Middlebrook in Afghanistan: Embedded with the Combat Camera Team part 2
In the second part of this series, Martin Middlebrook works as an embedded photojournalist following the Combat Camera Team, based at Camp Bastion, while they cover shooting parties, civil occasions, repatriations and are out on patrol in the Helmand Province.
I have photographed everything. If it’s in front of me then I have probably snapped it. I have done architectural photography, it’s a skill no doubts, and it requires a different mental and technical approach to, say, events photography, which I have also done. Wildlife photography requires endless patience and the ability to ignore mosquitoes on a prolific scale, while studio photography allows the chance to work on your setups continually until perfection is arrived at. I have done all these things, to varying degrees of success, and whilst each has its unique complexities, there is nearly always the chance to do it again if you don’t quite get it right; you have the time you need to make decisions and your life is rarely threatened.
Enter stage right ‘Conflict Photography’. Conflict Photography is unlike anything else I have ever come across, and as a result I have more respect for war photographers than I do for any other photographic discipline. And when I say this, I say it in this context: I am not particularly interested in images of conflict. It’s not as though I have a library replete with books which content archives the great battles of our times. I have my Don McCullin books because they are so human, and not because of their devastating portrayal of war. A million images of troops on patrol doesn’t make my heart simmer with the desire to go and photograph it. I like to caption the other side of war, the reality of those who have to live in conflict zones, who must maintain family and businesses against such a backdrop. So the images of these photographers don’t greatly interest me, and yet as practitioners of their trade, I admire them the most.
And here is why. Whilst patrolling under a beating Helmand Sun, I lost a lens cap. I was weighed down with body armour that was cutting into me, my eyes were filled with stinging sweat and all around were potential perils. I like to work across a range of lenses and I switch frequently. I knelt down yards from where a soldier had recently suffered a double amputation, changed from my 24-105mm to my 17-40mm and I realised that I was one lens cap short. It’s impossible to keep your kit in any reasonable condition in ‘theatre’ but you do your best, so losing a lens cap is more than just an annoyance. I was unable to move, we were kneeling down behind a wall waiting for the area in front of us to be cleared. And then I spotted it just to my right. Sergeant Steve Blake from the Combat Camera Team looked at me and said “don’t touch it”. I went through my pockets again and again to confirm that it was mine - I mean, who else’s would it have been - but again I was told to leave it be. There is always a risk, you see, that something valuable lying on the ground could have something pernicious hidden beneath it. So you are trained not to touch anything.
I remember this huge fight within me: “That’s my lens cap, it’s a Canon 77mm fit lens cap, it can’t be anyone else’s, no other photographer would have patrolled here with the same kit, surely, I have checked my pockets, it’s mine”. It lay in the dirt next to me for ten minutes whilst they ‘valloned’ the area in front of us, and then the all clear was given and we stood. And when no one was looking, I bent down, hovered for a few seconds with my fingers trembling, lifted my lens cap ever so gently, and with a rush of relief, replaced it and re-joined the patrol. There is no other photography like it I can tell you!
I had been through my basic training for being on embed; how to exit a Mastiff that is upside down after a roadside attack and is on fire, awareness during patrols, understanding ‘safe lanes’, how to self-administer tourniquets and morphine if you have suffered an amputation and your colleagues can’t get to you before you bleed to death – two minutes. It’s a sobering but exciting course. Sometimes you feel more alive than you ever have, at other times you appreciate how close to death you can be. And all the time you are waiting to get on that Chinook and fly out to a Patrol Base and get on with what you have come here to do. They have a saying in the Army, ‘Hurry up and Wait’, and you soon realise that the military is great swathes of tedium sporadically interrupted by significant activity. Our first trip to a Forward Operating Base had been cancelled at the last minute, and I was fighting despondency, just keen to get on with it all. We were due to try again and were scheduled to fly out on the Saturday evening, a midnight flight. I was sitting in the communal area outside the media tent on the Saturday morning, having a cup of tea, when Sergeant Blake from the Combat Camera Team rushed out, said “you have ten minutes, we are going” and headed off. As wind-ups go, this is a good one I thought; how funny they are in the Army, always ruthlessly taking the piss out of us civvies – hahaha! But bit by bit kit began to appear where I was sitting, lots of it, guns, helmets, tripods and cameras, the machinery of cataloguing life in Helmand, and I realised this was no wind up. I better get busy.
