Time to switch bodies, perhaps

Time to switch bodies, perhaps

Corporal Si Longworth

Corporal Si Longworth

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 has recently returned from Afghanistan where he was the Task Force Helmand Photographer.

What did I tell you? I said you wouldn’t have to wait long. I have come bouncing back after my blog-abstinence, and quite right too. I can’t have those of you who have faithfully followed me through Afghanistan fall by the wayside now, can I?

After a month off over Christmas, I have been rocket-propelled into 2014 with fury. Something happened to me over that break you know. Something that has likely changed me forever. Did I find religion? Did I see the Eighth Wonder of The World, or was I visited by a ghost? I am afraid the answer is so much simpler than that. I used a Canon…

“Arghhh”, I will hear some of you shouting at me, whilst you throw things at your laptop in disgust. Others will sit back laughing and smiling contently. Whichever you are, hear me out.

A technical epiphany

Those of you who know me, will know that I have NEVER subscribed to the Canon-Nikon argument. Each has their pros and cons, and people (except the professionals) tend to navigate towards one or the other by chance or a recommendation. For me, it was the only one I saw in a secondhand shop in Scunthorpe over twenty years ago; Tom Dennis Cameras (I think it’s still open for business).

There it was on the shelf looking at me, as I looked back with my well-earned lawn-mowing business money in hand. A simple exchange later and I was the proud teenage owner of a second-hand Nikon F90X. I learned it, I loved it and I owned it for many years to come. When the time came to change, I sold it (I wish I hadn’t now) and used what little money I got for it to part-finance a Nikon D200. It only seemed right because I had a couple of lenses and they all fitted. I was also used to the ‘buttonology’. Skipping many years and several Nikons later, I am now in possession (bought or loaned by the Army) of five professional Nikon bodies.

I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t love them. I have Nikon in my blood stream, I suppose, and that was just circumstance. I didn’t choose the brand because it was ‘the best’. As a child I never knew about cameras, and, now that the Army chooses to shoot Nikon, I have no choice but it works for me as that’s what I know.

Now over the years, I have bumped into friends and photographers who have gone the Canon route. Whenever I could, I would always ask to ‘have a go’. I can tell you that, on every single occasion, I have become frustrated within minutes because it was so different to handle and operate than my native Nikon. The buttons were so different and everything was buried in menus. I liked Nikons because there was a button for everything. Inevitably, I ended up handing back the camera and thinking to myself that it was too complicated and it didn’t interest me to learn.

Moving on several years later to the stages when I was taking my photography more seriously, and my mind had started to wander towards doing it as a career. I started regularly buying photographic magazines (as you do). Wasting those three to five pounds every month on ‘mags’ that just go around in circles with the advice they give. All good stuff but, if you buy a year’s worth, you will have covered most of the basic techniques and in that second year they will be there again like a faithful dog.

Focus on Canon

What I did start to notice, from reading the magazines, were two distinct things: Firstly, and most depressingly, my photography wasn’t as good as I thought it was. The second thing was that all the pictures that I considered to have ‘amazing colour depth’, or be ‘dreamy’, were shot with a Canon. Call me what you like, but soon enough I could look at a picture and tell if it was a Canon or a Nikon image. (I am not talking about the heavily post-processed images you see.) I sat and bored friends with this notion for weeks and weeks. Some agreed with me and some said I was talking utter nonsense but, nevertheless, I was always right.

If this had have been a fluke then I would have dismissed it, but the fact that I could always do it seemed strange to me. It worried me a little. Probably because my post-processing ability wasn’t up to scratch either, and I probably thought that I would never be able to produce imagery of that quality.

As time ticked on through 2013 I just kept second-guessing imagery and occasionally ‘tweeting’ other photographers to see what camera brand they used. I suspect you know the outcome of my queries. I decided that I was on to something, but I was never going to be able to prove it because I didn’t have access to a Canon. That soon changed.

Dreamy picture

A chance social engagement gave me opportunity to catch up with a friend ‘over a few beers’ in London. He was an avid Canon-guy and the topic of my ‘findings’ came up during the drunken ramblings of the evening. Without trying to quote the conversation, he essentially offered to lend me some gear so I could have a go and see for myself. I think I sobered up instantly at the offer, as I knew I would have to remember it in the morning.

Sure enough, my friend came good to his word and a couple of months later I was in possession of a Canon 1Dx, 85mm 1.2, 24-70mm 2.8 and the 70-200mm 2.8. A formidable line-up, I am sure you would agree. I had the cameras over Christmas, which was no doubt a quiet period for him. It mattered not. I quickly got to work comparing the Nikon D4 and the Canon 1Dx. I am not talking about scientific laboratory tests here, either. I am talking about walking around my local area with the same lenses on and taking the same pictures, with a bit of comparison later on the computer.

What I should say is that, two weeks prior to receiving the camera, I downloaded the manual and studied it. I didn’t want to have this camera and spend a week getting used to it. Admittedly, it took some time and I was even a bit ‘fingers and thumbs’ with it after two weeks.

Unlike other blogs or web pages, I am not going to put up comparison images. It doesn’t matter because maybe it’s only me who can see what I am talking about. I don’t think ‘dreamy pictures’ are something you can quantify anyhow. What I will tell you is that I was very, very impressed with what that camera could do in terms of frames per second, colour and ISO range. My images didn’t seem as flat, straight off the bat, as they had done before. I was content with everything that came off the memory card.

A love affair with Nikon

You may not appreciate this, but it’s hard for me as a self-professed ‘Nikon guy’ to write such things. I should be faithful, should I not? I am guessing as the years go by, each camera manufacturer gets the edge on something. Canon friends tell me that the colour on previous models was awful, and Nikon had the edge. Well, it certainly seems like it has swung the other way for me. The trouble for me is the way it has left me feeling each time I go to shoot a job with my current gear.

When I look at images that I take, even as much as a week ago, I start to feel deflated that they just aren’t up to scratch. I know there is a better machine out there, and I just don’t have the time to always be processing hundreds of images to make them look as zesty and full of life as those images I produced over Christmas.

Go on, shout at me again. I know some of you will want to, but hey, I am only telling you the truth about how I feel, and I think you have the right to know. I will always promote Nikon for what it is , because it is an amazing bit of kit. I love my Nikon kit deep down, and I will always have a love affair with the history we have shared, but the fact still remains; If tomorrow I were not an Army Photographer, and I didn’t own a single bit of Nikon gear … I would go out and buy Canon.

1/125 @ f1.2 ISO 2000

1/125 @ f1.2 ISO 2000

 

Roger Roberts – Solo Artist.

Roger Roberts – Solo Artist.

Roger shot at f1.2 with no post-production. As I say; ‘dreamy’ (not the guy).

Roger shot at f1.2 with no post-production. As I say; ‘dreamy’ (not the guy).

More tc

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

Si’s opinions are his own and not an endorsement of the British Army. 

Bittersweet return: Helmand to home, soldier to student

Capt Mau Gris. Sgt Barry Pope RLC (Phot)

Capt Mau Gris. Sgt Barry Pope RLC (Phot)

Captain Mau Gris is team leader for the British Army’s Combat Camera Team (CCT) based in Afghanistan throughout the summer 2013 as part of 1 Mechanized Brigade. Op Herrick 18′s CCT also includes Sergeant Barry Lloyd – video cameraman – and Sergeant Barry Pope – photographer.

For us it is the end of the end

For me it really is. Our new team had arrived, our kit was handed over and the requisite briefs were completed. Our job here was over. For me it is the last post I will hold as  a British Army officer. It’s weird even writing it. Believe it or not I have even delayed writing this, because it feels that once I do it is real.

We were some of the first to leave as 1 Mech slowly transforms into 7 Armoured. It happens in parts. A new fresh face untouched by six months in the Afghan desert here; a new tactical recognition flash there. There is always a bit of teasing as soldiers hand over. You see the guys on their reception briefings in their fresh kit, and mutter ‘crowbags’, and they just tell you to ‘get the hell out of my seat.’ This time there is a bit more sympathy – nine months is a long old time.

Then before you know it with the regulation RAF faff, you are on the plane home. A pit-stop in Cyprus is the only thing between you and the rest of your life. From my previous experience it’s at this point you have a peak inside that mental box, into which you put all that stuff you said you’d deal with later. This tour has thankfully left that box empty as far as I can tell. But there are those initial fingers of worry poking me about what the hell I am going to do when I leave the Army. As the C-17 rumbled on I looked around the plane and wondered what the rest were thinking.

The journey home begins

The journey home begins

Decompression, beer and a show

Fifty tired soldiers got blinking off the plane, and were told to get into ‘civvies’ ready for the organised fun, something the Army loves. It was odd seeing the boys out of camouflage. His Holiness (Sgt Pope) had gone for a glaring yellow tee shirt, Lloydie for some functional sports gear. Then it was down to the beach, a bit like any at a moderately successful holiday resort, except quieter. No one is trying to sell you some moody ‘Ray-Bans’, and there is a priest cutting around trying to ‘chat’ to you. Me and the boys steered clear, opting for some competitive inflatable wrestling instead.

Cyprus stop-over

Cyprus stop-over

Here is where the proper decompression starts, on the oversized inflatables in the sea. But not before your annoying mandatory swim test which everyone gets a little bit competitive about. Then after a few hours, it’s on to the equally isolated Bloodhound Camp for mandatory briefs, followed by strictly four beers and a CSE entertainment show.

This bit was very different from my first experience of decompression. First time round the ‘4 can’ rule was more like guidance, so we all got drunk. This time, however, we were a small group, compared to the 200 that normally go through. So we consumed our first beers in a large draughty hall, playing pool whilst the friendly mental health nurse and the padre wandered around chatting to people.

It was at this point that I got a subtle hint at how padres go about taking a peek in that mental box to see if their help is required. I had just been crowned Pool champion of the CCT, much to Lloydie’s and His Holinesses’s annoyance. When I got challenged by the Padre, he kicked my arse with a bit of divine intervention. In the process we got to chatting about the tour. Naturally he wanted to know what I had found tough. So I told him and slowly I realised he was probing to see if I would hold anything back.

Pretty clever,  generally nothing clams someone in the armed forces up quicker than being asked what scared / disturbed them. But what was tough? I would say that 99 per cent of all Army stories are based on toughness or tough situations. We can chat about those forever. It was only a small thing, but I think it is symptomatic of a growing awareness of the mental health side within the Army and how to deal with it. It gives me hope one day all those who suffer will be treated in time.

Sgt Barry Pope and Sgt Barry Lloyd

Sgt Barry Pope and Sgt Barry Lloyd

Goodbye boys

For me, this tour will leave only good memories, unlike others. Be it at the sharp end with the boys from the Brigade Reconnaissance Force or sitting quietly on the HLS with the boys, telling some ‘dits’ and killing some time, it’s been incredible. There was a little anxiousness there because of the imminent career change, and really I guess I am slightly nervous that once you leave that extend family of the Army, who understand what you’ve done / seen etc, then the issues arise. I have seen it in some of my friends.

These worries chattered away in the back of my head, but didn’t affect what turned out to be a really entertaining evening provide by the CSE guys. All the officers were singled out for derision by the comedian (standard) and the music was excellent. The four beers were consumed without any drunkenness ensuing. Everyone went to bed in that kind of cloud of happy tipsiness that was no doubt intentional by the staff of Decompression.

We woke up with just a hilly bus ride and an aeroplane journey standing between us, our loved ones and the rest of our lives. We arrived at 3 o’clock on a Friday, and I was then ‘in my own time.’ I collected my bags and with more than a little sadness, said goodbye to the boys. For the past six months had never been more than three metres away from them. And, I am proud to have serve alongside them.

I am now officially ‘resettling.’ To compound the strangeness I am starting a Masters course in TV journalism. So that I can keep doing what I am doing at the moment. I am going to keep writing about it but it is going to be weird jump. I hope you stay with me. Soldier to student…. hmmm.

Decompression starts here

Decompression starts here

Read Mau’s other blogs here: Capt Mau Gris

Follow Mau on Twitter: @mau_gris

An Artist Abroad: Home Sweet Home

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

I am drafting this blog late at night sitting in a dark tent, with six other bodies sleeping, using the glare of the laptop to light up the keys as I type!  I have been quiet on the blogging front for a couple of weeks due to the move of the Headquarters and I have also been enjoying a break back at home on my R&R (rest and recuperation).  However, now I am fully back in the swing of things it seems that was all a distant memory.

Harry

Harry

In this blog I shall attempt to describe the past few weeks of events from the Headquarters move, to the journey home, and then a brief insight into what I got up to on R&R.  Running throughout the script I shall post pictures of the work in progress (WIP) of a pencil drawing that I completed whilst on R&R – the model is my future mother-in-law’s favourite horse, Harry.  If none of this is of interest you then please don’t read on, for the rest there is a lot to report so do bear with me!

The Move

This blog starts in the hot and dusty climes of Lashkar Gah where I have spent the last four and a half months working in the Headquarters.  The Headquarters has been based in Lashkar Gah since May 2006 and has co-ordinated UK operations across Helmand Province for over seven years.  I was a part of what can possibly be described as the most complex headquarters move on operations ever undertaken by the British Army.

We were down to minimal manning, with the other half of the Fires cell having already established the Bastion set-up.  I had come on shift at 0400hrs to enable to night shift to get away on their early morning flight, as I held the fort with one detachment commander (DC) for the Change of Command (CHOC) and the close down of the TFH headquarters in Lashkar Gah.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

It was a long morning and it seemed like an absolute age that we were waiting for the CHOC.  With only a skeleton staffing, large screens on the walls showed locals going about their daily routine, as muted pictures of BFPS flickered in the background  – time passed very slowly.  My R&R wasn’t too far around the corner either, but we were all itching to get on and join the rest of the team in Bastion.

When the time came for the CHOC, it was a very surreal and memorable moment.  The DCOS (Deputy Chief of Staff) entered the JOC at around 1015hrs on 9th August 2013 to establish communications with the Bastion headquarters.  Any current operational issues were swiftly dealt with and at precisely 1020hrs the DCOS spoke over the net (radio) to Bastion headquarters and clearly stated that the command of Taskforce Helmand had now been assumed by the Headquarters in Bastion.  As those words fell from his mouth, it was quite an unbelievable experience as I witnessed history in the making.

Although words can barely describe that feeling, it was as if I were watching an old war film where the news of war was being broken over the radio.  This marked the end of an era, as we swiftly switched off laptops that had been diligently manned 24 hours every day for the last seven years.  We switched them off, pulled out the cables and packed them in boxes.  Cables were ripped off the walls where makeshift black nasty (tape) and cable ties had affixed them, and radios were disconnected to be placed away.  Within minutes the Lashkar Gah headquarters ceased to exist and the remaining staff headed back to their rooms to finish packing for their onward journey to Bastion.

Waiting at the LKG HLS

Waiting at the LKG HLS

As we waited at the helicopter landing site (HLS), we chatted about the prospects of what lay ahead, but most importantly – what our respective R&R plans were and for some even end of tour plans! It wasn’t long before we were given notice that the helicopters had left Bastion on their way to collect us, and we swiftly put on our PPE (personal protective equipment) before being led out to the HLS.

I video recorded the two chalks (groups) of staff with my digital Olympus camera crouching alongside the compound walls as the two Chinooks flew in to transport us.  It is said there are two types of people who look towards the Chinook as dust and stones are thrown towards us… one of them is a photographer!  As we lifted up in a cloud of dust, I strained my neck peering through the scratched window, as I looked down at the wall of the HLS, symbolically painted with all the crests of other Brigade Headquarters that went before us, as I watched them fade in the distance.

Wall of former Brigade emblems

Wall of former Brigade emblems

New Digs

With so much nostalgia being left behind, there was nothing for it but to embrace the change and look forward to the new set-up in Bastion.  In no time at all, we found ourselves hot, tired and sweaty being orientated around our new accommodation and listening in to the security and welfare briefs.  We were then walked immediately to our new offices where we took up our respective seats and started work, as if we had never been moved.  The orientation and layout was different, and although we had access to all the same programmes, information and systems as before, we had more modern versions which took us all a while to navigate!

The tempo of operations was still relatively quiet and after lunch I managed to shower and change and feel a little more human.  Our new accommodation is a small camp within Bastion, protected by its own HESCO wall and rows of razor wire…’home sweet home’! I must admit, I have never been to prison but if this is anything to go by I’d rather not! We are bound by various rules and regulations to ensure that whilst there are still troops ‘roughing it’ out in the FOBs, we do not succumb to ‘Bastionitus’ – a fond term used to describe the condition of complacency and comfort.  Not that a 12-hour shift enables me much time for comfort; nor did I have time to fully settle in as I began to write my handover notes for my R&R cover.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

Within a couple of days of the move, I had to re-pack my bags to get ready to go home.  The days, hours and minutes prior to R&R can be excruciatingly long at times, knowing I would be with my fiancé, family and friends in a matter of days and wishing away hours so that I would be closer to being home.  Four and a half months is an incredibly long time to be away from home, and phone calls and internet can only maintain morale for so long.  It was a great morale boost to find out that 24 hours ahead of my scheduled departure date, I had been ‘Space A’d’ that is, that our whole flight was fortunate enough to travel on spaces available on an earlier flight.  I handed over my role and headed back to our Bastion echelon group to start the process in going home.

We handed in our operational equipment and stored our weapons in the armoury.  I felt somewhat naked without my pistol attached firmly to my side and was constantly aware that I may have forgotten it somewhere! My OSPREY was also considerably lighter to travel back with.  After our mandatory briefs, we collected our passports and mobile phones and headed on the bus for our first check-in.  Here we labelled our baggage, checked in and loaded our hold baggage.  The remainder of that day I sat in the ops room and caught up with some Bastion friends.  The second check-in wasn’t until the late afternoon, and having handed in our weapons we now had to be escorted everywhere.  Thus it started – the long journey home, waiting for flights whilst fighting tiredness, impatience and excitement to see my fiancé, family and friends.

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

The journey home

We travelled out of Bastion to Cyprus on a Tristar, which isn’t too dissimilar in style internally to a budget airline.  We were on our way home at last! I sat next to a female Lieutenant Colonel with whom I chatted to about her role in Afghanistan, and what we were both particularly looking forward to back at home; including lush green grass and rain.  As we were busy chatting away about chickens, horses and ducks, the flight crew invited us to sit in the cockpit (perhaps because we were the only two to still be awake at that time of morning.) It was a brilliant experience as we were shown the controls, listened on the headsets and admired the views over Egypt (some fires could still be seen smouldering in the Capital).

Harry work in progress

Harry work in progress

We admired the sun rise and it wasn’t long before we spotted the Cypriot shores among the haze of the sea mist.  We belted up for landing and with our headsets on we experienced a very smooth landing in Cyprus.  We disembarked for an hour to refuel and stayed in the very familiar departure lounge of RAF Akrotiri.  I rang my fiancé (at about 0400hrs UK time, just 3 hours after he had eventually gone to bed after a long day harvesting…) to let him know that my flight was on time, only to ring him again ten minutes later to announce that I would be arriving an hour earlier than expected!

Home sweet home

Finally the green, yellow and brown patchwork of the fields of Britain came into view and shortly afterwards we were waiting for our baggage at the carousel.  Black bags, gorilla boxes and camouflaged bags of all shapes and sizes were spat out and rapidly collected.  When I walked through the doors of the arrivals lounge I joined the crowd of soldiers waiting to be collected.

It was wonderful to be met at Brize by my fiancé as I walked over to the car park, placed down my baggage and hurried over to give him a huge hug!  I was still wearing my cheap temporary brass/copper engagement ring that I had bought at the local shop, when he suggested I take it off as he revealed from his pocket my engagement ring in its box.  The ring is an heirloom, his late grandmother’s engagement ring, whom unfortunately I never had the opportunity nor pleasure to meet.

The engagement ring

The engagement ring

 

I desperately tried not to fall asleep in the car on the way home but I didn’t survive contact.  Having spent a few hours reacquainting myself with the M25 I was relieved to finally complete the journey and arrive home.  Thankfully I didn’t make my usual faux pas of ‘talking’ to the dog first rather than my fiancé (principally because the dog did not accompany him to the airport!).  Lola (the lab) and Boots (the cocker) were both excited to see me, and Lola couldn’t contain herself but kept bouncing and jumping up! She didn’t leave my side for the rest of that day, nor for a few after.  It was so good to be home, but I must admit I was exhausted, jet lagged and a little disorientated – all I wanted to do was crash out on my bed.

Boots and Lola at work and at play

Boots and Lola at work and at play

It is a very surreal experience to find that within the space of 48 hrs you have been working at a high tempo, living by strict routine for four months and occupying your thoughts with little other than work matters; to waking up in your own bed and wondering what you have to do that day.  It is almost as if I were living two different lives, and whilst the body adapts quickly, the mind takes a little longer.  For the first few days I didn’t do an awful lot really, the dogs enjoyed some long walks and I didn’t even mind if it were raining! I enjoyed doing some training with them, as they are both working gun dogs (in progress), and it was a nice change for them after having spent many a day accompanying My fiancé  in the tractor and listening to his rendition of the Kings of Leon!

Lola at work in the tractor

Lola at work in the tractor

‘Wedmin’

One night neither of us was sleeping particularly well, I was still jet lagged and My fiancé  was worrying about the weather, so we ended up talking at 3am about wedding plans.  It was so nice to be able to talk face to face and get inspired and excited about our wedding together.  We were engaged a few days after Christmas, after which I had been thrust back in to pre-deployment training and then deployed.  The first couple of days of my R&R were relatively quiet as I rang round friends to catch up, arranging to meet up with some and inviting others over.  My fiancé was busy with the harvest during the sunny days and thankfully we had a couple of rainy days to spend time together.  This was the perfect opportunity to crack the wedding guest list!! You wouldn’t have thought that either being in the military or part of the farming fraternity would incur so many friends and family – not that we could do an awful lot about the latter. After a rather hefty cull we fashioned a list of 150.

My Mum came to stay the first weekend, and I managed to book an appointment to try on some wedding dresses, one of my sisters and future mother-in-law joined us.  It was a very emotional experience for my poor Mum, who in less than a minute of me trying on my first dress was in tears! I tried on about six dresses which were all gorgeous and surprisingly even the ‘meringues’ were flattering, however, I am still intent in making it myself (with a little help and guidance).  The following day, Mum and I had a look at some fabrics, and she helped me make a skirt from the silk I bought from Afghanistan.

Skirt template

Skirt template

Daily routine

It didn’t take me long to get back into the routine at home; early rises, dogs, horses, chickens and lambs to be fed, along with runner beans, tomatoes and cucumbers to be picked.  It wasn’t long before My fiancé roped me into helping shift a few bales and dropping off his various work colleagues back to their farm machinery! It wasn’t all work and no play, as my friends stopped by for tea, lunch and dinner and I frequented a few pubs too! However, my alcohol tolerance had significantly reduced from its level prior to deployment.  Nevertheless a glass of chilled white wine at dinner was a welcome pleasure.

Mid-week I had the pleasure of Hannah and Dan (from Ditto), and Graeme Lothian and his partner for company at dinner.  I prepared home-made quiche, salad and new potatoes – something I had missed whilst out in Afghanistan.  We had a pleasant evening and Graeme surprised me by giving me a copy of his book ‘ An Artist in London with a signed message to say ‘thank you’.

