Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 3, 2019

The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman, by Helen Lewis

I don’t like reading military combat histories and though this blog has a category called ‘War, Armed Conflict and its Aftermath‘ many of the reviews are of novels, and most of the other non-fiction books in this category are about aspects of war other than combat.

So I might not have read The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman which won the 2018 Mark and Yvette Moran NIB (Waverly Library) NIB Award it if I hadn’t heard the author interviewed by Sarah Kanowski on ABC Radio, in Conversations (Jun 18, 2018).  I realised then that Helen Lewis’s account of her father’s war was significantly more than military history.  And now that I’ve read it, I’ll repeat what I said in my review of Tobruk 1941: sometimes history is worth reading because of the subject matter and sometimes it’s worth reading because of the quality of the writing.  The Dead Still Cry Out ticks both boxes.

Sue at Whispering Gums has written recently about changing aspects of life writing (and I’d reference her post if I could remember which one it was!) so I think she’d be intrigued by the method used in The Dead Still Cry Out.  It is a blend of autobiography, biography, memoir and autoethnography, which is:

a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.  (Source: Wikipedia)

What this means in practice is that the book contains the author’s own experiences both before and during her research; her father’s own words from his visual diary and from interviews with him; memories of her father from a variety of sources; an exploration of the intergenerational trauma of witnesses to atrocity; and her own reflections about how, why and even if, his story should be told.  The result is that the reader gets a strong sense of Mike Lewis the man, the soldier, the cinematographer and the father.  It is not a hagiography but it is written with a daughter’s empathetic eye.

The book also canvasses wider issues.  Reflecting on military operations in North Africa, the author notes how Great Powers intrude into the lives of people who have no idea what the war is about, and how it is the soldiers on the ground who requisition or simply take what they need, who trample over crops with troops and equipment, and who destroy homes and livelihoods. The fact that WW2 was a just war against fascism does not negate the suffering of an civilian casualty in North Africa who had never heard of the Nazis…

The blurb for this book focusses on the importance of the photographs taken by Mike Lewis which traumatised the author when she found them as a little girl.  Those photos were the trigger for Helen Lewis’s research after her father died.  They were photos of what the British found when they liberated Bergen-Belsen and they are first-hand witness evidence for the Holocaust.  But while this excoriating experience affected Mike’s entire life because he could not ever forget it, this aspect of the memoir comes late in the book as the devastating culmination of the cost of bearing witness to other aspects of war.  It is not the whole story of Mike Lewis’s war…. Combat cameramen parachuted into the theatre of war (an innovation in WW2) saw and recorded horrific episodes from the battlefield.  Prior to the shock of Bergen-Belsen for which no one was prepared, Mike Lewis had been a paratrooper in Northern Africa, and after being wounded there had seen an opportunity to join the new British Army Film and Photographic Unit.  He was parachuted into a disastrous Allied operation at Arnhem in the Netherlands, and his daughter’s account of the dangers faced by cameramen armed only with a pistol makes gripping reading.

There are not many histories about war that are written by women, and perhaps it is partly the daughter’s perspective which makes this book so compelling.  But Helen Lewis also writes in the Sources section at the back of the book that

When I began work on turning my doctoral thesis into a book, I took a decision to use dramatic reconstruction for parts of my father’s story, drawing heavily on the primary resources available to me, and using secondary sources to provide the historical context. (p.319)

So the narrative reads like a story, and there are no footnotes, though the photographs with Mike Lewis’s own accompanying captions provide authenticity and she is careful to note when she is quoting or paraphrasing from his archive or from reports or other sources.

For those interested in pursuing the authenticity of her sources, she provides the link to an digital version of her thesis at UTS. This is the abstract that guided the trajectory of the book:

As a member of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit, my father Mike Lewis, took some of the most important images of the Second World War including those of the battle for the bridge at Arnhem and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Though these iconic images have been repeatedly used in books and documentaries he and his fellow Sergeant Cameraman have remained largely unacknowledged and anonymous. The focus has been on the images without a sense of the photographer, the framing and the photographer’s role in the cultural production process or, indeed, the technology used to create them. Using my father’s personal archive as a pivotal point of reference, I seek to re-engage these images with their original purpose and meaning through their creators; and explore how this re-framing changes our reading of them, particularly in relation to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Helen not only contextualises the images and their creator, she also investigates the equipment they had.   It is sobering to read about the DeVry camera:

There is a photograph of [Mike Lewis] operating a DeVry, which I suspect was taken in the early days of his training in North Africa.  He is standing in an unlikely pose for a combat cameraman, behind a tripod and without any cover.  When I was allowed to hold a DeVry at the Imperial War Museum in London, I was surprised at how heavy and unwieldy it was—just an oblong box with a lens and a mechanical winder, no grip to help you hold or steady it.  Mike referred to it as a ‘coffee grinder’; another nickname I came across was ‘the lunch box.’

It looks like a medieval relic against the digital cameras of today, but even back then there were complaints about the equipment. (p.170-1)

The Americans had a focus lens of 20 inches, while the longest of the Brits was only 6.  You can see footage of one of these here starting at 5:25.

The Dead Still Cry Out is a compelling insight into the courage of unsung heroes whose story is not often told.

See also:

Author: Helen Lewis
Title: The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 321 pages
ISBN: 9781925603620
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond The Dead Still Cry Out: The Story of a Combat Cameraman and direct from Text Publishing where it is also available as an eBook.

 


Responses

  1. […] the liberation of the camps.  My understanding of that horror was enhanced by my recent reading of The Dead Still Cry Out, the Story of a Combat Cameraman, by Helen Lewis which vividly reveals how war correspondents were utterly unprepared for what they witnessed but […]

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