I now had less than ten minutes to get out of my clothes, put my Kevlar Ballistic Pants on, dress again and apply my body armour, count my morphine injectors, pack all my cameras, lenses, chargers, just enough clothes to last 3 days and no more, close down my laptop and completely sanitise myself (you cannot leave Bastion with one single piece of information on you that might provide a clue; no phones, no wallet, your laptop must be logged out, you travel persona non grata). It was frenzied. I had spent the previous 48 hours conditioning myself to getting out into theatre, and now I had 10 minutes and I wasn’t prepared at all. But I managed it, just, and I stood proudly outside of my tent, everything spick and span and completed, ready for travel.
And then I picked it all up and I realised I was a 10 stone weakling. Buckling under the weight I pondered “how in the name of all that’s holy will I patrol for 8 hours in this?” I could barely carry it to our vehicle. I like to pre-visualise a shoot if I can, though I know it’s mostly useless, but I had many reference points that I wanted to try to replicate, shots I had seen in books and magazines. But having grabbed all my kit and shuffled into the back of a Chinook, and strapped myself in so tight that I couldn’t breath, leave alone move, well I am in awe of those photographs now because they are almost impossible to achieve with today’s modern body armour and the weight of your equipment and the restrictions placed upon your movements.
In comparison, Team Leader Major Mark Scadden, Photographer Sergeant Steve Blake and ENG (Electronic News Gathering) Camera Operator Sergeant Mark Nesbit for the Combat Camera Team barely broke sweat and calmly undertook everything as though popping out for a pint. There is great value in military training; the discipline and calm resolve it brings lends itself perfectly to the disciplines of photography and filmmaking. And I can’t help wondering if the quality of their output isn’t somehow linked to the discipline of their first profession – soldiers! I have worked with a number of photographers, observed others at work, and they can often be nervous and manic, but not the CCT.
We flew low and fast across the Helmand dirt, the RAF pilot flicking our helicopter one way and another, a ‘porpoising silhouette’ from the ground, as we rushed to a Estonian Patrol Base (PB), where we would sleep the night before jumping in the back of a Mastiff and heading out to an Estonian Check Point (CP) the following morning. Helicopters don’t stay on the ground for long. Everyone grabs whatever they can and gets off, and those waiting to leave replace you in the same style, you turn your back and the sky becomes a dust storm as the Chinook flings itself towards the heavens. Naively I turned to photograph this departing scene and got knocked over by the downdraft. My kit and I were covered in a million of flecks of Helmand dust, so fine it destroys everything it meets. Lesson One: do what everyone else does!
We are met, taken to our tents, decamp and then grab a brew and make a plan. The CCT are here at the request of the Estonian Army. The Estonian Army form a part of the ISAF contingent whose responsibility it is to secure Afghanistan and stabilise its future so that reconstruction can continue apace. They are keen that the good work they do is archived and made available as part of their own PR needs. So immediately Team Leader Major Mark Scadden meets with the PB’s Commanding Officer and the Estonians Public Affairs representative, Captain Karin Kanarik, and in no time at all he and Sergeant Mark Nesbit are interviewing and filming various members of the Estonian contingent about their role, whilst Sergeant Steve Blake and I amble around the PB looking for images that will support the filming taking place. The idea is to build a complete story, from all sides, which can then be distributed through various channels.
I spoke with Major Mark Scadden about his role with the CCT and he said “I love interacting with the troops out on the ground, but I also enjoy seeing real Afghans and the way they really live, the real truth, not something that the public gets to see on TV or in the papers back home.”
