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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Wherever You Are - My Last Afghan Post

Well, with my end of my tour fast approaching I thought I would write one last blog post before I head home.

The last couple of weeks have been busy as usual. We have also had some very tragic events occur recently. I am sure most of you keep up to date with the news and the sad loss of six of our boys. Needless to say, the atmosphere has changed since that day. 

The new Combat Camera Team has recently arrived, done their mandatory training package, and are now ready to hit the ground running. Despite this, the jobs have still been flowing fast for both teams, and with the temperatures hitting the 30s now, it's sweaty business.

I thought in my last post I would try and summarise my six-month tour, talk about highs and lows, and finish off with a look ahead. But clearly this is going to be the short version.

The tour itself has been a good, yet slightly frustrating one. As one photographer said about their time out here "it's 99% boredom, 1% chaos." I don't quite agree with this statement, however, I would agree that we do sometimes get bored here. The workload we have had over the tour has been massive, so the main boredom point is normally waiting around for flights and vehicle convoys.

I think the most frustrating part of the tour was not getting to see all the units in Theatre within the six months here. Having said that, it would have been quite hard due to the numbers in Afghanistan at present and clearly our work dictates our location. Those that we did get to work alongside were complete professionals and an honour to work with. The living conditions and the environment in which they operate may not be the best, but the morale of the guys was always on top form. To be honest, living out of a remote Checkpoint was far the preferred option for the CCT, however, short periods in each location was all we needed to gather our stories before moving onto the next job.

Those who have been following my blog religiously will have seen a large number of the places we have been to, and the people we have met and worked alongside. We have been fortunate enough to work with the Danish, Estonian, Tongan and Afghan Forces, as well as our own. Each of them operate slightly differently, however, all are working for the same goal, which is good to see.

There have been instances where units that have hosted us in their location, have been so hospitable it's unreal. The Danish giving us fresh food for a BBQ and the Estonians inviting us for a sauna to name but a few. Yes, you heard me right, a sauna! When the weather started to get cold, there was nothing better than a nice sauna and an alcohol free beer sat on the decking in their compound. Bliss! The only downside...having to sit naked with the rest of my team, and several Estonian men. Not ideal, but hey ho!

The tour has given each of us our own challenges. For me, it was just getting used to the restrictions of what you can and can't do with your imagery, which differs from the UK, in order for it to hit the press. Sadly, that is something controlled by London, which frustrated us all no end! I think I am definitely going greyer on top due to that one. Despite all that, the tour has gone very quickly, and we have had some great jobs. I have now officially completed just under a year here in a two-year period! My poor wife sometimes forgets what I look like! Rest is definitely needed right now!

Well, if you have read this far, you are probably wondering where all the pictures are. Sadly, in the post, their are none. Not standalone images anyway. Here is why.......

Since Christmas I have been working on a project, that some of my Facebook and Twitter followers may have picked up on, but no details have yet been disclosed.........until now.

Being away on tour is an emotional time for everyone. Emotional for the soldiers here, but also the families and loved ones back home. Six months separation is a long time. I have personally found it hard living separate lives for so long. Trying to deal with day-to-day dilemmas at home during a 10-minute phone call, but also staying focused on the job at hand. My poor wife broke her leg quite badly back in November and was confined to her bed for weeks. Getting things done around the house was not easy, nor was getting my stepson out of bed for college, but she worked through it. I have also had to deal with my Nan passing away two months into my tour, which was hard. But sadly life goes on; your work here never stops.

Still no images? No!

Just before Christmas, Gareth Malone aided the setup of a Military Wives Choir at Royal Marine Base (RMB) Chivenor. Using a track composed by Paul Mealor, their mission was to raise money for the Royal British Legion and SSAFA.

With the track being sung by wives of serving soldiers, who were in Afghanistan at the time, it struck me as quite an emotional track. The words were from letters they had written or received, and the video contained lots of pictures of them and their loved ones. As most of you know, they got the Christmas #1 and the support they received was massive. So I set myself the task of getting permission from the music company to use the track for an end of tour picture slideshow. This was no easy task. It took me around three months of emailing various departments within DECCA, the music company, but also MOD main building, where our legal team had to get a contract agreed, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Defence. It was damned hard work, but I have finally pulled it off! 

Why? Well, I wanted to give a flavour of Afghanistan to the people back home. I wanted to show them their loved ones, working, relaxing, patrolling and so on. I wanted to pull on the heartstrings of the wives back home by using this emotional track and images of our lads. I wanted to show the families parts of Afghanistan they would never see, or places their loved ones have been, and describe those places with my imagery. Hopefully some of you will recognise some of the people in my pictures.

As you can imagine, I have taken thousands of pictures in my time here, but I could only use a few, so I wanted to focus on our boys, not the Afghans for this theme.

Having sent this slideshow to someone back at the Army Headquarters, in order to check the output quality for this post, it made her cry. So I think I have done my job in setting the tone of my piece just how I wanted it. I don't mean that in a bad way, but at the same time, I didn't want it to make people laugh (apart from a couple of pictures). Afghanistan isn't the sort of place that is to be laughed at.

So, with that in mind, the theme was set to 'Wherever You Are.' My take on the Military Wives Choir video, but from a personal perspective, hoping to give people a realistic insight into life in Afghanistan and places where their loved ones could well be working or living.

So with all of that said, I wish all of those on Op Herrick 16 a very safe and productive tour. 

My sincere thoughts and condolences are with all of the families that have lost their loved ones during the Afghanistan conflict. I hope that my imagery of the Repatriation Ceremonies, during Herrick 15, have given you some form of closure through these difficult times. 

I now look forward to getting back to my family, who I have missed dearly, and jetting off on holiday for a nice family break. My wife deserves it for putting up with me for a start, but also for me being away loads, travelling the world, capturing what the British Army does.

You can also look forward to hearing more about my goings on and reading my blog from a UK angle. I must say thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read or comment on my blog, and to all those who actively follow me on twitter (@CombatPhot).

I will leave you now with a quote that has also been stuck in my head for some time and the picture slideshow I promised you about 843 words ago! I think it sums up the majority of people I have met here quite nicely.

'It's often said of our Armed Forces that they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Well, I don't entirely buy that. Ordinary people don't run out under withering enemy rocket and heavy machine-gun fire to rescue a wounded comrade. For that matter, ordinary people don't put their lives on the line for distant folk, such as the Afghans, who need our help and are now turning their country round because of it. No, you may feel ordinary — most extraordinary people I've met do. But you're not. Even if you were once, you aren't now.' - HRH Prince Harry at The Sun Military Awards. 

So, Wherever You Are, please spare a thought for a Sailor, Soldier or Airman, doing his or her bit for Queen and Country, in a hostile environment, thousands of miles away from home.


Saturday, 3 March 2012

One Last Trip Around The Bazaars

Having had a very busy couple of weeks, I thought it was about time to update you on the team's goings on.

As mentioned in my last post, we recently had a trip to Loy Mandeh Kalay, which is situated in Nad-e Ali. The reason behind this trip was to do some filming for UpperCut films, who are completing a documentary on the area.

Despite the job being predominantly video based, there are always stills that can be taken for future use.

After a short night flight into Patrol Base (PB) Wahid, we had a quick brief on the morning's patrol before we got our heads down for the night. The patrol was being run by the Police Advisory Team (PAT) from the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (PWRR). Accompanying the patrol would also be a Naval Petty Officer (PO) from the Military Stabilisation Support Team (MSST), and a Private from the Female Engagement Team (FET). These guys and girls do amazing work within the communities, and are a vital link between the military and the Afghans. They aid in the set up of local projects, and help communities turn their villages back to the thriving places they once were. The FETs are also a key attribute to any patrol. Afghan culture frowns upon their women being seen, unaccompanied, by other men in public, so the FET is able to approach areas the male soldiers simply can't. They can liaise directly with the females and help them with any issues they have.

On route to the Bazaar

After breakfast, we had a quick 'bonnet brief' before preparing to move. The Loy Mandeh Kalay is only a stones throw from Wahid, so before long we were into what we hoped was a bustling bazaar. Sadly, none of the Afghans had really ventured out due to the cold, so we patrolled on up to a local police checkpoint where we would wait until it got busier.

After about 30 minutes, and a cracking cup of chai, we were back out the gate. The bazaar wasn't particularly big, but in comparison to a few months ago when the MSST first went their, it had changed massively. 

