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.
Wow, two weeks has gone so fast. Here I am again writing another update to my ever-changing life out here in Afghan. Don’t worry, there won’t be any technical stuff in this one; not an f-stop in sight.
Those of you who have been following me on Twitter will no doubt already know that for the past two weeks I have been working rogue. Well, sort of. I was let off my leash from task Force Helmand and shipped off to Camp Bastion, the largest of the British camps in the province, in order to plug a gap. This wasn’t the sort of gap you can fill with your over-chewed lump of chewing gum either. We are talking a Superman 2, Hoover Dam type affair. Here is how it all ‘went down’:
This owner of more sexy kit
The Combat Camera Team works as part of the Afghanistan Media Operation Centre in Bastion. Its role is to cover newsworthy events, gather information electronically, via camera and video for archive purposes and produce media packages that can be used by any one of the services’ social media outlets. It’s a force to be reckoned with in respect of output. There are three guys who make up the team. Captain Mau Gris at the helm as the producer/director, who is as cool and slick as his name suggests, Sgt Barry Lloyd on video who is a steady hand and has produced some of the amazing footage shown on the Army’s You Tube channel, and more recently for Channel 4’s Ramadan piece. Then finally, there is the photographer. Do I really need to introduce this legend, this oracle, this owner of more sexy kit and equipment than I will ever ever own? I am talking of course about Sergeant Barry Pope (‘his holiness’ as Captain Gris likes to call him). What he doesn’t have in his series of Peli cases I don’t want. I am sure the famous magician, Dynamo, trains him because every time he opens one of them up, I see another ‘thing’ just shining at me that I swear wasn’t there last time. Unfortunately, his Peli cases are half Venus flytraps, and reaching down into them, usually results in sore arms…
Between the three of them, they move around Afghanistan and hoover up any news in their path; turn it around and ‘boom’, it’s out there! Words, videos and stills – the complete package, or as they like to tease me, the ‘Gold Standard’ in output.
Everyone deserves a break, and being so amazing, as they are, even the two Bazes have to take time off in a six-month tour, so when they took their well-earned and well-deserved rest and recuperation in the UK, the phone call was made, and I was on a flight. No more head and group shots for me, I was heading for the big time, the ‘Las Vegas’ of news and photojournalism within the Army. For the next two weeks Captain Gris and I would be… ‘The Combat Camera Team’.
I was totally looking forward to a change in pace. Each time I had visited the AMOC (Afghanistan Media Ops Cell) and lodged in their offices for a few days at a time I had listened enviously about the jobs that were coming their way. Camp Bastion is huge and, as such, is near enough untapped as far as great pictures and news go.
Venus flytrap one and two
When I arrived just in time to say good-bye to the Baz-duo, Popey told me two things; one of which made my little eyes light up. Firstly, that I could ‘hot bed’ in his bed space and the sheets were clean, and secondly, and more importantly, I could ‘use what I wanted’. There it was… I was like a child in a sweetie store. Venus flytrap one and two had been briefed and the locks were off. The goodbye was short and sweet, as I had cases to open. I can tell you now that to imagine the scene, you have to have watched Pulp Fiction. In the film there is a case, which everyone opens, and the gold light just shines out. This was that… exactly! Only instead of having the frustration of not knowing what was inside, I pulled stuff out and worked out ways in which I could use it. I was in ‘equipment heaven!’
Day one I moved all my ‘stuff’ into the office. Cleared a space to work on (thanks guys) and set up shop. Now, Captain Gris hadn’t factored in the fact that there would need to be a period of adjustment for me, as I was used to working in my own office, and coming from somewhere where I have three large desks to lay my kit and equipment out, to a small corner and half a desk was going to be a tough move. If I am honest, that period of adjustment never really ended, and he even wrote a blog about it. The organised chaos of a creative mind, I call it, he just calls it ‘mess’. I would love to be shown how you keep a small desk tidy which has to house two laptops, nine hard drives, card readers, a USB extension switch, iPod, Bose Soundlink, headphones, two cameras, memory cards, blank CDs, wallets and all the power leads and cables for the above, and still have room for my water bottle, and Apple external keyboard and mouse. Seriously, what I can do with space is an art…
Captain G went through the diary of possible jobs that were coming up. It sounded promising. The next day we were out with the Brigade Operations Company. A group of guys I had been out with before. What was different this time was having somebody there to ‘direct’ what imagery they want. I am used to ‘freelancing’ it. I was curious to see how working with another team member would work out.
It turns out that it was quite pleasant having the company of someone you know on the patrol. Being a producer does seem to have benefits, although having a photographer ‘papping’ your every move, or in this case, lack of it, isn’t one of them.
All joking aside, having effectively a second set of eyes is a real benefit. Plus, he has a great talent for drawing information out of soldiers when they are nervous in front of the microphone. It is great to watch.
I was surprised at just how happy the Afghans were to have their pictures taken. Their faces light up when they see the small image on the back of the screen.
Back in Bastion only a day and we were tasked to go capture imagery and stories from a Patrol Base. Bags packed, we were off again. Down at the flight line there were some technical difficulties which meant that our flight out was cancelled. As luck would have it we were about to pack up our kit and head back to the office when one of my old friends from the Lynx force walked past. Someone I had flown with only a year ago. He was heading past where we needed to be. After an exchange of banter, he offered to take us. It was essential that we made it to our location, so I am glad I was able to call on a favour from a friend.
I clicked away
At Patrol Base Sparta, I quickly set about capturing everything the inside of the four walls had to offer. Captain Gris whipped out his trusty dictaphone and we separated. During my walk around I clicked away at the guys going about their stuff.
I found another military working dog to capture, Boomer.
I was also very lucky to walk past three guys sat relaxing while one of them played acoustic guitar in the foreground of the falling sun. I knew instantly that I wanted it recorded and I needed a picture of them sat there. I ran back to where our bags were and luckily Captain G was finished what he was doing. I grabbed flash equipment and asked him if he’d help. We recorded about ten minutes of music and I set up flashes and brollies held by my trusty new VAL (Voice Activated Lightstand). I made the picture and once back in the office put together a piece dedicated to soldiers relaxing during periods of downtime.
It will probably be one of my favourite projects of this tour. You can watch it here.
As the sun started to fade, I moved in and out of the cubby holes where guys had set up their camp cots. Lots of the rooms had little windows. Capt Gris was still with me so I asked him to stand at the window and hold up the umbrella. The guy was using the window for light. With my arms crossed over, left arm holding a remote flash trigger out of the door (SU-800 on a curly extension lead), and right arm trying to steady a weighty 70-200mm lens, I made a few exposures. The light from the flash wrapped perfectly around the guys face and body and told a story that I am happy with.
The rest of the time covering for the team was spent in Bastion. I actually did a fair share of group shots, ‘grip ‘n’ grins’ and portraits. You can imagine my excitement. An unusual request came from the Joint Aviation Group. They wanted a picture as a leaving gift for the Commander of the group and asked me to provide pictures. I had already tried achieving this once but due to the placement of the aircraft it wasn’t possible. This time the ‘stars had all aligned’ and I had three of the Aviation Group’s aircraft lined up waiting for the light to be right. The Chinook, the Apache and of course, the queen of the skies, the one and only, Lynx Mark 9A. (I am not biased at all you see).
There I waited at the flight line, a place all too familiar to me, having flown in and out of it hundreds of times over the past three years. It was quiet and as I stood alone I had a moment of reflection about how my life had changed. Three years ago, I was stood posing for images for Steve Blake, another Army Photographer, and now I was directing my own imagery.
The silence was broken by my brother, who I had coaxed into the Air Corps four years ago, making an approach to land in his Apache Attack Helicopter. I wasn’t really close enough to the landing point to grab a decent shot but nevertheless I raced towards him and managed to crack off a few frames as he zipped on by. I will save you the shot of him recreating the famous Top Gun ‘keeping up international relations’ scene out of his side window as he flew past. Brotherly love eh?
I returned to my waiting position at the flight line, but sure enough over he walked and he was ripe for papping. I am sure he won’t mind.
Obviously, in the end I had to take the picture I was there to take. As luck would have it, a C17 transport aircraft decided to make its final approach just when the light was right for my shot. Thanks Mr ‘Multi-Engine’ crew.
Next on the list wasn’t exactly a ‘hold the front page’ story. Capt G sits next to me in the office. He rarely encroaches into my chaos, but one day he was cleaning his rifle and relaxing the springs in his magazines, which involves emptying them. Into a container is generally considered the norm but it was funny watching hundreds of circular ‘rounds’ of 5.56mm ammunition roll off the desk onto the floor. Anyway, I digress. So there he was in mid-clean, when he grabbed my attention from editing to take a picture of his hands. Sound weird? It did to me, but once he had had me strategically place the ammo around his cupped hands I ‘saw’ the image in his head and took it for him. To this day he hasn’t quite got around to telling me what the image it going to be used for… I remain patient.
FLASH UPDATE: He has literally just seen me writing this and informed me at me that it was: ‘Art for art’s sake.’
More work rolled in. We were asked cover a story at the Theatre UAS Battery. I had a picture in mind that I wanted to try out and this gave me the opportunity to do it. Capt Gris did his thing, and then left me to work. I had an hour in a hangar with a Hermes 450, one of the Army’s Remotely Piloted Air Systems. I had fun coming up with this variation on lighting using four off camera flashes, two honeycomb gridspots and a red gel filter.
You have to remember that amongst these jobs there is always editing and filing to be done, trivial jobs that always crop up last minute and jobs that are done which will only be used for internal use. There really is never a dull day.
What would be the gold standard?
The last job I did as part of the Combat Camera Team was with the Joint Force Support Armourers. These guys have the responsibility of inspecting and fixing all variety of weapon systems in theatre.
Captain Gris smashed his interviews and I concentrated on capturing a mechanic doing his thing. The room we were shooting in was vast and not the usual greasy workshop I was used to seeing. I had had an idea of how I wanted to shoot this job but when I was confronted with such a great open, bright space, it kind of put me off my stride. I paused for a few moments and asked myself, ‘What would be the gold standard?’ After I realised it was going to be a tough old challenge, I thought about how to make the workshop appear smaller and more intimate. Out came my flashes, the first of which I suspended from the ceiling. I was getting pretty weird looks from those in the workshop as I beavered away. I wasn’t too happy with what I had done when I eventually left the room but once I had the images up on screen I sighed a little sigh of relief. They were not a complete disaster. Here are a few teasers before the main piece comes out in the future.
And then the two weeks were over. I enjoyed the change of scenery, the ability to catch up with my brother and having the banter of the AMOC office. I didn’t enjoy having up to seven people using a limited internet connection to do their work and having to drive everywhere to get things done. There is a different pace and regime in the office of the AMOC, compared to that of a busy HQ Task Force Helmand ‘floor plate’. Jobs come in thick and fast in Bastion and it has kept me busier than I thought I would be.
I’d like to think that Captain Gris has enjoyed different company even though he has had to look at my cluttered desk for two weeks. I suspect Lloydy (whose desk I have been squatting at) will be met with open arms at the air terminal on his return though.
I am not sure I held up to the ‘gold standard’ gauntlet laid down by the Baz duo but I have certainly enjoyed wearing the Velcro patch on my arm for two weeks. “No bluff too tough”, as they say in the Army!