There is a truth about conflict that is very rarely seen, but the CCT archive it all from both sides. Their work is preserved by the Imperial War Museum where it forms a vital record of conflicts past and present. As Sergeant Mark Nesbit said “This job gives me an almost unparalleled view of what the bigger picture is, of what a large operation involves rather than from the concentrated view point of the individual soldier.” When the Press turns up here, they are following a story, something that will sell, but when the CCT turn up, they are cataloguing history. We have come to witness the Estonian Army provide cover for our own army’s Royal Engineers whilst they repair culverts. The unglamorous but perhaps most important part of the reconstruction phase of the occupation – repairing relations with Afghans by repairing their infrastructure. All of which seems easy enough until you undertake a briefing the night before and you appreciate the unimaginable dangers. We are shown on a map where the culvert is that will be repaired and that we will film, and then we are told that there is a sniper 800 yards to our left, a Taliban compound directly in front about the same distance, and the same to our left. And that recently, whilst patrolling in exactly the same area, an Estonian soldier lost both his legs from an IED incident. You get into your sleeping bag that night and try to sleep, but it’s just no use.
We head out the following morning, and walking in the ‘safe lane’ cleared by the first member of the patrol we head towards the culvert, passing uninhabited compounds along the way. We pass the small indentation in the ground where someone’s life was irrevocably changed forever when an IED detonated, and finally arrive at our destination, an area of open ground that is bordered on the far side by the Taliban. Whilst the Estonians make safe the ground we will be working on, the Royal Engineers begin to check the culvert and drainage ditch for possible bombs. We are perhaps twenty strong, with at least six armoured vehicles, and two Apache Helicopters overhead. It’s a mighty operation, but how do you price the untimely death of a soldier?
By this point, with the sun already high in the Helmand sky, you are burning up, drinking as much liquid as you can, aching and sore, and somehow you have to operate in this for another 6 hours, filming and shooting, interviewing, taking names and ranks, all the stuff that builds the picture of today’s operation. And all the time you are operating in an area that has previously been replete with IED’s and you can see Taliban everywhere, popping out of their compounds to take a look and then heading back in to report what they have seen. I keep thinking “where’s that sniper today?” And the hardest bit? Well, you are here to take photographs but you are so limited in where you can go and what you can do that as a photographer who is used to having complete freedom, it begins to eat away at you. I found myself becoming increasingly blasé about the whole thing. My natural demeanor did not fit this way of working, and I just didn’t quite have the discipline for the whole thing. During that patrol my 100-400mm took on so much dust that the focusing mechanism died and the lens ground to a halt, and I managed to get a splash of water solution on my sensor, which to this day I have not been able to remove. In the meantime the CCT just quietly covered everything they needed to do, interviewing and filming and shooting, until finished, we formed in our safe lane, took our position in the patrol and filed back to the checkpoint where we would sleep under the stars before heading back to Camp Bastion the following morning. The sun set and we shared tea with the Estonians, and then all hell broke loose somewhere outside. The crack of gunfire, the thump of mortars, Apaches loosing flares overhead to illuminate the barren Helmand horizon, an hour’s kinetic under a cloudless sky, as we lay in our sleeping bags listening to the ping of this and the crumple of that. And then silence. I just stared at a sky pinpricked by a billion stars and watched as an Apache flew across the moon and departed for home. A salutary tale of the real dangers we had faced that day!
So would I do it again? If you were to offer me a job as a photographer working for the Army’s Combat Camera Team, I would jump at the chance and do it all unpaid. For all the danger, the honour and opportunity to archive history on behalf of your country is so alluring. The chance to pit your skills under every conceivable circumstance, well, I think the guys in the Combat Camera Team are some of the luckiest and bravest photographers and film makers in the world!
If you like Martin Middlebrook's writing, why noy buy his e-zine, or subscribe to Professional Photographer to read his monthly column.
All images (c) Martin Middlebrook
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