©Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing.

Soldiers from the 147th Army regiment look down a cave on Iwo Jima, Spring 1945, picture by Bruce Elkus

Marianne Ingleby is an American journalist and photographer currently based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Interested in visual arts as an investigative practice for exploring personal stories and their meaning in a collective context, she's working with archival imagery provided by her grandfather's photographic collection, the source material of her project "Operation Detachment". After her grandfather Bruce Elkus' death, Marianne Ingleby received a Kodak box full of negatives, letters, and photographs. This box contained more than 900 printed images taken by Elkus himself during WWII in Iwo Jima, Japan, where he had been an official photographer for the US Army."Operation Detachment", a term derived from the name of the grandfather's mission, is an ongoing series Ingleby develops since 2016, delving into the traces of her grandfather’s war experience, informed by collaboration with other war veterans, in the attempt of filling the blanks of past events and further understanding its complexity.

This interview is part of a series of conversations with the artists involved in the 'Pass it on. Private Stories, Public Histories' exhibition held at FOTODOK in 2020, curated by Daria Turminas, which can be viewed virtually here. This exhibition explores the constructed nature of memory, the complexity of its production and transmission processes. By presenting ongoing projects, it urges the viewers to question their relationship with archives, their content and possible meanings.

Archivo Platform (AP) | "Operation Detachment" (2016-ongoing) is the only project currently presented on your website. Considering your professional background in journalism, what made you choose an artistic exploration of this archive?

Marianne Ingleby (MI) | After studying journalism and getting a Master's degree in American Studies, I worked as a journalist for a few years, at Metro newspaper and CNBC financial television. When the financial crisis struck our office, I had the opportunity to reflect. In journalism I missed a more personal and artistic approach, which now is quite common but unfortunately it wasn’t then. I decided to pursue a dream of studying photography, like my grandfather, even though he warned me against it when I expressed interest as a teenager. I wanted to explore the boundaries between journalism, research, personal stories and their meaning to us and believe Operation Detachment is a part of this study.

AP | We're curious about your reaction as you first saw your grandfather's archive. How was the process of working with it from a professional distance and dealing with the personal and emotional attachment to the photographer who made it?

MI | At first when I received the archive, I felt no connection. It has a huge weight to receive a war archive, but I simply did not know what I was looking at or what to do. A massive box of jumbled black and white or colour prints, negatives, army documents and letters. Horrific scenes of beheaded corpses, alongside images of partying soldiers. Who were these people, where were the images taken? All my mother said was that it was from his time during the war on Iwo Jima. Black and white old prints play a trick on us, because the world we see in colour. It tricks us to feeling the distance of time and make it look less horrific in a way. For example, blood shows up as black, a very different effect. It was a process to understand that these pictures were not taken by an anonymous photographer, but by my very own grandfather who was a part of each and every scene that lay before me. This did not happen overnight, but my perception shifted and I began to understand his personality better. It was as if nothing ever impressed him deeply, and seeing what he saw in the war, I began to understand why. It is very special to be able to see a huge chapter in someone's life after they are gone and fill in certain blanks. It also creates a yearning to be able to speak to him about so many things. There is much left to my own interpretation.

©Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing.

Bruce Elkus’s official ID card

AP | There must have been several ethical questions you had to deal with by bringing these images to the public sphere, not only confronting the audience with a less known context regarding the war but also exposing a relatively private context of your grandfather and his colleagues?

