Mikel Bastida

War Theatre

During the last two years I have traveled across Western and Eastern Europe recreating the figure of a World War II photographer. I’ve covered several historical recreations where groups of re-enactors have performed different war episodes in both historical scenarios and fictitious battlefields.

This photographic series is a search for those fields that history has turned into literary landscapes. Scenarios made out of different representations of WWII – from films to vintage photographs – which turn into huge sets where recreation and simulation leaves exposed a collective imaginary.

The Photographic Naturalism, the definition of reality from behind the camera, does not allow fictitious characters but imaginary. Real figures transformed into the main character of a false epic representation. Archetypes of a story that has permeated our popular culture to the point of making reality interesting only when it is mystified by its representation.


Born in Bilbao in 1982, he first became interested in photography at the age of 19 while studying at the School of Film of Andoain. After this period he started working as a TV camera for the leading Spanish news agency EFE. He then enrolled in the School of Communication and Visual arts, while embarking on personal photographic projects abroad. In 2009 he was granted an award for a project developed during the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
In 2010 he moves to China to work on a personal project. This trip is a major breaking point in his career and the resulting project is awarded with the prestigious Roberto Villagraz scholarship.
He currently lives in Madrid, where he studies a Masters in photography at EFTI School of Image and Arts.


42 thoughts on “Mikel Bastida – War theatre”

  1. Michal Daniel

    Oh boy. Fake war stuff. Didn’t know I missed it. Come to think of it, I didn’t.

  2. Hmmmm. Why not just green screen various actors standing in the center of the photo with a different background? Sorry, don’t see anything interesting about this.

  3. I can’t find the name of the group of people who do it in miniature…but found a link to it:


    it reminds me of it.

    I like the essay but some of the wide shots bother me. They seem to distant. I want to see what is happening up close. I want more detail. I also wander of the “re-enactors” were hired by him or if he just contact them and told them about the project.

    I think the statement “Real figures transformed into the main character of a false epic representation.” is exactly what it is….but I am not really mystified….and I don’t say this as a negative thing.

  4. After I stifled my pedantic nature (American Marine and Japanese soldier in Europe?) I discovered I genuinely like these photographs. Of course the psychology and personalities of re-enactors would be worthy of exploration, too, I think.

    Good work.

  5. Is is just me or is the concept of re-enacting events and experiences that the people who actually lived through those events and experiences never want to repeat just plain dopey? Although I did like the Japanese soldier in England; who knew that the final Japanese holdout of the Pacific War was hiding out as the manager of a Toyota dealership in somewhere in the Midlands, just waiting for the order from Hirohito to strike in the rear [way in the rear] of the advancing Allied armadas? I mean, really, it just boggles the imagination.

  6. I feel set up…
    whats up with the 1st image?
    i was expecting a multimedia piece, i guess…..
    i feel like i’m missing something…….
    toy soldiers….

  7. OK, at first, I didn’t like this essay (except for the opening image). On second viewing, I thought about what Carlo had written: “I like the essay but some of the wide shots bother me. They seem to distant. I want to see what is happening up close. I want more detail.” But maybe, this what Mr. Bastida has in mind. Up close and personal might seem a bit too much like real documentary from a conflict. Giving space also gives context – I liken it to watching little boys play war with sticks as guns.

    When I was about 12-14 years old, my friends and I were fascinated by the Vietnam War (which our parents and contemporaries fought in). We would dress in battle fatigues, and spend hours in the woods playing war. While we felt excitement at trying to hunt down our “enemies” and not be “killed” ourselves, it would be obvious to any observers that we were just playing.

  8. “…behind him I could see the red mahogany ochre blurs of the horses being led to the watering trough, the mud was so deep you sank into it up to your ankles but I remember that during the night it had frozen suddenly and Wack came into the bedroom with the coffee saying The dogs ate up the mud, I had never heard the expression, I could almost see the dogs, some kind of infernal, legendary creatures their mouths pink-rimmed their wolf fangs cold and white chewing up the black mud In the night’s gloom, perhaps a recollection, the devouring dogs cleaning, clearing away: now the mud was grey and we twisted our ankles running, late as usual for morning call, almost tripping in the deep tracks left by the hoofs and frozen hard as stone, and a moment later he said Your mother’s written me….”–Claude Simon, ‘Flanders Road’

    “The medic handed me the adrenaline syringe and I opened my shirt and stuck the needle into my heart.”-Antonio Lobo Antunes, ‘Os Cus de Judas’

