Sergeant Steve Blake is a professional Army Photographer with the Royal Logistic Corps. A trained soldier, Steve is currently serving a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the three-man Combat Camera Team (comprising a trained journalist, photographer and video cameraman).
Steve, on his third trip to Afghanistan in 18 months, and the team are based at Camp Bastion in Helmand province but will spend most of their time out on the ground, capturing life on the front line.
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.
Loy Mandeh Kalay
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 there, it had changed massively.
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.
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.
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.
Front line A&E
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.
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.
Sport conquers all
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.
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.
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.
Photographing the photographers
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 a 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?