Capturing the essence of life in Afghanistan

Capturing the essence of life in Afghanistan

Me in the middle of a sandstorm. Image by Cpl Ross Fernie

Me in the middle of a sandstorm. Image by Cpl Ross Fernie

I’m Sergeant Paul Shaw. I’m 28 and having served 11 years in the British Army I have now been one of its professional photographers for over a year and have enjoyed every minute of it. The very day I passed my Defence Photographers course I volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan as part of the Combat Camera Team in the Electronic News Gatherer ENG role (The Video Guy). It is my job to collect moving footage for the media and have also filmed for other productions such as The One Show, Gary Barlow: Journey to Afghanistan and Top Gear.

During my time here I have seen some amazing sights and had the opportunity to visit a variety of areas including Kajaki dam and Kabul, the country’s capital city. It has been a fantastic journey so far and although my job is moving pictures, my true passion lies with photography and I have been trying to capture ‘my world’ for the last six months as often as possible.

Geography and the weather

Sunset over Camp Bastion

Sunset over Camp Bastion

Most of my time has been spent in and around Helmand, one of the country’s largest provinces. For those who don’t know, it is an arid region in the south of Afghanistan covering 22,619 square miles, half the size of England and it is believed that civilization may have begun in the area as early as 3,000 BC. Being such a dry region it is often subject to sandstorms and even rainstorms, during the winter months. I am however still waiting for my thunderstorm.

Sandstorm over Camp Bastion

Sandstorm over Camp Bastion

A cyclist during a sandstorm at Camp Bastion.

A cyclist during a sandstorm at Camp Bastion.

Always on the move, one of my first major trips out of Helmand was a job in Kabul. 3,500 years old Kabul is situated in the North East of the country. It is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and is home to over 3 million people. It is also home to the Afghan National Army Officer Academy ANAOA, the Afghan equivalent of our own Sandhurst. The academy is surrounded by Western Kabul and sports some amazing view points on its southern side, which is lined by high peaks and mountains.

Kabul at dawn from the ANAOA site.

Kabul at dawn from the ANAOA site.

Modern-day life

In the present day, compared to that of our own, the people of Afghanistan lead a relatively simple life. They are generous and honourable and although not possessing all the technology that more developed countries may have, they have ingenuity and a way of making things work. They do things their way and in their own time and for them, it works.

Afghan workers

Afghan workers

It is quite easy for the western world to judge the Middle East and especially Afghanistan as it has played such a big part in our British Military life over the past decade. It is easy to think of a war torn sand pit whose people care little for their neighbour or their country and simply allow themselves to be overrun by extremists. I think you would be amazed if you ever have the opportunity to pass through its streets. Granted, it does seem like there are two worlds colliding but that is the Afghan culture, their way, not ours.

High rise flats dot the skyline, electricity pylons, cars… as many cars as any busy city centre, even billboards advertising broadband internet. Ironic when our own country still sports areas out of reach of ultra-fast fibre optics.

Kabul City and a broadband internet billboard

Kabul City and a broadband internet billboard

The Burka and the modern headscarf meet in Kabul

The Burka and the modern headscarf meet in Kabul

School children in uniform on their way to school.

School children in uniform on their way to school.

Packing up and moving out

Back in Helmand the British Army are well under way with their redeployment of kit to the UK. We are no longer actively conducting offensive operations within the province. To the north at the Afghan National Army Academy we mentor officers who will lead the fight against the insurgent and are proud to be doing so.

An American Osprey gunner on a flight to Kajaki, which sports some beautiful scenery

An American Osprey gunner on a flight to Kajaki, which sports some beautiful scenery

A sketch I did of British Forward Operating Base Price

A sketch I did of British Forward Operating Base Price

I am now nearing my six-month mark and it will soon be time to leave a remarkable country, one that has seen so much turmoil. Until we come to leave we will support the Afghan forces as much as we can. Before I go, I leave you with a video I have filmed and produced of the Apache Longbow Attack Helicopter entitled ‘The Shout’.

Thanks for reading. 

Images © MOD/Crown Copyright

Photography: Sergeant Paul Shaw RLC (Phot)

Video: Sergeant Paul Shaw RLC (Phot)

Military policeman, pilot, photographer…

Corporal Si Longworth in Afghanistan

Corporal Si Longworth @Si_Army_Phot

Corporal Si Longworth is one of only 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.

Those who follow me on Twitter will already know that I have been in Afghanistan for just over a month, and in that month I have managed to get out and about, visiting many of the locations where British troops are stationed. I have suffered at the evil hands of diarrhoea and vomiting and produced a handful of home-town stories – not to mention my first multimedia piece, which featured on the British Army Facebook page. I am going to take the time to write about my first month very soon, but it would be unfair of me not to give you a little insight into my career thus far. So please sit back, and try to stay awake…

The journey to Afghanistan was not unfamiliar to me, having done it twice before, but the job I have taken over was.

I wasn’t always an Army photographer. No Sir. I have been tinkering with cameras for years, but it is only recently that I decided to finish up my Army career as a ‘phot’. (‘Finish up’ as in the last few years – not commit career suicide.)

“How do you know there is a pilot in the room?”
“Don’t worry, he’ll tell you!”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what I was; an Army pilot. I have to get it out early, as no doubt I will be making reference to aviation in future posts (because I can’t help it, and because this blog series isn’t just about my life as a photographer; it’s a story of how I got here). In early 2012, after seven years as a qualified Lynx helicopter pilot, I decided that I wanted a change of pace, and I wanted to concentrate more of my efforts on the hobby I was passionate about: photography.

One amazing career; three different jobs

Throughout my Army career, I have made some great friends in the photography trade. Throughout every contact, meeting and occasional coffee (for ‘coffee’, read ‘beer’) with one of these mysterious men and women, I would always sit back and turn a little green with envy at their stories and experiences. To some people out there, the thought of demotion from Sergeant and the loss of flying pay may seem a little strange, and maybe it is. But the beauty of the British Army is exactly that: the ability to change jobs. Why get out when you can try something different? As an employee for over 17 years, starting out in the Royal Military Police (RMP), specialising in Close Protection duties, then applying for Army Pilot Selection, and now finally a photographer for the Army, I can see no greater incentive to stay in – or indeed join up. One amazing career, and three different jobs. Yes, of course I have suffered promotional setbacks at the hands of transferring, and will continue to as I reach the end of my career. But the balance to that scale is I have been kept enthusiastic and have loved – and I mean genuinely loved – every part of my diverse military career. Who else can say that?

Author during Royal Military Police Training in Northern Ireland

Author during RMP Training in Northern Ireland. By WO1 Mike Harvey, RLC.

Here is an image taken (on film, of course) ‘back in the day’, during an RMP Close Protection training exercise at Ballykilner, Northern Ireland. What you may find interesting is that in Northern Ireland I lived and worked next to the Central Photographic Cell, and had invited a new-found friend, Corporal Mike Harvey (who used to process my ‘work-related’ (honestly) film from my Nikon F90x) to join us for the day and capture the action. He was, of course a Royal Logistics Corps Photographer. Today, WO1 Mike Harvey is the Command Master Photographer in the Army Photographic Trade.

So, where was I…? Oh yes, my friends who I have seen join the trade over the years. I had watched my best friend and successful Army shooter, Staff Sergeant Dan Harmer, travel to amazing places and capture fantastic images, just as the rest of our trade has done, and I wanted to become a part of that. One of the things I have noticed about photography is my reaction to it and how it makes me feel to look at a striking image. I could look at it and become more immersed in the story than I could with any video clip. That was what I wanted to do. I dreamed of people opening up papers and being stunned over an image I had managed to take. (I still live in hope…)

The seed, planted

It wasn’t until my first tour of Afghanistan that I bumped into a now friend and great photographer Corporal Steve Blake, who had sauntered into the Lynx detachment and asked me for a favour. He needed a flight and, as it happened, I wanted a picture. The mutual agreement and friendship was thus formed. He won’t mind me letting everyone know that I took him flying a few times, and convinced him that the angle of bank which made him scream like a little girl was required to allow him to get his pictures. (Sorry, Steve.) He took these pictures for me, and single-handedly – without knowing it, and just like the film ‘Inception’ – he planted the seed in my mind to transfer.

Author and his Lynx

Author and his Lynx. By Sgt Steve Blake, RLC.

Author in his Lynx

Author in his Lynx. By Sgt Steve Blake, RLC.

I had a few professional commitments to fulfill with my aviation role, including a second tour in Afghanistan. But under a year later, after a successful Army Photographic Selection course, I had started training at the Defence School of Photography at RAF Cosford, Wolverhampton, to become my current trade: an Army Photographer.

I still managed to snap a couple of sunrises while out and about, though. The pros of being an early-morning aviator, I guess.

Sunrise over a Helmand Lynx

Sunrise over a Helmand Lynx. By Sgt Si Longworth, AAC.

Flying into dawn – my co-pilot uses Night Vision Goggles to aid in flying before the sun rises over the Helmand Desert

Flying into dawn – my co-pilot uses night vision goggles to aid in flying before the sun rises over the Helmand Desert. By Sgt Si Longworth, AAC.

So there you have it: a little more about me. I am sure you will all get to know me as time goes by; what makes me tick and what ticks me off. As I have said before, this is a journey, and we’ll take it together. Thanks for reading, until the next time…

More tc…

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

Follow Si on Twitter: @Si_Army_Phot