    We find ourselves, surrounded, in the middle of places that sift and sooth us in appearance (an alpine stoney father fingering into parts by a grassy wind) but tear us apart and beset by events that we could not have expected, can not prepare for. The death amid the bossomy sky, the undulating grass, and yet there we are: carrying a ponderous film camera as if a dead companion….we are, forever, displaced by others and by the conflict of the calming nature of the land and the tearing events of our lives….

    the man, carrying a camera as if a small coffin or sisyphus’ rock, through a gentle and nourished feed a grass, a patty of life, though beneath those steps lay shorn bodies and abacus’ lives….regal and gallant in his uniform, heart-break in his innocent inadequacy seen of those crossed eyes marked by classes that fail to make the seeing more precise….the first photograph, breaks the heart for all its innocence and contradiction:

    ecce homo….

    I had to allow this essay to sit with me for a good part of the last 2 days…to allow it’s reimaging, it’s ambiguity and ambivalence…that the more i looked at it, over time, the more heart-felt and sad it bequeathed….not as much for it’s re-enactment, but for its humanity, sculpted away from the content…for when we photograph war, when we read of war, when old men send young men and women off to slaughter and die, themselves, rarely to be realize, rarely to we see their lives in their small simplicity, rarely do we see their awkwarness, their falibility, their idiotic placement…not idiotic for who they are, but idiotic for men and women are not heros but simply men and women, made stark by the land, made stark by the absurdity of put in the middle of a grassy field, in front of a british barracks, in the middle of a indochine paddy jungle as if an absurd placement….and this is what we do, what we grant the young….amid the argument and derangement of gathering policy….

    it took me a couple of days, but i was heart broke by this essay….all the more for it’s invention…because in that carefully composed moment, in that reenactment, in that placing of people outsized by the absurdity of the elements (a gone way to fucking long and large for the body, a landscape too encompasing, a field of european flora that while mimicing in its appearance the jungles of s.e. asia, is still misplaced by its broken mechanics….)

    and how does one depcit the slaughter, the absurdity, the denouement and fracturing of war, of history, of a places imposed….old men scatter young men and women across the land like a chess board, non-compatants perish, animals perish, vegetation burns…this entire game, this film of absurdity….

    the same way that Claude Simon composes a sentence, the way films enact heroically and cannot grasp…the theatrics of history, not a stupid heroism of reenactment, but a simplicity of disconnect…

    the imagination….

    at this point, for me, the imagination is all we have as a way to halter that…not through the verite of journalism, of decay and blood, but by confused absurdist reimagination…sentence by sentence….because the heroics are lies, but oddly, these ‘portraits’ tell me, convey to me much much more than the entire newspapers and books and moments writ large, because there in that safe re-enactment is the real person standing there, not as deified, but as person, as actor, as you….

    how to get past the heart break of that first image…that contradiction and absurdity…..

    and then there is this:

    Mikel, i hope (plead?) that you watch the documentary Marwencol….for me, the finest recent documentary about the power of the imagination to encounter and deal head-on with loss and reconciliation…..something, in fact, that has made it very difficult to see the power and imaginative import of your essay, at first….and yet, what marwencol shows is that the mind, in its reconciliation and its imagination, is the only way to negotiate both the horror and the outersized stupidity of our ‘larger’ selves…..

    please watch it:


    congratulations on this fine, thoughtful and questioning body of work….maybe as a viewership, we’ve grown too coy, too used to the tools of the ‘real’ to not see the power in the re-created….in it’s absurd re-enactment, it actually points to something much simpler…

    we are out-scaled….and yet, we persist…often to our detriment….and loss…and yet, is there not something so noble in that absurdity….

    christ, the power of our smallness weighted against all that…and yet, how brilliant is it that we continually transcend by making anew….

    carve it….not as game, but as testament of love….

    an essay born of an idea, of intellect, that in its small lyricism and genosity is really a testament to lives not as heroic, but as simply human….

    flanders road….

    thanks for sharing with us

  9. and one last thought (forgive me, been working on pics all night):

    if you think of this essay (i see it more as a book), imagine its relationship to Broken Manuel…one about those living alone away from the vestiges of America/american history…and this, tackling in the same caves of posture, european history….for me, they are siblings….

  10. brother P :))

    why?…i’m thinking more about him, what he did…not the stupid phony art world….cigarette and high heels, there cannot be a more honest difference between Mark Hoogencamp and the bullshit in Chelsea….but christ, the power to overcome through the shear act of the imagination and heart…

    what bugged you about it…the film/filmakers or the story?…i’ll take Mark’s efforts over most of the stuff i see (including my own)…


  11. This is among the strangest photo essays that I have ever seen. It is surreal. I think the wide shots help make it so. This essay quietly screams, “ABSURD!”

