The Iron Harvest



World War One saw unprecedented quantities of artillery used – all in all some 1.5 billion shells were fired across the trenches. An estimated 500 million unexploded bombs are still buried under ground, all along the Western Front.

Each year, farmers dig up many hundreds of tons of explosives, in what has become know as ‘The Iron Harvest’. Shells are then collected by army bomb disposal units, buried deep in the ground, and detonated in empty fields in Belgium and France. Experts estimate that it will take another 500 hundred years to clear the battlefields along the Western Front, before the area is made safe.

In an effort to bring home the reality of trench war fare 100 years on, film-maker and photographer Oscar van Heek, filmed the detonation of actual World War One ammunition, in the empty fields, near the former battle grounds of Ypres in 2018.

The stills for The Iron Harvest series were taken directly from the filmed footage. The film was shot at 100 frames per second and then slowed down to 24 frames per second. Selected Images were then placed in a grid resembling a contact sheet with time codes and numbered 1-24.

The images reference the famous 1878 The Horse in Motion experiment by Eadweard Muybridge.  This consisted of 24 photographs shot in rapid succession of a galloping horse. Images were presented in a zoopraxiscope – a device which is widely seen as the first silent movie.

To this day 24 frames a second has remained the standard for cinema.

Like the Muybridge experiment which attempted to show what the naked eye could not break down, the Iron Harvest film and stills attempt to show the ‘anatomy’ of an explosion in what almost appears to be a scientific experiment.

WW1 ammunition is carefully selected, graded and measured to ensure consistent explosions. It is buried in crates deep underground at measured depths and detonated at one minute intervals. Each explosion however, has an element of unpredictability about them; the size of the flame, colour of smoke, noise produced, the amount of earth displaced.

Whilst this carefully controlled environment is very far from the conditions of WW1 warfare, it nevertheless presents a powerful and visceral reminder of trench warfare and the legacy of WW1.

Iron Harvest premiered on Armistice day October 2018, as part of #play4peace, a live international concert, at the former WW1 Shell Shock hospital in Edinburgh. The concert was streamed globally, with musicians joining in from various European countries. 

Since the launch, Iron Harvest has been shortlisted for THE SONY WORLD PHOTOGRAPHY AWARDS, and shown at Somerset House London in April 2019. It was subsequently shown at SONICA GLASGOW 2022; and is currently showing at THE CITY ARTS CENTRE Edinburgh, until March 2024

This is the start of a series of works looking at the  legacy warfare.  Oscar will similarly film and detonate unexploded ammunitions left buried from other wars in which the UK has engaged,  including; Second World War; Korea; Iraq; Afghanistan, to name but a few. 

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