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.
“Eyes to me!”…Click
“That’s it, just rotate your left shoulder a little towards me”…Click.
Considered, safe, controllable. Even outdoors in the intense Afghan sunlight I have begun to feel protected in the ‘comfort blanket’ that is portrait photography. When I first arrived out here, I was avoiding the piercing sun at all costs; angling for shade wherever I could. Now, because of a little gadget I was prompted to buy by a friend and expert lighter, Paul Brownbridge I am able to remain creative when lighting subjects even in the brightest of conditions. I will cover how in a future blog.
So back to comfort blankets. Warm, safe environments where a youngster can cuddle up and feel safe in. For some people, portrait photography is that comfort blanket. But is that the type of photography I always want to be doing? Did I transfer from the Army Air Corps to spend my days in photographic ‘Safesville, Tennessee’, where the most exciting thing that could happen is my subject gets grit in their eye from a passing helicopter? No, I did not!
As it happens, I am quite lucky because the Army didn’t think so either.
‘Uncontrolled action’ is the name that is given at the Defence School of Photography to photography where the shooter doesn’t get a chance to set anything up. Sure, I have been getting out and about on the ground and grabbing images that are well and truly uncontrolled, as the action unfolds. A squint here, a gurn there; it doesn’t really matter to the young lads who are risking their lives. Those type of images tell a story of the ‘here and now’. A good facial expression can make an action-shot. I believe it gives a picture sincerity and allows a viewer to empathise and immerse themselves in the tale.
‘One shot – one kill’
On the other end of the uncontrolled action scale though, and somewhere where squinting and gurning is not what I am looking for from my subjects, is VIP visits. All around the world there are important people; whether it be royalty, religious, ministerial or celebrity who make visits and trips to meet and engage with other people, and there is generally somebody there to record that event be it on film or stills camera. In the Army it’s no different. Recently in Afghanistan, the person recording the event was me.
Over the last three weeks, Helmand has hosted a number of VIP visits and I had the opportunity to capture each one of them. Now I would like to think that somebody at the top knew I was fresh out of photography school and decided to ‘ease me in gently’ because as it panned out, they sent out the VIPs in order of ranking; Chief of the General Staff, Secretary of State for Defence and then finally the Prime Minister. I am sure this was purely coincidental though.
Each of the visits presented a new challenge, some of which I overcame and some of which I can assure you I will do better next time. Of all the pictures I take during a visit I ultimately select ones that portray the subject in the best ‘light’. VIP photography is no different to studio photography in this respect. However, due to the fact that the subject is engaged with other people and not striking a pose for my camera, the ‘one shot-one kill’ theory rarely rings true. If any of you reading out there find it does, then go buy a lottery ticket. For this reason, and obviously many others, Nikon invented ‘Continuous High’ on its cameras at up at speeds of up to11 frames a second on the D4.
Oooh, a comfort blanket then, I hear you say. Well not really, as you would be surprised what facial expressions can be manufactured during a burst of 11 frames.
Some other photographers may be too proud to admit this, but I learnt quickly that if you are desperate for useable images then don’t be shy when it comes to converting light into ones and zeros on your memory cards. It costs nothing, and no photographer that ever got published was forced to supply their ‘hit ratio’ detailing the number of useable images vs squidgy, blinky ‘gurn-a-thons’ along side their credit. This is a great and engaging image, but how many shutter clicks to get it?
Admittedly though, some subjects are harder to photograph than others and this is just a fact of life. I recently did a posed portrait of someone and shot 36 frames. Out of those 36, 4 of them were useable because they were a blinker.
So as the VIP arrives and makes their way through the Province, they meet various military commanders and soldiers and move in and out of vehicles, buildings and camps. They remain very aware of your presence and occasionally you catch their eyes looking at you in a way that possibly would suggest you are becoming an irritant. As long as this isn’t happening too often you can be content that you are not becoming too intrusive.
I began by carrying two cameras with the trusty 24-70mm on one, and the 70-200mm on the other. I haven’t changed this tactic yet as it seems to work for me. I pop a flash on the body with the smaller lens on just in case I need it. There is so much movement involved in these visits that it really is best to be able to move light and fast, in order to get in front of the VIP with ease.
Royalty and celebrity
One of the other things I have to be aware of when capturing VIPs, who attract a lot of media attention, is the other camera and film crews. In each of the recent visits there have been at least two other sets of reporters and these can range from Capt Mau Gris and the ‘Baz duo’ from the Combat Camera Team to the BBC or Sky news. Wrestling for shooting space is all part of the fun. I haven’t managed to get into an altercation yet whilst angling for the best position, although I have heard of such tales. I always try to introduce myself when I can and ask questions about what they are after so that we can ‘divvy up’ the real estate. Sometimes, it’s just not possible.
I learned the hard way during the recent visit of the Prime Minister that BBC Cameramen do not take it too kindly when you stray into their shot. I wasn’t concentrating on my position and it is an easy mistake to make, but not one I will make again any time soon.
No matter what my political persuasion, I am happy that I have been given the opportunity to photograph these people, although I am sure in my career as an Army Photographer, the opportunity may well present itself again. Hopefully in sunlight that isn’t so harsh.
So having had a fairly busy three weeks, I just have two more boxes to tick now; royalty and celebrity. We will just have to see which comes first.
It’s time for a little snooze. Where did I put that comfort blanket?