My fiancé  and me

My fiancé and me

The following evening My fiancé and I attended a dinner dance where I managed to catch up with a few more friends.  That bank holiday weekend was a local agricultural show.  My Dad came to visit and joined My fiancé , the dogs and I for the day.  Unfortunately this indicated that only too quickly was my R&R coming to an end.  That afternoon we left the showground and I said goodbye to Dad.  I packed the remnants of my kit, grabbed a quick dinner, changed into my uniform and jumped in the car ready to go back to Brize Norton.  Even the dogs knew I was off as they recognised me wearing the uniform and saw the bags being moved to the car, wearing that worried and forlorn expression that only dogs can.

Dad and me

Dad and me

Time to go…

I said goodbye to my fiancé at the airport car park, knowing that I would be home again in just a matter of weeks.  In some ways you strangely look forward to getting back to Afghanistan, if only to see everyone again.  Once resigned to the fact that I was going back, there is nothing to do but look forward to it and enjoy it, for that way time goes faster at least.  With less than six weeks to go on my return, the worst was over and there will be plenty to keep me busy! I shall save my first week back at work for my next blog, by now I am sure you are as exhausted of reading this as I was when I got home!

Final portrait of Harry

Final portrait of Harry

Look at Sophie’s page

An Artist Abroad: Price is nice

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

The day following my last blog, I found myself sitting at the Lashkar Gah HLS (helicopter Landing Site) in the midday sun waiting for a Chinook to arrive to transport me to the Main Operating Base (MOB) Price.

The journey begins

The journey begins

There were no delays and we soon landed in Price where I was pleased to see by one of my Battery’s troop commanders! I was then greeted by my host before following him to sign in to the camp and to find my accommodation. I was placed in the ‘VIP suite’ which was by far nowhere near as glamorous as it might sound! It was a section of a tent opposite the cookhouse, which consisted of a few scattered cot beds and strewn water bottles along with the remnants of hanging shelves, a paracord washing line and makeshift clothing rails. Nevertheless I made myself quite comfortable and was thankful for the air conditioning. After a quick shower and donning a fresh uniform I made my way to the Nahr-e Saraj (NES) headquarters to meet the rest of the team.

My luxury accommodation left behind

My luxury accommodation left behind

The operational art coffee table book

The operational art coffee table book

Here I was introduced to the Drum Sergeant Major, Y Coy of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who had produced a few watercolour paintings with his operational art pack. Although you’ll have to wait for the OP HERRICK art book to be published before you can see those! I had also brought the last HERRICK’s published art book ‘Artists in Afghanistan’ with me to show and inspire people and had a very positive response – so much so that by the following morning I had a few more submissions to make their way into the book! However, it wasn’t long before lunch and we soon made our way over to the cookhouse. The walls of the cookhouse tent were clad with faded photographs and a collection of posters of painted hand prints from the children of serving soldiers stuck to the crinkled sides of the tent clinging on with ‘black nasty’ (duct tape).

Messages from home

Messages from home

I then spent the afternoon walking around MOB Price talking to soldiers and trying to encourage any hidden artists to emerge and get involved in the project. I also spotted a few murals painted on weathered walls around the MOB, each with a story to tell from bygone times.

Mural on a former medical clinic

Mural on a former medical clinic

Gazala Troop charity challenge

Gazala Troop charity challenge

The MOB also encompasses the old walls from Russian occupation in addition to the original Afghan compound walls towards the centre of the MOB. I also managed to climb up the ‘Freedom Tower’ at the heart of the MOB to observe the views.After dinner I visited Gazala troop, 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) RA where morale was high and I was persuaded to join in on their charity challenge – rowing, running and cycling the distance from Afghanistan to Albemarle Barracks, Newcastle 5,738km in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund. Their Justgiving site can be found at http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/gazalaherrick18. After catching up with troop I returned to my tent to pack my kit ready for an onward flight back home (well, Lashkar Gah) in the morning.

Dogs at work

I was only scheduled to stay in MOB Price for a 24 hr period but due to a busy flight schedule, with other, higher priority personnel and operational necessity I ended up extending my stay for a further 48 hrs. Thankfully I had taken advice and packed enough kit for a few days in preparation for such an eventuality! My first scheduled flight was too busy and so I returned from the HLS back to the ops room and re-booked a flight for the following morning.

Earlier that morning I had bumped into the military working dog (MWD) section who had invited me over to see their dogs at work that afternoon if I was available – which I now was. With my own re-homed yellow Labrador bitch (Lola) and my fiancé’s liver brown cocker spaniel bitch (Boots), I was pleased to be able to spend time talking about the training and experiences of the handlers and dogs alike. I am also very much looking forward to seeing Lola and Boots on R&R and taking them for some long walks in the green countryside. I shall save talking about them until I get home – only three weeks to go now!

MWD – ‘Is it dinner time?’

MWD – ‘Is it dinner time?’

Here are a couple of photographs of the MWD team and their dogs:

MWD – Time out

MWD – Time out

MWD – ‘Am I there yet?’

MWD – ‘Am I there yet?’

MWD – ‘let me at ‘em’!’

MWD – ‘let me at ‘em’!’

The remainder of the day consisted of a gym session followed by a slushy, before hand washing some of my kit prior to re-packing for my second attempt at an outward trip in the morning. That next morning, as I sat next to the Lashkar Gah Command Sergeant Major and one of the soldiers from the military working dog section waiting for our helicopter to arrive, it was announced that due to operational reasons only one helicopter would be arriving. R&R personnel were a priority and I knew, as a list of names was read out, that I wouldn’t be on that flight. Nevertheless we went back for some lunch and waited…and waited…

Waiting …

Waiting …

Then an announcement came over the tannoy system for all those soldiers who didn’t fly that morning to report to their Buzzard Ops (who manage flight requests and allocations). It turned out that a US Marine Corps flight would be coming in that evening to fly to Bastion, where I would then fly to Lashkar Gah the day after. Eventually I made it back to Lashkar Gah after numerous hours spent waiting at one flight line or another. Despite the delays, flying around Helmand is a quite civilised affair rather than the ‘go, go, go’ of training and the US HLS is well established with air conditioning and wifi! No sooner had I landed, showered and changed, I was sat back at my desk back to the routine.

