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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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…
Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot