So, what have you been up to?

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth is one of 38 trained British Army photographers.  He left a career in aviation to pursue his passion for photography; capturing everything that military life has to offer. He is currently in Afghanistan as the Task Force Helmand Photographer on Op HERRICK 18.

A month down; seriously? Wow, the first month just flew by and I am wondering why? I haven’t been rushed off my feet, nor have I been sitting around watching Jeremy Kyle (each to their own). Maybe I have found the perfect ratio. I certainly hope so as I have another five to push out.

I deployed to Afghanistan with 1st Mechanized Brigade Headquarters, having just recently been posted there in January. In that small space of time I have made a few friends, and occasionally I bump into them out here. Most of them are office workers in the headquarters, and some of them have been scattered around the province. When I do manage to catch up with them, or indeed my very good friends from either of the two Army Aviation detachments (Lynx and Apache), there is always a running theme to the initial questions. They want to know what a photographer does out here, how they spend their time, how much down-time we get, and if we have been ‘out and about’.

Well let me dispel any myths and put straight rumours by taking you through my first month.

The job we do, especially out here in Afghanistan is all around us. Everywhere I go and every interaction I make could turn into a possible story. Sure, some are contrived but others are not. Sometimes I work to a brief but a lot of the time I don’t. I am certainly not freelancing around, but there is so much scope to find interesting people and stories that it seems untrue. I always carry my camera when it’s practical to do so. I wouldn’t be much of a media photographer if it weren’t available to hand to grab a shot that is glaring me in the face, or that may just sneak up on me.

So…my travel to Afghanistan was documented from the outset. Admittedly, people sitting around on a plane or in airport lounges don’t make interesting pictures but never the less have to be documented as historical archive.

Soldiers begin their journey to Helmand

Soldiers begin their journey to Helmand

Soldiers begin their journey to Helmand

Soldiers begin their journey to Helmand

Soldiers begin their journey to Helmand

Soldiers begin their journey to Helmand

Once the journey ends, days after you arrive at RAF Brize Norton, there is hardly any time to rest until the in-theatre Reception Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) training starts. This is where I have to balance carrying a camera with the responsibility to myself to take-in as much as possible of what is being briefed to me. The information is delivered to assist soldiers whilst out here, and, as it will be the first time I am heading out on the ground, cameras were mostly stowed in a bag.

After I finish RSOI I wrap up a day’s admin in Camp Bastion and take the time to drop in on some old friends. This is short lived, as I have work to be getting on with. I catch my flight to MOB Lashkar Gah, the headquarters of task Force Helmand. During the flight, I bag a quick shot of the soldier sat next to me – LCpl Phil Pacey.

LCpl Phil Pacey takes a Chinook flight to Lashkar Gah

LCpl Phil Pacey takes a Chinook flight to Lashkar Gah

When I arrive I set up shop, and conduct my two-day handover with the outgoing photographer, Corporal Mike ‘Nez’ O’Neill. It isn’t long though before I am back on a Chinook helicopter heading back to Camp Bastion to spend four days topping up on the RSOI pictures of 1 Mechanized Brigade troops as they arrive in theatre.

1st Mechanized Brigade troops conduct RSOI training.

1st Mechanized Brigade troops conduct RSOI training.

1st Mechanized Brigade troops conduct RSOI training.

1st Mechanized Brigade troops conduct RSOI training.

1st Mechanized Brigade troops conduct RSOI training.

1st Mechanized Brigade troops conduct RSOI training.

1st Mechanized Brigade troops conduct RSOI training.

1st Mechanized Brigade troops conduct RSOI training.

Hanging around Bastion is great for me as the facilities are great and I spend time with the guys from the Combat Camera Team, headed up by Captain Mau Gris. Between the other two guys, Sergeant Barry Lloyd (video) and Sergeant Barry Pope (stills), they cover most media jobs in theatre, spreading out their expertise from Bastion to Kabul if necessary. The two Barrys are the same trade as me, as we are all jointly trained in videography and photography. They have been around the block and have settled into work with ease; pumping out stories quickly and efficiently under the direction of Captain Gris. The guys are fortunate, as most units in theatre know the name of the Combat Camera Team, but luckily for the soldiers of Task Force Helmand (around 5000 troops) they have their own dedicated Media Cell. Yes that’s right, yours truly. I even have my own version of Captain Gris, but he’s called Captain Dalzel-Job (D-J), Scots Guards. He is the SO3 Media, Task Force Helmand, and a force to be reckoned with when it comes to hunting down stories.

RSOI complete, I head back to Lash once more, edit and update the official 1 Mechanized Brigade Facebook page with stories and images, and in no time at all I am back out once more, this time to FOB Shawqat. The guys drive me there from Commanding Officer, 1 Mercian Regiment’s Tactical Group. The journey by road is another first for me, and the commentary along the way was fantastic. I was taken to Shawqat to grab some specific images for the Commanding Officer, and also to become familiar with the camp and its inhabitants, capturing ‘FOB life’ wherever possible. I spent a total of four days in Shawqat, and was hosted very well by the regiment.

One of the days I was there, I overheard a group of soldiers bantering each other, and one of the guys seemed to be taking the brunt of it. It turned out he and his sister were both serving in the Territorial Army and were both serving on the camp. Well ‘yee haa’ for me. A little persuading and I was snapping away, followed by a recorded interview. A week later their local newspaper picked it up and it ran on their website. A great example of how stories can arrive at my doorstep from just being somewhere, and keeping my ear to the ground.

 

FOB Shawqat daily life.

FOB Shawqat daily life.