MI | To be honest, the brothel pictures were never a problem for my family, and why should they be? Soldiers visit brothels, they are far away from home and miss intimacy after seeing the horrors of war. How can we blame them? My mother never spoke to me as if it was something shameful and my grandfather also never hid these images in our family. And I am proud that he did not. He did not try to polish it all up, and there is a huge value in that for us today. It was only later that I learned that these brothels likely were set up by the Japanese government to keep the American soldiers away from their civilian women in order to keep their race pure. These women were exploited by their government. Hate the game, but not the player is an appropriate term for this situation, I believe. Although there were also reported incidents were the men in the brothels behaved very badly towards the women and surely rape also occurred. The power was totally off balance as there was nobody to protect them and they were at the mercy of their occupier. We should not have any illusions about how extremely vulnerable these women were. Who could they go to, if they were raped, beaten or not paid? Although you cannot see these violent instances on the images, you get a strong sense of the atmosphere in these brothels, that is clearly not always what we consider respectful. For example, a man squeezes a topless woman's breast while two others stand by, she smiles uncomfortably into the camera. There is much interaction depicted between the women and men. I guess nowadays, you usually perhaps cannot take these pictures anymore like that in a brothel, as people are much more aware of the impact of photography. But the women are objectified in some of the images. War objectifies people, both men and women. And in a primal sense, sleeping with the women of the enemy is a clear sign of victory. Of course many children came forth of these encounters. Some soldiers married Japanese women, but often these relationships did not last due to cultural differences. So in a sense the image of a woman in this context can also be seen as a trophy photograph, as it is a celebration of victory.

©Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing. Picture by Bruce Elkus 1945

Military police from the US army hold guard outside a brothel during the American occupation of Japan.

©Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing. Pictures by Bruce Elkus 1945

American soldiers interact in what is likely a dance hall, set up to entertain American troops during occupation.

AP | Considering that the USA Army's official archive incorporated only a few pictures taken by your grandfather and that these photographs have a specific uncensored nature, this invites to question whether his superiors ever saw his photographs. And, for that matter, a sense of what was public information and what wasn't? To what extent do you think this archive that your grandfather kept makes us question the official narratives we know? We must acknowledge that these pictures allow room for reframing historical documents and the reality and the fictional realms of war. Can you comment on that?

MI | My grandfather acted very a-moral in his documentation of the war. He is not imposing his morals on us what we should or shouldn't see, that is not the sense I get from this collection. In that, he has the quality of an amateur photographer in that he documented everything he thought was interesting. But he had the access of a professional, like an embedded journalist who travels with troops. I believe a lot of it is also down to my grandfather's personality, he greatly disliked authority and felt being a photographer would give him freedom. He took a lot of freedom in his job that I am not sure others did. It is the array of different types of scenes that make this archive so incredible, the palette of it makes the war come to life so vividly. I only understood that my image of war was totally censored until I saw my grandfather's work. Surely, the images on Iwo Jima, he took many of them in the context for his work. But the images of the occupation are recreational and he must have deliberately kept them away from his superiors. Important historians have told me that if they would have found out about his brothel pictures, he surely would have been suspended or fired and they would have been destroyed. One senior curator had another theory that is also interesting. That the brothel images were a secret task of my grandfather. Because the American army unofficially did regulate the brothels, for example because of the outbreaks of venereal disease, perhaps they asked the army photographers to document the dealings inside the brothels. There is one image of the soldiers standing in line getting their genitals checked by a doctor and another image of military police standing guard outside the brothel, proving how they regulated the coming and going of these places. I would like to further explore this theory.

©Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing. Pictures by Bruce Elkus 1945

Elkuk’s work depicts landscapes of Iwo Jima after the battle and moments of downtime during work of the soldiers working on the island’s clean up, as well as the second half of the battle where there was still fierce fighting against Japanese soldiers hiding in the island’s extensive cave system.

©Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing. Picture by Bruce Elkus 1945

American soldiers receive a check up for venereal disease, which was prevalent during the occupation of Japan.

AP | In Operation Detachment (2016-ongoing), the work you've developed with your grandfather's archive, you interviewed U.S. war veterans and researched further into The National Archives at College Park, Maryland. What led you to start researching beyond the photographs? Can you share the questions that led to this research?

