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A SOLDIER’S TALE
We often see images of conflict shot by photojournalists, but rarely by the Army itself. Some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century learnt their craft in the services, so Martin Middlebrook spoke to an Army Photographer of the Year finalist to find out more.
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orporal Steve Blake of the Royal Logistic Corps is part of a team of Army photographers based at HQ Land Forces in Andover, Hampshire. His job is to document daily life in the Army, be it in the UK, or in theatres of conflict around the world. He has worked in Afghanistan three times, as well as covering duties across the UK. I started by asking him how he had become an Army photographer. MM: Before you joined the Army, had you picked up a camera and did you feel that you had any creative leanings? SB: I have always carried cameras, simply to catalogue the life of those around me. It was a matter of creating memories, mostly grabbed with a simple point-and-press. It wasn’t until I joined the Army that I realised I had a creative interest in photography as well – before that I was just documenting family life. MM: I presume you joined the Army to fight for your country and yet you find yourself in the rather peaceful role of Army photographer. How did this happen? SB: I joined the Army in 1998, enlisting as a Royal Signals telecommunications operator, which meant working with secure high-tech satellite systems. I ended up training the troops at Blandford Camp [in Dorset, headquarters of the Royal Signals] for four years, and my interest in photography became clear to me. We would be planning and executing squadron-level exercises and I got great enjoyment photographing the troops on these exercises. I would then make copies of the images and give them to the lads to show them. Being young lads they loved to show their girlfriends what they were getting up to. MM: So you realised photography was becoming a bigger part of your life; what happened next? SB: At about the same time I had contacted an old Army friend on Facebook and it turned out he was an Army photographer. I didn’t even realise the role existed; they were the Army’s best-kept secret. I had no experience, which I knew would stand against me, but I was determined to do it. So I went out and bought myself some kit from eBay, a Nikon D50, and set about teaching myself everything I could, just to give myself the best chance for selection. I photographed everyone I
Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Above: The Queen’s Offical Birthday Parade. Opposite page: Exercise Wessex Warrior, a training aid for soldiers deploying to Helmand Province.
knew, worked with a professional photographer friend and even advertised on several sites offering my services for free, just to get experience. I went for an interview with the Army’s Master Photographer in November 2007 and although I just missed out on that selection as I was a late entry, he sent me away with a checklist to work on – composition, image interest etc. In January 2008 I went back and they put me on the one-week selection course at the RAF Cosford Defence School of Photography [in Shropshire]. The thing about the course is that it not only tests your photographic ability, but also your personality and physical stamina – the usual mile-and-a-half run, numeracy and literacy test, 10-minute presentation,
all that rigmarole – because they want to see you have the confidence to stand up in front of 100 people you haven’t met before and organise them as you want. So personality and confidence are key factors for them, more so than pure skill. MM: You demonstrated a passion that shone through. I think photography is more about people skills and you can teach all the technical stuff later. Would you agree that the selectors were looking for passion, confidence and people skills? SB: Absolutely, but don’t get me wrong, they still want photographic skills. They only pick one or two people a year to go on the eight-month photography course. I was a nervous wreck for the selection week. You are expected to know
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everything there is to know. MM: So you obviously passed and it’s clear from what you say that you probably have more knowledge than many working professionals – is that a fair comment? SB: In fact the BIPP [British Institute of Professional Photography, the profession’s governing body] visited us while I was on the course and commented that we were the besttrained, best-equipped photographic training establishment in the country. MM: Tell me a little about the eight-month course. SB: The first three months are just solid theory. You have to know everything, from the properties of light, refraction, diffraction, everything you can know about how the camera operates, going right back to the first pinhole cameras, aperture, everything. It’s massive, three months solid. A normal day is 8am to noon in the classroom doing written theory and the afternoon working practically on what you have learnt in the morning. MM: I think it’s the best grounding you can possibly have. The creative stuff you either have or you don’t, the technical stuff can be taught. If you know that bit so well that you don’t ever have to think, you can get on with the business of taking photographs. SB: The course reflects that, the school is an NVQ accredited centre as well. We are accredited at NVQ level 3, as well as having advanced apprenticeship in digital imaging and a load of other stuff. So the whole of Module 1 is the technical stuff. MM: So you know all your technical stuff but ultimately photography is about a picture with a solid narrative in it so the image can stand up by itself. How much time do they spend teaching you those photographic skills? SB: Module 2 is the people phase, all practical, where we learn to photograph people in every conceivable format, be it portrait or event. The final part, Module 3, is our formal news phase, where we have 12 weeks of PR and news photography. So events are organised for us to attend. I was lucky enough to have Princess Anne open an RAF memorial and it was my job to cover it – so you are taught the whole etiquette, where you can stand, what we are shooting, who we are shooting for, what your press restrictions are, and the full brief of a typical job. Basically we spend the last 12 weeks of the course learning everything you need to know about how to shoot for the press. At that point we have all
