As a wise philosopher once said, ‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’
It certainly seems the case that, under conditions of incarceration, one way of enforcing subordination is to strip away the signifiers that carry our sense of self – our hairstyles, our clothing, our names – and replace them with elements designed to impose anonymity. Things like buzz cuts and uniforms and numbers.
No sir, you are not a free man. You are prisoner 1178.
That was how Ronald Joy was known between 1942 and 1945, the period he spent in the Mukden Hoten Prisoner of War Camp in North East China. Joy was a soldier in the Royal Artillery and, following his capture by the Japanese as a result of Singapore’s surrender during the Second World War, Mukden became his home for the best part of three years.
However, as a new exhibition at Liverpool’s St George’s Hall makes clear, this was a residence with no home comforts. In photograph after photograph, the primitive conditions are laid bare, with stick-thin men gazing back at the camera in that hollow-eyed way that betrays the nature of their situation. In another time, another place, they might have been young men on an adventure together, roughing it in some basic hostel while having the time of their lives. But no, not in these pictures. The treatment they were suffering was brutal; the experience was hollowing their souls.
The Forgotten Camp is culled from the collection at the Shenyang Second World War Allied Prisoners Camp Museum, an institution dedicated to preserving the site and displaying photographs, diaries and archive items that bring the experience of being there to life (Shenyang is the modern name for Mukden). At the exhibition’s launch event, Ronald Joy’s son, Alan, handed over to the museum a number of items that had belonged to his father in the camp: some haircut tokens, a handmade Christmas card, a bible. And his badge of course – the badge that carried his number.
And that’s how it was in Mukden. There were numbers everywhere, each one serving its dehumanising purpose of turning men into livestock, into beasts to be beaten into submission. Between 1942 and 1945 there were 2,000 Allied prisoners at the camp, each one focusing doggedly on the slivers of light piercing his own personal darkness. The exhibition reveals how many of the men used cartoons and caricatures to ridicule not just their captors but also the details of the experiences that made their lives so grim. In one such cartoon, a prisoner deals with the unbearable pain of beriberi by jiggling uncontrollably on the spot; his fellow prisoners assume he’s simply inventing a new kind of dance.
In an exhibition which includes photographs from the Bataan Death March – the well-named 60-mile transfer of Filipino and American prisoners of war, during which up to 10,000 prisoners died – it remains extraordinary that the human spirit can still draw strength from mockery and satire, a powerful force those in charge will never understand. If there is hope to be found in this often shocking parade of inhumanity, it doesn’t only derive from the luxury of hindsight and our knowledge of the eventual liberation of the camp. It also leaps from these scribbled acts of subversion. The drawings might only be ink on a smuggled scrap of paper, but each one feels like a miniscule victory just as much as if the artist had punched a guard in the face.
The exhibition, which is housed in the atmospheric catacombs of one of Liverpool’s greatest buildings, only makes a brief stop in the city before it closes on November 15. However, coinciding as it does with the arrival of the Weeping Window cascade of poppies, also at St George’s Hall, there can be no more fitting week of the year in which to take in the experiences of that courageous generation and remember them not as numbers but as resolutely indomitable free men.
What: The Forgotten Camp
Where: St George’s Hall, Liverpool
When: until November 15, 2015