  12. I like these photographs – a fresh take on an overdone genre (one I flirted with myself). I understand why people have trouble with this subject – I know I did and why I chose not to continue to pursue it despite the rich imagery and twisted fun of it. People are bored and seek identity and camaraderie and adrenaline and it’s a way to bring an interest to life. It’s cos-play and harmless – a game for those who would rather enjoy the outdoors in the company of others than alone in a darkened room.

    Personally I just couldn’t jibe the spiritual healing I was/am doing and having a child with running around the woods playing war. Funny thing is, I’m totally hooked on WWII history (have been since very young) and read many histories. The latest was UNBROKEN, and absolutely amazing story of perseverance, bravery and redemption and very well written. Recommend it to anyone, not just history buffs. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/books/review/Margolick-t.html

    I think there might actually be a kharmic element to my interest (and pain). Considering how many perished brutally during that war, and the living suffered after, I’m sure it’s a kharmically pervasive presence.

    As far as these photos go they remind me some of Jeff Wall panoramas. They blur the line between what’s real and what’s not. Well done and congrats for being published here on BURN.

  13. To me, this essay is not about WWII, war, fake war or even re-enactment, but about about the medium of photography itself. This piece talks about society’s complete trust in the imagery of media and how it shapes our perception of reality and fiction. The imagery, that false epic Mike talks about, often idealised and repeatedly depicted by movies, more often than not ends up being accepted collectively as a reality that most of us never witnnessed….and reality is always more digestible when coated with a layer of fiction

    Subtle, intelligent and very well crafted….way to go Mikel.

  14. The photography is beautiful but there is nothing beautiful about war.
    You can look at these photos and romanticize the act or you can watch “restrepo” and see the reality of it.

  15. Funny how we can all look at the same thing and interpret it so differently. Carlo appears to have looked at this, saw beauty in the photos and interpreted the essay as a vehicle upon which to romanticize war. Whereas, to me, as I noted, in their quiet, strange, surreality the pictures seemed to shout out that the whole notion of war is absurd, that we are absurd. I did not see anything in this essay that would cause me to romanticize the act of war. Quite the opposite.

    I did not state it before, because I thought I had implied it, but just to be clear I find the essay to be well done.

  16. A great idea that is let down by a lack of research and visual representation of content. Not an easy concept to pull off but if done well it would easily rival the EPF winner

  17. Frostfrog,

    sure…we might both see yellow but our experience of it is different. I agree.
    Maybe I’m reading too much on what Mikel Bastida has written?

    If I understand this correctly:

    “Archetypes of a story that has permeated our popular culture to the point of making reality interesting only when it is mystified by its representation.”

    A false representation of war. Elevating and masking tragedy to make it a heroic act.
    For me it’s a paradox. There are two sides to every coin.
    On both sides of a battle you have heroes and you have tyrants….but the roles reverse depending on which side you happen to be on. The Third Reich was the enemy in WWII but the rest of the world was the enemy if you were a Nazi.
    I’ll give another example on this rant of mine….
    Gandhi had an opposition within India that did not want the British to leave. They thought that the only way to get rid of the caste system was under British rule. Again heroes and tyrants play reversible roles depending where you stand.

    You read absurdity in these pictures but #7 and #12 look more like heroic portrayals to me.
    Maybe the intent was how absurd is to think of them as heroes….

  18. The weirdness and the dissassociation of this is emphasized by the wideangle composition and soft gentle light.
    People commenting on the internet(a kind of unreal place itself) about the unreality of the scenes shown takes
    it all to another even stranger level.
    Without wanting to make any political/sociological points, I’d like to point out the contrast between these and some of the equally theatrical photos we’ve seen from the Libyan desert: Civilians pretending to be soldiers, shot wideangle but up close and personal,in harsh contrasty light… and with immesureably higher stakes for both photographer and subject. Some of the subjects in both arenas seem to be playing out scenarios in their heads separate from the realities they face. Photographing imaginary wars in both cases, even if in one some of the actors lose their lives and in the other the re-enactors don’t.

  19. War is something that we as a human race enjoy participating and are very good at doing ……..any absurdity only comes on reflection not as the event

  20. As I think about the above the idea occurs to me that these re-enactors are examples taken to the nth degree of the masks that people normally present to each other and to themselves?
    Other examples that immediately come to mind are some of America’s more extravagantly costumed homeless
    (and most of the obviously homeless people seem to wear some kind od costume) and of course anybody into
    any extreme costumed/tattooed lifestyle..