the technical bases covered, so we are thinking about the specific needs of the shoot, what newspapers require, and not worrying about shutter speeds and ISO. MM: So you finish your training, and pass, and then they send you straight off to Helmand in Afghanistan. Can you talk me though what a typical day might entail out there? SB: There is no typical day, which is one of the things I love about the job. I have been to Helmand three times and the last time we were working on behalf of 10 Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). They were looking for images that showed the progression within Afghan culture in Helmand Province. They were mainly to be used for internal briefings by Prime Minister David Cameron and for the Lisbon Briefing [involving NATO heads of government in 2010]. Some of the stories we covered were to be used for external publications as well. In fact it was nice for the first time as a photographer not to have
to take military photographs. So we went out visiting local people photographing everyday life. We photographed workers at a marble factory in Lashkar Gah with a TV crew with us, part of the Army media team, all of which is very different to being out with the ‘Lads in Green’. MM: It’s interesting that you are now engaged in photographing the real people of Afghanistan and not just the military presence. Is there a move within the Army to concentrate on the people as much as they previously did on the forces? SB: In a way yes. Everything we used to see on the news was ‘bombs and bullets’, constant conflict. But now we are looking at getting as much imagery of Afghanistan returning to normality as we can. It’s important to show we are bringing stability back. We are putting a lot of time into training their Army, police force and so on. We are working with teams that are funding projects to build schools and hospitals which all aids our
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This page and opposite: These images were shot as part of Steve’s work shooting in Afghansitan.
relationship with local people. So we document that part of our role in Helmand, which also shows people back at home the ‘real’ Afghanistan. The cement factory in Helmand is now booming because the Army has secured the area from the Taliban, and so all these things help the relationship on the ground. So being able to photograph and document this part of operations in Afghanistan is key. It’s important that we cover both sides of the fence, military and real progress. MM: Here’s a question. At some point you get briefed, presumably to go out and do a certain job. One day you are photographing forces on the ground, which fulfils one specific need, and you have alluded to the fact that now you are photographing Afghan people because that sends a different kind of message. So how does the briefing process work and are you told what the political needs for the images are? SB: The briefing process varies for each job. For example the FCO and Downing Street media team
In no way, shape or form do we do propaganda; we shoot as it happens, and document the truth. So we send the press the ideal image that supports the briefing for the work we have just completed in Helmand is clear. Nine story that we have been times out of 10 we are aware of who wants the images and why, whether it’s for briefed to cover. newspapers, or internal military requirements.
But the briefing process doesn’t massively affect how we shoot it because we are making sure we document everything we are supposed to, regardless. Cultural considerations, such as not photographing women and children, are a bigger influence on what and how we shoot. But once we have photographed, everything has to be cleared at a high level in the UK, from a military security point of view before it’s ever released to the press. They are the people at the top of the chain who decide whether this is the type of positive image we want to send to the media and what effect this will have on public opinion. In no way, shape or form do we do propaganda; we shoot as it happens, and document the truth. So we send the press the ideal image that supports the story that we have been briefed to cover. MM: So you shoot the story as it is, you send your selection of images, and that understandably is edited for the appropriateness of the message that needs to go out? SB: It’s the same as if we were photographers in civvy street, we shoot what is before our eyes, then send the press our best edit of six to 10 shots. MM: You are doing lots of civilian work now, but presumably you have been out with your fellow soldiers on patrol. At some point you must come across difficult situations; how do you detach yourself from being a military man yourself and maintain the role of being a pure photographer?
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This is prime imagery that goes to the Imperial War Museum, and that people can look at in years to come – we can’t miss it. You just to have great ‘situational awareness’.
SB: Although I have been out on the ground on patrols, in all my time I have been lucky enough not to have been in any sticky situations. And although I have been out with the CounterIED [improvised explosive device] boys, I have never really felt myself to be in an untoward situation. There is, however, a very fine line; we are soldiers first, but at the same time our training is as photographers. We are a photographer who is a soldier, and a soldier who takes photographs. So we are ‘both’ first. It’s that very fine line that if we do come under contact, in the back of my mind I think, “Well if I don’t photograph this now, I can’t rewind and do it all again.” You are there to document that patrol doing what it does. But it’s down to your discretion to decide “now is enough, it’s time to draw my weapon.” We have a few photographers in the trade who have actually gone into compounds with bayonets fixed, because the threat was going to come that close.