Waiting in style at the US Marine Corps HLS

Waiting in style at the US Marine Corps HLS

The long and short of it was a successful trip to MOB Price where I met lots of interesting people and even managed to encourage some of them to submit their work. Alas, I haven’t managed to produce a piece of my own art this week … I have just started a 12 hour shift rotation. However, I shall still post a piece of art – and here’s one I prepared earlier! This was a picture drawn for a very good friend of mine, Hannah – a fellow member of my platoon at Sandhurst who is deployed out here with me in the headquarters of Taskforce Helmand!

Here’s one I made earlier

Here’s one I made earlier

Look at Sophie’s page

Find out more about Army Arts Society


An Artist Abroad: Donkey Derby

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

As I write this, I am also in the midst of packing to travel out to my first location – MOB PRICE, in the north west of Helmand Province. I hope to be introduced to other budding artists and creative folk, in addition to paying a visit to the Gazala Troop members of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) RA. My pencils are sharpened, camera batteries are on charge and my gym kit has just been placed into my daysack. I’m sure that my trip to MOB PRICE will be the topic for next week’s blog, so that’s all I shall say on it for now.

As for this week, well for a start I can’t believe how quickly July has come around and already one member of my team, Sgt Lee Jardine (or ‘Jards’) has  gone on his R&R (rest and recuperation) and is due back to Lashkar Gah in a  few days. The third member of the team, WO2 John Gardiner has just left to go to camp Bastion to start his R&R journey! Where has the time gone? It’s funny how quickly we settle into routine out here, and no surprise that we get to know our team so well, having sat at a desk between them for three months! We’re all here together, all have families back at home whom we miss very much, and they are often the topic of our conversations out here.

The tearaway

When we first arrived out here, we had barely spent more than a few hours working together in the same place at the same time, due to the hectic schedule that was pre-deployment training. However, we very soon fell into our natural pecking order – as observed by our ‘tea’ routine. You should never underestimate how much a simple ‘brew’ can mean to someone; whether it be a morning ‘wake-me-up’, a caffeine ‘pick-me-up’ or a thoughtful ‘cheer-me-up’! At first between the three of us, we would often forget who preferred tea to coffee, who had sugar and who didn’t, and who had more lumps in their coffee than their tea.

By our second month, it had become common practice for one of us to just pick up the mugs in the morning and place a brew on the others’ desks, instinctively knowing whether the day was a tea day, a coffee day or knowing when someone just needed that green tea for a change! The best brews however, were the surprise mocha/latte slushies that would occasionally appear on the desks, especially after a hard gym session, or better still – the brew that would creep up through the sangar hatch at 2100-2300hrs during a duty. You may ask why on earth I am rambling on about tea?! In short, it is the small things that count, and the people that make the places…I have now found myself to be the sole member of the team, sat between two very empty desks! Hurry back ‘Jards’!

The Battleaxe Company team

The Battleaxe Company team

So what have I managed to produce this week? I was pleased with the way the watercolour/acrylic mix worked with the paper and so I have decided to have another go using this technique. This time my subject is a donkey cart laden with children. Three or four regular donkey and children combinations frequent the street in front of the sangar, as they wait to pick up what I can only imagine are sacks of grain from the shop around the corner to my furthest right of arc. They then trot past the sangar to do the rounds before coming back to collect the next load. I often see them during my early morning duties, before the temperatures reach their midday peaks. We are regularly experiencing temperatures well into the high 40s now.

The Competitive One

The competitive one

You can also start to consider what the characters and temperaments are, of both children and donkeys alike! Some kids are quite competitive, as they urge on their steeds to race the other, whilst others seem content to let their donkey take charge as they happily to sit back and enjoy the ride

Lazy days

Lazy days

The Tearaway

The tearaway

 

But too wilful a combination of both donkey and driver will soon see a tearaway! So there is a little bit of context for the subject of this week’s painting. Now on to the work in progress (WIP)…

Masked area

Masked area

 

Technically this piece was painted in the same manner as the old man on the donkey. You can see the first few layers developing in a similar fashion, as I mixed the watercolour and acrylic to create the base layer before sponging over a pure watercolour layer to add the richness of colour. However, this time I have used some masking fluid to define the figures as I paint in the background surrounding them. I often use masking fluid when painting in watercolour, to keep an area free from paint. However, I wasn’t too sure how this would work out – particularly as acrylic is a little ‘plastic-y’ by nature and could form a painted seal over the masking fluid. Bearing this in mind, I decided to have a go and experiment with a thin background layer, ensuring that the edges of the masked layer would remain sharp.

Peel to reveal

Peel to reveal

Here you can see that I have used a rubber to start to peel off the masking fluid once the paint had dried. It looks like I have managed to use the right consistency of paint to be able to get away with this in acrylics! I wouldn’t, however, recommend this as a common or best practice, though it did work on this occasion.

Colour blocks

Colour blocks

With the background near enough complete, I started to work on building up the layers and depth of the figures. Just as in my last blog, I used relatively pale colours of an approximate 1:10 watercolour:white acrylic ratio, and marked out rough areas, such as clothing, saddle cloths, cart and donkey. I tried to keep the base colour similar to the shade of colour I intend to use for the finished piece, as it helps me gauge the overall colour scheme of the painting.

Refining the detail

Refining the detail

I was keen to keep the colours bright and simple and opted not to stray too far from the primary colours. When shading in shadow, I try to avoid using a pure black if possible, and instead mix it from a concoction of blue, red and green. For the coat of the donkey, I have used a blue-black mixture to create the shades of grey. I deliberately kept the detail in the donkey to a minimum, as it is too easy to become bogged down in trying to fill such a small area of paper with so much information!

Laying the ground

Laying the ground

Once I was happy with the trio of children and the donkey I then turned my attention to the ground. Although, to be honest, I am rarely truly happy with any piece of artwork and as I previously did before this next stage – I placed the unfinished painting in a draw for a couple of days! I find that simply by putting it out of sight for a while enables me to regain a bit of perspective, and to stop being so critical when I feel I am starting to overwork a piece.

I can always pick out so many areas to work on, but I think a top tip would be to know when to stop and avoid overworking an area. To check if I am content with progress, I will often place my work at the far corner of a room to observe it, or look at it through a mirror – chances are if it looks wonky in the mirror, then sadly it probably is a bit offset in reality! Sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got and allow the painting to adapt and develop. Here, you can appreciate my changing ideas as to how I wanted to show the dust being picked up by the hooves and wheels of the donkey and cart.

Final painting

Final painting

 

And this is how it turned out in the end! Also, if anyone was wondering, the essay I mentioned in my very first blog has now been completed and handed in. I can’t imagine how many words I have now written through this blog! On that note, I had better stop there as it is getting late and I must be getting my head down ready for my journey tomorrow.

Look at Sophie’s page

Find out more about Army Arts Society

An Artist Abroad: A visit from Graeme

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

This week had the potential to be quite exciting as friends of mine from home – Hannah and Dan, who run a lovely print shop in Sevenoaks called ‘Ditto’, said that a customer and artist friend of theirs was coming out to visit Afghanistan as part of the coffee table art book project.  I was incredibly excited and Hannah gave me his email so I could get in touch before he came out.  The artist was Graeme Lothian (whom I wasn’t terribly familiar with at the time – my apologies Graeme!) But I very quickly ‘googled’ him (as you do nowadays) to take a peek at his work, and was totally in awe of his wonderfully complex and captivating paintings.  I couldn’t wait to meet him!

As for myself, this week I said that I’d have a go at a mixed media piece with acrylic and watercolour.  Let’s see how I got on…

The original (edited) photograph reference

The original (edited) photograph reference

Here you can see the original photograph of the man on the donkey- although it has been cropped and enhanced a tad.  I love the somewhat pink and pale terracotta colouring of the wall, but decided to draw focus on the man and donkey and created a very light background in order to accentuate the contrast between the dark brown of the donkey and his master.  To start with, I salvaged a piece of board from the water pallets which are used to separate the layers of bottled water within the stack out here!

I then roughly cut this down to A3 size (with a little help from some Engineer friends) and used this to mount the paper.  I used the brown gummed tape from my parcel to seal the edges around the board – the paper isn’t completely flat, but it shouldn’t bobble as much as it would with a watercolour.  The paper is also a particularly tough type and is more commonly used for rip-proof mapping! I then started off by painting a couple of layers of white acrylic, and slowly introduced a bit of colour as can be seen here.

The base layer

The base layer

Day 2

I started to build up the background using a small flat brush and applying a slightly thicker layer of paint just to add a little bit of texture.  I am only using a white acrylic paint, with colour being added by mixing it with my watercolours – it must however be the right consistency; too much water and the paint just washes over the base like a glaze.  I wanted to keep to the pale background, so I choose to paint a mottled pink base by mixing just watercolours – brown and red.  I then used a sponge to apply this in patches, before doing the same with some blue.  Once this layer had dried I watered down the acrylic and sponged a light layer of white over the whole lot.  To keep a subtle differentiation between the ground and the wall, I used long horizontal brush strokes to lay the ground.

Mottled background

Mottled background

Day 3

I then started to block in large areas of colour on the man and donkey with an acrylic mix.  It didn’t really matter how specific a colour they were so long as they were pale, as future layers would be painted over it anyway.

After this, I proceeded to build up the texture of the creases in the man’s jacket and indicate some light facial features.  He then stayed looking like this for a day or two as by now Graeme had completed his RSOI (Reception, Staging and Onward Integration) which is mandatory training for all personnel in Afghanistan, thus enabling him to deploy further afield and beyond the wire.

Marking out the forms

Marking out the forms

Day 4 – Graeme Lothian’s visit

After a fairly busy day at work, I received a phone call from the liaison officer to say that Graeme had left camp Bastion and was on his way to Lashkar Gah, and would let me know when Graeme was available (after, of course, doing the rounds with various commanders).  Later that evening, just before dinner, I answered another phone call to say that Graeme had 20 minutes to spare now, and would I like to come over to the Brigade Commander’s decking area to meet him. I hurried out of my office, past the smoking area, and round to the splendid seating area behind the Brigade Commander’s office – decorated with locally purchased fake flowers, swept but dusty carpets and engineer-crafted decking.

Graeme and I

Me and Graeme.

Graeme gave me a few hints and tips that he uses whilst painting, which was invaluable, and it was very humble of him to be generous enough to share his talent with others – thank you Graeme! It was only a short visit, as I then had to head back to work for a little while longer before dinner.  After dinner, I was hoping to do some more painting after my 1915hrs brief, as I had finished all that I needed to for the day.  However, as I walked past the EFI (Expeditionary Forces Institute – the deployed version of the NAAFI) I saw Graeme sitting with some familiar faces from TFH Headquarters and couldn’t help but join them for a quick ‘brew’ (the hazelnut lattes are a particular favourite!)

A few hidden artists had started to emerge from the woodwork and it was an absolute pleasure to be able to talk with Graeme and other fellow soldiers on their preferred mediums, the techniques they enjoy, problems they have, and experience the passion they exude for their works.  Truly inspiring, and a wonderfully interesting bunch of soldiers.  A coffee morning next weekend is already lined up with pencils and paper to hand!

Adding depth

Adding depth

But as they say ‘time flies when you’re having fun’! I only managed a quick 2-min splash of watercolour to start creating some mid-tones and depth to the donkey and the man’s trousers.  I shall have to make some real progress tomorrow…

Day 5

Another standard day in the ‘office’ for me, although today is a gym rest day and so I treated myself to an hour of painting instead.  I started to work on the saddlebag by using watercolours only to mark out a few areas of shading and some creases.  After allowing this to dry fully, I started to work in some white acrylic.  I found this to be an interesting way of using paints, as the acrylic actually lifts off the watercolour beneath it, but also mixes with it, creating softer shading.  It won’t be long until I finish this one now!

Building up the layers

Building up the layers

Later on that evening I saw Graeme again as I unlocked my room door and peered through the gratings below to see him unravelling one of his canvas works.  You see, the accommodation in this corner of camp is something of a luxury as we live in what can only be described as an organised shanty town of ISO containers! I shall try and post a picture of this in my next blog.  Visitors regularly use the transit accommodation below on the ground floor, and Graeme was staying in the room below me.  I popped down to see how he enjoyed his day and he very kindly gave me two of his best fine detail paintbrushes – made out of squirrel hair.  It wasn’t long before I had set up my paints to use my new brush in creating a haze of dust surrounding the donkey’s feet.

Dust haze

Dust haze

Another bit of exciting news is that the Brigade Commander has caught wind of my antics and is very keen for me to see more of Afghanistan than from my one Sanger.  He is wholeheartedly supporting me to travel to some other locations within Helmand, in order to encourage other artists to come out of the shadows and submit their poems, blogs, photography and artwork, all to be published in the Operational coffee table art book! I shall also be accompanied by the Brigade photographer, Corporal Si Longworth, to capture some of these moments! On that note, I had better stop this entry and start planning as the deadline is in August!

Final painting

Final painting

Look at Sophie’s page

Find out more about Army Arts Society

An Artist Abroad: Morale in a box!

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker, 39 Regt RA. Image by Cpl Si Longworth RLC

Captain Sophie Whitaker is a serving war artist whose main job is to provide Joint Fires Targeting support to Task Force Helmand on OP HERRICK 18. As a member of 74 Battery (The Battleaxe Company) 39 Regiment Royal Artillery – attached to 1 Royal Horse Artillery, Sophie works in the Brigade Headquarters, Lashkar Gah, where she finds time between an often hectic schedule to put pencil to paper.

Now where did I leave you…?  Ah yes … the old man and the donkey!

I am still managing to produce a piece of artwork for the week, but it does need a daily input and with what has turned out to be a busy week, I have suffered a few late nights – but it was worth it! In setting myself the challenge of one piece a week, the time seems to be flying by, as I struggle to find enough hours in a day to accomplish all that I want to!

I am now 40 per cent through my tour (not that I’m counting) and therefore have around another 17 pieces of art to produce! That sounds pretty exhausting, come to think of it.

Local Afghan Silk and Lace

Local Afghan Silk and Lace

Not to mention that I am also trying to plan my wedding and have decided in a flurry of excitement that I want to design my own dress! (For those of you who know me, this won’t be a surprise). To add to that, I have already bought some Kandahar-sourced silk from my Afghanistani  friend ‘H’ – the tailor in the local ‘antiques’ shop on camp. It may not be designer but it will certainly have a history and a story to tell. I doubt I shall post any sketches and designs on here, just in case my fiancé is tempted to peek! (And before you ask which Regiment he’s in – he’s not, he’s a farmer.) But I digress, back to the art…

Work in progress

This week’s subject has been completed over a period of about three days/nights work (1-2 hours max) and making up more time where I can. Whether it may be an early night, a quiet Sunday morning, or as per today’s instance – sitting out a sandstorm after a session in the gym!  Details of the work in progress over this week, as written day by day, started a little like this:

Cross-hatching technique

Cross-hatching technique

 

Day 1

I love to use cross hatching, a simple and effective way to get large amounts of lead on the paper and work towards building up a framework. I can cross over again and again to darken areas, or add closer and smaller lines for more detail.  As you can see here, I have tackled the background first with an erratic mix of hatched blocks. You can also start to see the areas that I have identified for marking out further by drawing in the lines closer together. Every line is drawn with purpose and I don’t really like shading large areas of background as I find the lead will undoubtedly smudge at some point. I also use a scrap piece of paper underneath my hand when I draw to reduce the amount of smudging. As it’s getting late I shall finish there for the evening and start again sometime tomorrow.

The Old Man begins to take shape

The Old Man begins to take shape

Day 2

Today I am squeezing in a 30 min break after the gym as a heavy sandstorm has just blown over camp. I have now completed the background and started to work on the old man – trying to depict his wrinkled clothing and texture. On my way back in to work I drop by the post room to see if my parcel has arrived – our post had already been collected by the department so I hurried back to the office in hope…nothing…another day perhaps?

Donkey follows suit

Donkey follows suit

 

I continue to work on the man this evening, sitting on my bed as the dust laden rain has just started to tap on my roof again. I start to work in the shadows on the donkey’s saddle bag and begin to shade in the donkey, despite hoping to get an early night as I am on duty again twice this week!

Day 3

I was back on the sangar this morning from 0700 hrs and I can thoroughly recommend that two hours of constant standing, with the occasional squat and calf raise, is a very effective weight loss method! I wonder why that is never recommended in any of the ‘Woman’s Health’ and ‘Men’s Fitness’ magazines that are littered around the Ops room? Aside from the odd pigeon seeking shade for company, and the sounds of others calling in their radio checks over the system, the hours pass slowly and quietly. However, with the ever-rising summer temperatures, more and more locals are active earlier in the morning, so I had plenty of activity to watch, and must come up again soon to sketch. No progress today on the drawing I’m afraid as work turned out to be pretty busy.

Morale in a box!

Morale in a box!

 

Day 4

Finally my parcel has arrived! It contains home baked brownies, pastels, watercolour pencils, gummed tape, masking fluid and some biscuits! It is amazing how much morale a small shoebox can contain – thank you. You really do appreciate the simple things in life out here, and nothing can beat a bit of home baking! The brownies were surprisingly well packaged and well preserved, still soft in the centre and crispy on top – absolutely divine! On the other hand the pastels were rather less contained and managed to scurry around whilst in transit as is evident by the tinted letter!

The finished piece

The finished piece

Oh, I almost forgot – here is the finished piece that I completed earlier today. Look forward to this same duo in colour – my target for next week.

Look at Sophie’s page

Find out more about Army Arts Society