  21. Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
    Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.
    Wilfred Owen
    8 October 1917 – March, 1918

  22. Sara true.. We had another essay recently here (boyfriend-girlfriend war games
    Etc)..war always was and always is popular against humans.. Somehow we can’t live without it.. In relationships, in the market, within ourselves, within countries, wasted energy=pride etc..
    You see it in the Olympics , in national team soccer games .. In everything and everywhere .. My team is better than yours, therefore my country is better than yours , therefore I’m superior, therefore obey to me.. Everyone accused hitler for nationalism and everyone does the same!
    Oh the mighty Egyptians/Chinese/Americans/raussians/british/english/greeks/spaniards.. The Japanese the mighty aztecs the proud Somalis and on and on.. Every culture was the best and MOST important in some given time in history etc.. Everyone tries to prove why their race is more important than any other race in the story of evo etc..
    In America a very very popular game ( usually between rednecks but not only)is the CIVIL WAR re enactment ..silly, superficial , pure plastic glamor.. They call it paying their respect to the dead and history..
    Yea yea bullshit.. Hollywood says the same..
    Spartacus, Gladiator, Braveheart, the 300 Spartans , the D day, the this, the that!
    Law abiding bricks
    In the meantime , NO HEALTH INSURANCE… still!!!!

    Who was there first?
    The Egg or the Chicken?
    The Palestinians or the Israelis?
    Obviously some day we will have the israli-Palestinian war as a Repley/re-enactment for WHOEVER MISSED IT!
    It seems that Violence stimulates imagination and kills Boredom for the bored and the decadent

  23. Speaking about photographing war re-enactors in general (and not just about this piece), I question how much it either (a) digs into the psychology and meaning of these games as facets of our society, and/or (b) creates an intelligent discourse with the well-known and oft-questioned war photography out there.

    Balancing both may be an insurmountable task for a single project but, too often, I feel neither gets fully addressed.

    Beyond those two issues, I’m really not sure what the interest is.

  24. Somehow we can’t live without it [war]..

    Speak for yourself, Bub…

    Who was there first? The Egg or the Chicken?

    The egg. There were eggs for millions of years before there were chickens.

    The Palestinians or the Israelis?

    The Palestinians, which includes the Israelis because all the people from Palestine are Palestinians.

    Man, if only all life’s questions were so easy….

  25. it was a good quiz though!

    True that. The world would be a better place if a helluva lot more people could ace it.

  26. MW ;))))))))

    well, i can live without it too, but it seems we (i) can’t in the long run…but keep hope alive ;)….

    and before palestines they were philistines…and neanderthals were ‘european’, if my memory is right…and before eggs, well, that’s obvious…that’s the problem with quizzes/tests….we all fail them, which is why i hate them to begin with…

  27. I also liked the first image best. For a moment, I thought this would be a series of photographs of photographers taking pictures of re-enactors. That sounded fun.

    As for the essay, the photography is beautiful. Surely, war is not beautiful, but there is no denying that wars are fought in the most beautiful locations on earth (and in the ugliest and all things in between). Beauty in the midst of war, or war in the midst of beauty, is undeniable, and a bitter irony.

    Yet I also agree with those who weren’t particularly moved to care.

    And I like this comment, hinting (to me) of parallels between real and pretend battlefield photography:

    “Without wanting to make any political/sociological points, I’d like to point out the contrast between these and some of the equally theatrical photos we’ve seen from the Libyan desert: Civilians pretending to be soldiers, shot wideangle but up close and personal,in harsh contrasty light… and with immesureably higher stakes for both photographer and subject. Some of the subjects in both arenas seem to be playing out scenarios in their heads separate from the realities they face.”

  28. Michal Daniel,

    I don’t get it. Whenever you watch ET or The Goonies with your son (just an example), do you go afterwards and watch a REAL horror movie with lots of death and blood to get the sour taste out fo your mouth???

  29. Photographers already get a bad rap for glorifying war, and here we have a photographer glorifying the glorifiers. Glorified squared.

    Besides that, where’s the rest of the story? What are they like outside the “conflicts?” What drives them to do this? Seems kind of shallow skimming of a subject.

  30. I have read 3 times the text, to understand what was meant and am still at a complete loss. Unfortunately, the photos only depend on what you tell us we should make of them, which adds to the incomprhension, or rather, our estrangement.
    My only response here is that, being from France, and seeing yearly, the places where so many died (including people in my family) during the last “world” wars, I need not search for fields that turn history into….What again? :-)

  31. Pingback: Mikel Bastida | Cada día un fotógrafo

Comments are closed.