But at the same time if explosions are going off and you haven’t got your camera up to your eye you are going to miss it. This is prime imagery that goes to the Imperial War Museum, and that people can look at in years to come – we can’t miss it. You just have to have great ‘situational awareness’. MM: It’s interesting that you say that you are neither a photographer first nor a soldier first, but I guess you must have visualised that at some point you might have to put your camera down and pick up your weapon? SB: We carry the same kit as the troops on the ground, so yes. We embed with the troops, eat with them, share duties and that all helps with the bond. So when you are all up close and personal sticking your lens in their face, they don’t think “who is this bloke?” You are one of them. It’s key that when you are on patrol, they don’t look at you as a liability, they view you as a soldier, another pair of hands, someone with a rifle,
someone to carry water, a stretcher-bearer maybe. So being one of them is crucial, we are ‘combat photographers’. MM: I was going to ask about this camaraderie. I was brought up in the military and appreciate that this bond between guys is everything. Do you feel that because you are a military person and therefore connected to these guys, that it is easier to do your job as a photographer than if you were just a freelancer? SB: I do think so. Most of the time when we go to meet a new platoon or battalion which we are going to photograph, we just go in our military uniform without our cameras. So until we cross that barrier we are the same as them. We have a brew and brief them on what we are doing before we start shooting. You do get the occasional person who doesn’t want their picture taken, but it’s very rare because we are soldiers too. In fact most of the guys love it, ‘posing stuff’ is simple out there. It is now more widely known that we exist as a team, so there is a constant media presence out there, which makes our life much easier. MM: So you have that role of photographing in theatre, but it strikes me that you spend the vast majority of your time fulfilling obligations in the UK, what kind of stuff do you shoot every day?
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Opposite page, top: People paying their respects at a soldier’s repatriation; below: A further image from his work covering life in Afghanistan. This page, left: An Army skydiver; below: Corporal Steve Blake with Status Quo tour brochure.
SB: Last year I covered a massive number of things, from low-profile stuff like cheque presentations for the Army Sports Lottery and the opening of our new headquarters to the Queen’s Birthday Parade in London and the polo at Tidworth, all manner of sporting events. MM: You’ve got a great job haven’t you? SB: It gets better. I then did the homecoming of a round-the-world boat race between all the forces and covered the Help for Heroes concert at Twickenham; two days of filming with Status Quo who were rereleasing In the Army Now. As a result, they used my images in their tour brochure. Sadly I also have to do a lot of repatriations [where the country’s military dead are returned to Britain]. One of us (there are four Army photographers and two military video guys) has to cover every repatriation. So we are down at RAF Lyneham [in Wiltshire] a lot, and sometimes the nearby town of Wootton Bassett if the family request it. MM: Is that why your training has to be so complete, because you photograph everything, in totality, from the Chief of Staff’s portrait to covering events? SB: Yes, and it also means that we have to have kit to cover everything. So the Army photographic
contract is with Nikon, and we have two D3s cameras each. We then have lenses that range from 10.5mm fisheye all the way through to 500mm. We have flashes, Lastolite reflectors, studio lights, the lot! MM: I think I want to be an Army photographer, it sounds a hell of a lot more fun than what I do. SB: It is and all of our kit is issued as well. MM: A final question; the best and worst bits of the job, what would you keep and what would you gladly get rid of? SB: There are loads of great bits. The places you travel to, the people you meet and the huge variety of jobs. No two shoots are the same. I could be told tomorrow that I am off to Canada – wherever the Army goes, we go to promote the Army, help with recruitment, and document Army life. I am a people person and I love going out and getting the best out of the subject. The only bad bit is that most of our postings are ‘one man’ posts, so you don’t get that camaraderie that you get in a regiment. Being based in HQ Land Forces and being sent to different places all the time, means working alone is the strength you have to have and it forms part of the selection process. MM: So do you miss the camaraderie, would you
go back to your regiment? SB: To be honest, no. I have the best job in the world, I am doing the job I love. I have my family just across the road, I see them every weekend. Sometimes when you are in the middle of a field by yourself though it would be nice to have someone to talk to, but hey, we all have mobile phones. MM: I can get a better signal in the middle of a desert in Afghanistan than I ever can in the UK, so there are no excuses, independence can be a good thing. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and giving us such a fascinating insight into the life of an Army photographer. It’s fair to say that there is much of your working life that one TP could easily envy. ■ UPDATE: As a result of defence budget cutbacks the Army has now cancelled all photographic training courses for 2011. There are also plans to potentially cut the number of professional frontline Army photographers.
TP donated the fee for this article to Help for Heroes. If you want to make a donation go to www.helpforheroes.org.uk.
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