Loy Mandeh Kalay

Over the previous few months, the MSST and the FET had been working in conjunction with each other to improve the once run down bazaar. They had instigated a works project to repair the bridge on the other side of town, hoping to bring in more business for the shop owners.

Shop owner and Local Policeman pose for the camera

It's always hard trying to explain to people back in the UK what Afghanistan is like, but when you are here, you take what you see as normality, as you are living amongst it. The bazaar had a mobile phone shop, a pharmacy, fruit and veg shop and a mechanics workshop, of sorts.

A young child stands staring at the British patrol

So after a couple of days in Wahid, we were off again, back to Bastion to edit and turn our kit around for the next task.

As most of you are aware, we have an amazing medical facility here in Camp Bastion. Probably one of the best hospitals in the world, in my opinion. The work these unsung heroes do, is amazing, and I spent a week with them witnessing it for myself.

As you can imagine, photographing such a place can be quite tricky, and took months of planning and permissions to be sought. But we got there at last. Due to the sensitivities of the hospital, we (the military) had not been able to update any of our medical archives since mid 2009, so getting full, unrestricted access was a real achievement!

Well to keep it brief, I saw some amazing, but stomach wrenching things that week. I covered every part of the hospital, from the pharmacy to the operating theatre and the GU Doctor. It really is amazing what these people can do, not only 201 (Northern) Field Hospital, but the medical profession as a whole, especially with some of the cases you have to deal with out here. Sadly, I can't show you any of those images, but I am sure most of you won't want to see them anyway.

Padre McCourt takes Mass

As part of my week, I also covered the Pastoral care within the Hospital, and spent a rib tickling day with the Geordie Padre. What a laugh he was! I followed him on one of his three daily trips around the hospital, where he spoke to every patient and member of staff that crossed his path. It was good to see him interacting with everyone, including the Americans and Afghans by using an interpreter. I won't lie, he loved the attention! That night I attended Mass, to photograph him in his 'home,' the hospital Chapel.

A couple of days later I was supposed to be following James Blunt and Katherine Jenkins around Helmand, but sadly they never got here due to flight issues. Quite a shame really as they were supposed to be performing at some of the more remote locations in Helmand to cheer up the troops. Instead, I went off to photograph some cricket.

The Afghans in the final few overs

There had been a cricket match planned in Camp Shorabak on the edge of Bastion. I know nothing about cricket, but apparently it was a 20/20 match. With Sgt Wes Calder, the Army Photographer for 20 Armoured Brigade in attendance, he saw the Brit team get knocked out after losing to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the interpreters team. Day two, which I was covering, just left the two Afghan teams battling it out.

The Afghan National Army cheer from the stands

After a couple of hours the game was over, the Afghan National Army won, much to the delight of Brigadier General Sheren Shah, Commander 3/215 Brigade, who was in attendance. The ANA were ecstatic, so much so, that I had about 100 of them all climbing over me trying to get a picture of the winning team. Mobbed is an understatement. 

Lap of honour

Luckily for me, the winning team soon ran off on a lap of honour, waving the Afghan flag about, giving me some space to get the shot I wanted. After a few shots of the presentations it was back to the office to edit.

Sgt Wes Calder RLC

A couple of days ago, another one of the Army Photographers in Afghan popped by Bastion en route to an operation he was covering. For those of you that don't know, apart from Sgt Nesbit and I on the CCT, Wes is the only other Army Photographer in theatre. Wes works for 20 Armoured Brigade and covers various aspects of what his Brigade get up to across Helmand. As you can imagine, with the amount of personnel in Helmand, the three of us are quite busy, and very rarely see each other for a chat and a brew.

Wes, like us, has been bouncing from one Op to another for the majority of his tour, so having chance to catch up was good.

Wes asked me while he was here if I could take some portraits of him to go into our Army Photographers' Yearbook. As with any photographer, you spend all your time photographing other people, and never get any good ones of yourself, so this was a good chance to get them done.

With the weather hotting up here, and the sun being so bright, we found a nearby ISO container to shoot in. That way I had better control over the ambient light, and used my softbox as a fill. 

After a quick edit, and copying them onto Wes' laptop, he was packed and off. Hopefully we'll get chance for another catch up before the end of tour, as he heads back to Sennelager for the birth of his first child, and me back to the UK.

Well, I think that's about it for now, I need a coffee.

What will my next blog be about? Who knows.