MI | After finding out through important historians the historically unique value of this archive, I was missing the words with the pictures. There are almost 100 letters between my grandparents during wartime, but not from Iwo Jima. There is one letter than is heavily hand censored and mentions that he is 'so glad to put that horrible place behind him', that was all censorship allowed him to write. So while there are many images, there were no words. I wanted to fill in these blanks. Problem was that my grandfather documented the second half of the battle and its aftermath, where he follows the 147th Infantry regiment. The famous Raising of the Flag image is from the Marines, who where responsible for the invasion of the island. But this infantry regiment is hardly known in history books. They were like an underdog, who literally had to do the dirty work after the battle, including the clean-up of the thousands of casualties on the island. They did not have the same PR machine or even equipment that the Marines did and after their job, they disappeared into almost an obscurity. It was impossible to find anyone alive from this regiment, but luckily the Marines hold annual gatherings and I could attend one and find many surviving war veterans. I wanted to hear the personal stories of these men in order to properly reconstruct this history. Their stories are vital as they add so much complexity in the human experience of war and I am most grateful that they shared their stories with me and that I myself could take their portrait. This research is undertaken during the two part radio documentary for the Dutch public radio program OVT, for the VPRO, together with radio journalist Laura Stek and Eefje Blankevoort from Prospektor. We received a grant from the Dutch public broadcasting fund NPO fonds and it was aired in the Spring of last year with its Dutch title Operatie Onthechting. We hope to make a third episode when travel to Japan is possible again.

©Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing.

Ralph C. Simoneau, a US Marine who fought in Iwo Jima, in his home in Wiscouncin, 2020

AP | At Fotodok's exhibition "Private Stories, Public Histories", there is an audio piece where you highlight the U.S. war veteran testimonies. Besides that, you also include an envelope with sand from one of Iwo Jima's beaches. These diverse sources and testimonies, alongside your grandfather's photographs, are offered to the spectator, allowing for multiple possibilities and questions regarding this event. Was it your intention to keep it as open as possible for the audience to make their conclusion?

MI | For the exhibition, a few things were important to me. I wanted people to hear and be touched by the stories of the people involved, that it did not become something abstract for the audience. Yet, at the same time, I wanted people to think about the problems that arise when using photography as a tool in remembering history. Art is strongest when the artist is not telling you what to think, then you are underestimating your visitor. I believe it was my role to reconstruct and ask questions, so people can question the existing narrative. Who am I to judge people who experienced war? I have never been in their situation. Can I really condemn someone for making a war trophy after their enemy has spent weeks trying to kill them? I feel very uncomfortable with desk chair intellectuals who pass judgement on situations that they have never even been close to. Because I am loyal to my grandfather, I have perhaps a different perspective than many researchers may have. I always bring it back to him and his situation. It is of course more complex, but I believe you have to have this sense of compassion and empathy for the people pictured while doing the research, and being a relative of the maker keeps this at the forefront. Yet at the same time, my grandfather gave me the liberty to be critical. I never knew a more critical person than him, and he therefor gives me that liberty. A beautiful and long lasting gift from Bruce posthumously.

The sand at the exhibition symbolizes how I could not travel to Iwo Jima due to the pandemic, so I had to ask the question, how can Iwo Jima travel to me? A befriended son of a veteran sent me a small envelope of sand. It symbolizes, being left in the closed envelope, the difficulty of actually understanding the experience of war. We can look at it, but it remains closed. We can only attempt to understand and in this we will inevitably fail.

Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing.

‘Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories' at FOTODOK, 27.11.20-28.02.21 © Studio Hans Wilschut

Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing.

‘Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories' at FOTODOK, 27.11.20-28.02.21 © Studio Hans Wilschut

AP | The video installation Dear Bruce (2020, Operation Detachment) delivers a monologue that acts as an attempt to understand your grandfather's archive and its historical importance. This strategy of using open-ended communication leaves us to imagine your grandfather's response, therefore, allowing our imagination to create multiple readings. We can assume and make our endings with the unanswered questions you ask your grandfather. Interestingly, you decide to hide the pictures and describe them whilst showing only the back of those photographs. You question whether it's more important to look at the pictures or understand their historical importance. Have you been able to answer this question yourself as you are working through this project?

MI | It was not easy to know what to do with these brothel pictures as people are recognisable and naked in some of them. Opinions vary widely on whether to show them or not and it is always interesting. For me personally, it is essential to actually see the images, even though they are of people's grandmother or grandfather. The key thing is context and respect. So in the exhibition, I first show the questions that I struggle with. Then people can turn around and go through the whole uncensored archive behind them and choose what they want to see and what they will disregards.

With the brothel pictures, context is so important. As you are exposing intimate moments from a personal archive, there has to be a reason for it. Otherwise, you are just adding to the exploitation that these women were subjected to. I felt it was strongest to simply ask this question to the audience. But certainly not censor the images in the exhibition entirely as this would not do the men and women involved justice.

AP | In the exhibition, there is a box with your grandfather's entire photo collection. You give the audience free rein to pick and choose what they want to see, rather than selecting, curating, and showing specific pictures, somehow determining their importance over the others. Would you care to comment on this?

MI | It was important for me to also show viewers the archive in its entirety and not censor it for them. It invites viewers to think about their own fascination and role in selecting and viewing images, feeling the active participation in this rather than presenting the work for them and thus giving them a passive role. I want people to feel as overwhelmed as I was in seeing the array of images, inviting them to 'inherit' them with me and select what we now find important.

Marianne Ingleby, Operation Detachment, 2016-ongoing.

‘Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories' at FOTODOK, 27.11.20-28.02.21 © Studio Hans Wilschut

AP | The word 'detachment' seems a very significant word in your work. It is part of the name of your grandfather's military operation in WWII, and, in your work, it gains a symbolic value that asks us to rethink our attachment to photographs and their indexicality, as well as our capacity to perceive a larger context of its historical construction and representation, do you agree?

MI | Yes, indeed. I choose the title Operation Detachment as it struck me right from the start. From the most personal level, the word detachment was about how detached I was from this part of my family history. If I had never had inherited this archive, I would not have known anything of Bruce's role in the war. It would have been completely lost. Further, detachment is also about what soldiers who experienced the trauma of war can experience. As psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk describes in his book The Body Keeps the Score, the difficulty of finding words for complex emotions is what can typify trauma. How to integrate an experience which was at times the most thrilling, bonding or meaningful event of your life, but at other times, the most traumatic? How to return to normal life after having experienced combat? And yes, also how detached the images were from meaning if we have no context to place them in, which is how I received them. The images were detached from the narrative and facts, that are so essential in analysing and interpreting them. It is important to be able to place them in much context as possible, as war imagery is very susceptible to being used in the wrong context and as a heinous trophy even.

AP | What are, in your opinion, the possible outcomes for this archive? Considering their historical importance, do you think it could be available to further research, including other areas of knowledge?

MI | There is a lot of future potential for researching in this archive. Just to name one interesting aspect, delving further into the images that Bruce's archive does not show. I shall give you one example. The historian Dr. Douglas E. Nash from the Marine Corps University has found that in military documents, it is described how my grandfather was part of a mission of the army to recreate the famous Raising of the Flag image on a tiny island next to Iwo Jima called Minima Jima, straight after the battle. This island was really minute and the only reason they went there was because the army wanted its own version of the famous image of the Marines. The documents describe a very arduous and even unintentionally comical event, its factuality and minute detail make it sounds like a Monty Python movie, how the men were sent to this island for the remaking of this image. They could not get the boat close to the island and were forced to blow up a rubber dingy, which capsized several times, with my grandfather and his equipment toppling into the ocean. They seized the uninhabited island 'in name of the United States' and captured one Japanese POW, who had been stranded there and had lost every sense of time. The interesting thing is that this image, of the army flag raising, is not included in Bruce's archive. It would be very interesting to see if I can locate this lost image as it has great historical value. It also invites thought on the impact of iconic imagery so directly after it had been taken. As Rosenthal's image was famous a few days after taking it, a rare event at the time, it must have reverberated throughout the whole war effort and its imagery, and this anecdote shows just that. Other that, it would be an idea to have experts of numerous different fields see the archive and comment on it.

It is my plan to also explore the impact of the battle on the vegetation on Iwo Jima. Modern warfare dramatically changes a landscape and especially on this island. It would be interesting to see how the war is physically still present there in the plants and soil. The opportunities are endless, as there are so many facets to this rich photographic material.

All images © Marianne Ingleby. Courtesy of the artist. / All installation views © Studio Hans Wilschut.

This interview is part of the INTERVIEW SERIES developed in the context of the exhibition 'Pass it on. Private Stories, Public Histories' exhibition held at FOTODOK.

— Interview developed by Editorial Interns Gabriela Sá and Chloe Davies, within the Archivo Editorial Internship Programme.