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CeremonyPhotography by Alasdair McLellan

The Sublime Beauty of Military Ceremony

We speak to Alasdair McLellan and Jo-Ann Furniss about their new book, Ceremony, an intimate exploration of regimental military

Lead ImageCeremonyPhotography by Alasdair McLellan

August 2006 was the month that the Iraq invasion surpassed the length of World War II; the month that George W. Bush proclaimed “We’re not leaving [Iraq] so long as I’m the president.” It was the same month that Alasdair McLellan and Jo-Ann Furniss embarked on a project to document the ceremonial troops of the British Army, capturing the portraits of men who divide their time between partaking in active combat overseas and regimental gun carriages at home. They are the men who once transported the Queen Mother’s casket at her state funeral; the men who, along with serving as inspiration for postcards and occasionally directing wandering tourists to Madame Tussaud’s, can be summoned for front-line combat. In August 2006, two of The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment – the order primarily known for their daily guard outside Buckingham Palace – lost their lives in Afghanistan.

During a time when the troops serving the British Army became the recognisable face of an illegal war instigated by Halliburton, greed and self-interest, McLellan’s portraits of the men sent out on our command document a far more human reality. “They’re just under orders,” explains McLellan of the determinedly apolitical institution that is the military. “That’s the whole point of it. And what we really wanted to get across is that, they might all look the same in uniform, but they are people.” “Many of those that we spoke to and photographed proved to be incredibly kind, tough, polite, idealistic, hilarious and generous,” continues Furniss in her introduction to the just-published book Ceremony, which contains the series – and the images themselves document a gentle kindness not often explored in the photography of men (let alone those who spend a decent amount of their time fully armed). “These men are so fucking tough that there’s no macho bullshit,” says Furniss. And, shot during a time that saw the world brutally shaken by macho bullshit unparalleled in its arrogance, the images serve as a powerful reminder that authentic masculinity needn't be so one-sided. It was only months ago that the cabinet mobilised our forces once more and sent them into Syria (albeit descending this time from the skies this time, rather than on foot) – not since Iraq have we needed such reminding.

But the project itself was not initially borne of distinctly political bent: its neatly-analogous publication date is a coincidence rather precisely timed liberal rhetoric. As McLellan explains, it was the historied pomp and circumstance of the ceremony itself that inspired the series – more specifically, that performed at the Queen Mother’s funeral back in 2002. “Whatever you think of the Royal Family, when something like that happens and you see the troops performing the duties that they’ve been training for so long, that’s when you start to see that our traditions are worth it. It's genuinely moving,” he says. “So much of the military is about history and memory”, continues Furniss, “about remembrance; remember this, remember this. But today, everything’s immediate, everything is now. It’s not about what the past can teach you, because it doesn't matter, everything can be taken, everything can be photocopied. But the soldiers, they're both symbolic and they're real; what they do is real.” And, as we enter 2016 amidst a global climate that has found its turbulence even reflected in the fashion collections of A/W16 menswear, reflecting on the reality of our past – both recent and otherwise – is perhaps the most important thing we can do to move forward. Remembrance is more pertinent than ever.

Ceremony is available at The Broken Arm, Ofr and Colette in Paris; IDEA Books at Dover Street Market in London (where it will launch with a signing on Saturday 6th February); Dashwood Books, IDEA Books at Dover Street Market in New York and online through Proceeds from the book will go towards supporting ABF The Soldiers' Charity – the national charity of the British Army.