A cold and wet Thursday night did not deter the audience lined up at the Hurstville Library to hear acclaimed author and broadcaster, Tim Bowden AM, recount stories from his book, The Changi Camera.
Using first hand accounts and almost one hundred photographs, Bowden’s book provides a harrowing and heartfelt account of the experiences of George Aspinall, the young Australian soldier who, along with his folding Kodak 2 camera, became a prisoner of war in the notorious Changi prison and worked on the hellish Thai-Burma Railway.
Accompanying Bowden’s powerful words at the festival session were photographs Aspinall took during his three and a half years of captivity. At first, Bowden explained, he took photos as a hobby, with his collection including photographs of local life in Singapore and the local scenery.
Then Bowden showed a photograph Aspinall took of the Selarang Barracks Square Incident. After the allied prisoners refused to sign a pledge not to escape, on the night of September 1, 1942, the Japanese ordered that every prisoner of war assemble in the Selarang Barracks Square – which meant a total of 15,400 Australian and British troops were cramped into a space measuring only 120 by 240 metres.
There were two water taps to service the whole area. The living conditions were appalling and inhumane. “I think by this stage George was getting the idea that he’s not just taking photographs to show his mum when he got back,” Bowden noted, “but that there were a few things happening that he felt he should document.”
And document he did. Aspinall risked his life by taking the photographs that chronicle the appalling situations in which the prisoners found themselves.
Bowden described the nightmarish conditions the prisoners faced when they were shipped to Burma to build the Thai-Burma railway.
“The greatest atrocity committed by the Japanese against the prisoners is that they did not feed them,” he commented. “On the railway, the prisoners were given some watery stew, a few grains of rice and an occasional flavouring of meat and fish. To do hard labour work on this meager ration, was to many, a death sentence.”
One photograph Bowden showed the shocked audience encapsulated this perfectly. Known as “three fit men”, it is one of Aspinall’s most famous pictures, showing three prisoners of war, standing side by side, looking straight at the camera, rib and shoulder bones almost piercing their skin. One in three allied prisoners who worked on the Thai-Burma railway died.
The audience was so engrossed by Bowden’s moving accounts of strength, mateship and overcoming adversity that question time stretched beyond 25 minutes to closing time.
Asked what drives him to tell the stories of the prisoners of war, as he has for so long, Bowden said: “I suppose in a way I’m fascinated by survival, and what causes some people to survive and others not to.”