 

FOB Shawqat daily life.

FOB Shawqat daily life.

A lot of editing is done on location, and if necessary sent via portable satellite back to HQ for editorial processing before being shipped on to the relevant news agencies.

After four days, it was back to Lash once more, but I think you know what’s coming. Yes, you guessed it again, it was time to head out again, this time accompanied by Captain D-J, and this time to Patrol Base Folad, the most Northern of Patrol Bases, now that many have been handed back to the Afghan National Security Forces.

Spending time in the patrol base was admittedly a bit of an eye opener for me. I loved the atmosphere and the camaraderie that oozed in the air. We were busy there, and managed to come away with five stories and a bunch of great photos, which are currently in with the editor to be released. Some of the images, you may have already seen:

A Spring in Her Step

A Spring in Her Step

DH3 UAV Launch.

DH3 UAV Launch.

Life on Patrol Base Folad

Life on Patrol Base Folad

Life on Patrol Base Folad

Life on Patrol Base Folad

Once back from Patrol Base Folad, I had to turn the pictures around, as I hadn’t packed my laptop due to space restrictions in my personal kit. All my kit gets a thorough de-gunge whenever I am back in the office. I recharge all my batteries, including those in my body, check in with the big bosses, to find out what’s on the schedule for the next days/week and then get ready for my next adventure.

It may or may not seem a lot to some people, but if you factor in editing time (days), snap portrait jobs and group shots, sangar duties and lots of little things I forget to mention here, you will come to realise, that life as a British Army Photographer in Helmand Province is varied and sometimes hectic, but one I wouldn’t change for anything.

See you next time…

More tc.

Read Si’s other blogs here: Life Through a Lens…

Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot

Everything, always…

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan. @Si_Army_Phot

Corporal Si Longworth is one of 38 trained British Army photographers.  He left a career in aviation to pursue his passion for photography; capturing everything that military life has to offer. He is currently in Afghanistan as the Task Force Helmand Photographer on Op HERRICK 18.

There is one thing I have learned throughout my picture-taking life, and that is, It’s pretty annoying when you get to a location and realise you have left something back at the office.

Time and time again over the years I have reached for the extra flash, or rummaged through my kit bag for the ‘curly-wurly’ lead, filters, spare batteries, and the list goes on and on only to find an empty space where a bit of kit should have been.

(Don’t forget that I have been messing around with a camera since my first paper round and lawn-mowing job paid for my first SLR camera, which happened to be an Olympus OM-10, seen here: (I will be writing more on my kit in a future blog)).

Olympus OM10

Olympus OM10

Having recently changed my career path, and taken up photography in a professional capacity, I can no longer afford to be left wanting at the roadside. My job is extremely dynamic and can turn on a dime (Yes, I know that’s a catchphrase from our American brothers, but I like it). I can be tasked to take an outdoor group shot of 60+ people, and then be thrust into a horrendous lighting situation in a dimly lit tent. I can be photographing blast damage, and then in the same breath diving for cover from incoming fire, trying to catch the intensity of the situation with my trusted Nikon (The Nikon D4/D800 are the current issued cameras to Army Photographers, but I’ll write a piece on my kit later).

It is for that reason, I have adopted the adage; “Everything, always…”

Better to have it and not use it

Clearly there are limits. I am only one man, and as strong as I am (laughing) I can only hump so much about. Sometimes I will be lucky and have a vehicle to help, but that will only get me so far. Not to where I really need to be. Not into the thick of the green zone in Helmand. That’s when I have to make sacrifices.

The possibility of isolation in the field with only what I can carry means tough decisions when it comes to kit. Is the second camera really required, or should I just take the lens? How many batteries, flashes, cords, triggers and subtle lighting equipment should I squeeze into my back-pack? Will there be opportunity to get creative with a flash or two, when behind mud walls? Is there a talented VAL (voice activated light stand) on hand to make the most of those extra flashes?

And then there is all the legislated military hardware I need to carry, especially when deployed on operations, sometimes in temperatures above 40 ºC. My weapons, ammunition, body armour, water, spare clothes, sleeping bag, rations and a trusty satellite phone for sending out images, and the list continues.

Just yesterday I was asked to take a portrait shot of a senior officer in Task Force Helmand. The brief:

“He only has five minutes, just a quick in and out job in front of the sign should do it.”  I guess some people would walk over with a camera and possibly a flash. Not me. As I sweated myself into position in the midday sun, I must have looked bonkers to the onlookers as I set up two light stands, a shoot-through ‘brolly’ and a couple of radio triggers and angled for the only bit of shade I could find.

As I wiped the sweat from my brow after lugging all the kit to the location, and made the picture, I sighed in relief that I had upheld my own adage. Overkill, some would say. But I say better to have it and not use it, than to have to excuse yourself, run back to the office (on this occasion) to get it, and look a fool.

I was due to go out into the field today for 48 hours. I didn’t need the satellite. I weighed myself at the helicopter flight-line out of interest. Okay, 80 kilograms means I may have some unwanted poundage I need to shift, but once I put on my military kit, and loaded my photography kit onto my back, I weighed in at 130 kilograms. 50 kgs of kit and photography equipment is a pretty hefty burden, and not one I’m used to. You see, I wouldn’t just be able to run back to the office once I am out, so unfortunately for me and my old knees, for the most part, it’s ‘everything, always’.

Prepared kit

Prepared kit

If only I had the gift of hindsight about the variety and specifics of tasks that will come my way once out on the ground… (At least my shoulders wish that).

More tc.

Read Si’s other blogs here: Life Through a Lens…

 

Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot