground cities.
“To witness the inner thoughts and feelings of the soldiers, carved in stone, was more than inspiring; it was almost spiritual,” Gusky explains. “My goal was to capture this outpouring of human emotion and help make World War One real and relevant to people today.”
One of the first soldier’s carvings the Dallas photographer saw was a perfectly executed, museum-quality relief sculpture of a classic woman’s face chiseled into the wall of an obscure underground quarry. At that moment he knew he had stumbled onto an important story that could touch people around the world during the 100-year anniversary of WWI.
He spent a total of six months exploring miles and miles of these underground spaces. The often treacherous work was performed in complete darkness and sometimes required him to crawl on hands and knees through tight spaces, over jagged rocks, and to lean down over ledges, balancing his camera in one hand. Additional perils in the form of unexploded hand grenades and live artillery shells were common.
Gusky found thousands of works of art, graffiti and inscriptions by German, French, British, American, Canadian, Polish, Hungarian, Australian, New Zealand, Chinese, African and even New Zealand Maori soldiers, among others. In at least one instance, it was clear that three different armies had occupied the same underground city over the course of the war. While they left their mark in different languages, their graffiti and artwork was less about war and politics and more about home and loved ones.
A Man On a Mission
Gusky is strongly committed to preserve and protect these treasures in France. “I’m a man on a mission. I hope these images will change the way we think about World War One, and that they will be protected for future generations. The Hidden World of WWI gives us a glimpse into the humanity of individual soldiers who refused to be silenced in the face of modern warfare. Men from both sides declared themselves as human beings who could think, feel, express and create, and who remind us today that they were here, that they once existed as living, breathing human beings.”
Jeff Gusky’s discoveries and photographs are featured in the August 2014 issue of National Geographic, The Hidden World of the Great War.
Media: Downloadable images available: http://jeffgusky.com/press-room/
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