Trent Parke, Sergeant Joseph Felix Bergin, from series World War I Avenue of Honour (2014) (printed 2016). Collection Australian War Memorial. On display, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, until January 29. “He fell in my arms and lived about five minutes. He was hit by a piece of shell in the right kidney. This happened about 8 o’clock in the evening … I knew him well and he was working in Ballarat Victoria prior to enlisting.”
Not much is known about Sergeant Joseph Felix Bergin. He was 24 when he enlisted for the Australian Imperial Force on August 18, 1914. And he died nearly four years later in a trench on the Western Front during the Battle of Hazebrouck near Nieppe Forest, on April 16, 1918. Bergin may not be a household name but he is part of Australia’s history, remembered by the AIF mates who witnessed his death.
Bergin is commemorated in the Ballarat Avenue of Honour. From 1917, 3801 trees were planted in the Victorian town, with each tree representing a man or woman from Ballarat who enlisted in the AIF.
That Avenue of Honour still stands and it is the subject of 22 poignant images by Australian photographer Trent Parke. The series, World War I Avenue of Honour, was originally shown in Bruges, Belgium, but is now on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
In 2014, Parke, who is the only Australian accredited as a full member of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency, was invited to participate in an international exhibition: The First World War Now. Presented by Magnum in Bruges, the exhibition marked 100 years since the German invasion of that city. As Parke’s contribution to the exhibition, he chose photograph the Ballarat Avenue of Honour.
Parke says he was drawn to the Avenue of Honour because it is a living memorial. He started by photographing the trees, then trawled the National Archives and the Red Cross files to find information about the fate of the individuals commemorated.
“It was one of the most incredibly emotional experiences I’ve ever had,” he says. “It is unfathomable really the stories that happened to these people.”
Australian War Memorial curator Magda Keaney says of the photograph of the tree that represents Bergin: “Sometimes Trent saw personal characteristics in the tree and this soldier was killed by a wound to the stomach and kidney. In this case you have that coincidence of a gouge in the tree where the tree itself looks like it is dying. It is quite a literal depiction of the injury.”
Keaney says these stories may be more than 100 years old but they are still “powerful and sad”. “I think that is what makes this work so compelling, that Trent Parke has been able to evoke that.” to
Digital pigment print, 50.5cm x 42cm