Middlebrook in Afghanistan: Embedded with the Combat Camera Team part 1
In the first of a two-part series, Martin Middlebrook works as an embedded photojournalist following the Army’s Combat Camera Team, based at Camp Bastion, as they cover everything from repatriations to charity events, before discovering first hand the excitement and perils of patrolling in Helmand Province.
It’s 2:50 am. I have been in bed for two hours, but I haven’t slept. The constant thrum of helicopters overhead, smashing atoms with their rotors, has kept me in a state of perpetual rotation too, tossing and turning. And then a Chinook scrambles over my tent, so low and so angry that my 3am alarm call is now superfluous.
I extricate myself from my bunk, crack my head on the way out, and sleep-walk to our vehicle. I am going to observe the body of a Gurkha soldier being carefully loaded onto the back of a C17 Transporter, to be repatriated back to Brize Norton. 150 colleagues from his regiment, 2 Royal Gurkha Rifles, have turned up to form a guard of honour. The ambulance carrying his body glides silently past me. The air is crisp and hushed. All air activity has been suspended for this moment of solemn dignity.
The ambulance stops just behind the C17. Six selected pallbearers from the soldier’s regiment walk slowly past the guard of honour, climb the ramp and lower his coffin inside the hulking carcass of the aircraft, a cold and uninviting prison for the journey home. Waiting inside is Sergeant Steve Blake from the Combat Camera Team. Standing outside, his colleague Sergeant Mark Nesbit has already shot his part of the ceremony. I watch from behind a metal catch fence as Steve respectfully photographs the effecting proceedings. The light from the C17 stands ‘beacon’ on this darkest of nights. And then it’s over. The ramp of the C17 crunches into life and like a drawbridge it closes shut on this salutary experience, a full stop in my first night in Bastion. Welcome to Helmand!
That evening, before my faltering attempt at sleep, two things had happened. Two moments that had made me mad and sad in equal measure. Sharing my tent with me were the correspondent and photographer for The Telegraph, and both were frantically packing ahead of leaving on an embed first thing the next morning. We briefly discussed the ‘myopic’ manner in which images are often used, unconsciously perhaps, to represent the truth from the theatre
of war. I proposed that this was a demand-led provision; photographers were producing work that the media would buy, and in general terms there was agreement on this. This was the ‘maddening’ bit. I was then shown a slideshow that Sergeant Steve Blake had put together for the Regiment and families of two soldiers who had died. It showed the Vigil Ceremony and Ramp Ceremony, set to music; it was heart-rending. This is the supply-led side of photography; photographs being taken with the end-user in mind. This is what the Combat Camera Team (CCT) does. Most of us in our daily photographic lives don’t get up in the morning, slip on our Kevlar ballistic pants, don our Osprey body armour, ballistic glasses and helmet, and then patrol for three hours in 40 degrees, scanning the world equally for IEDs and photo opps! I have never left home in the morning for a shoot devoid of every single personal detail in case of kidnap. I have never given my blood group before a shoot, just in case.
It’s difficult to express in words how challenging it is, with eyes stinging from the sweat and the dust, and a pervading sense of threat all around you to keep an eye on the main job. Transiting fields and ditches, keeping away from all obvious thoroughfares, the sense of relief when you return to the Patrol Base (PB) is beyond palpable. And if you stop to question why you are doing this for one second, the answer is not immediate. So you might just stay in your ‘scratcher’ a while longer and not bother at all. But if I were to list the reasons the Combat Camera Team exist, you begin to get a sense of their value to families, regiments, the Army and Tri-Services, and the Nation as a whole.
As early as the Crimean War, the army used war artists to document and archive the veracity of war, for now and for future generations. They are still used today, but their role is supplemented by the medium of photography and film. The CCT was formed out of the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) that was set up 70 years ago to document the Second World War. It was based at Pinewood Studios, and there is still a memorial there – the CCT visit once a year and have their own private ceremony in memory of those who died in its name. The AFPU no longer exists, but its photographers were on the beaches of Normandy, emptying film into black bags as fire rained in. They lost 23 per cent of their number during WWII – bravery that is soon forgotten.
The CCT work closely with the Imperial War Museum (IWM), bringing their own unique perspective on military activity, anywhere in the world. As Hilary Roberts, Head Curator at the IWM says: “The ability of CCT to operate for extended periods in the very front line, while securing imagery of the highest professional quality, is vital to the museum’s task of helping the world understand modern conflict in all its forms”.
When my colleague and I set up ‘Great in Britain’, we did it not so much for now, but so that some time in the future we could reflect on how much or how little the world had changed. We called it ‘the shifting dunes of our cultural and vocational life.’ We never value at the time what we document quite as much as we value it thirty years later when it provides both insight and hindsight. Without this detailed archiving of military history by the AFPU, Spielberg could not have made Saving Private Ryan. The AFPU archive was used extensively to ensure the opening harrowing sequence was as close as possible to the historical truth.
So when I finally sat down to write this article, I struggled to find a suitable metaphor that accurately described the gamut of responsibility that falls within the CCT remit – something that amply covered the breadth of work carried out. This is what I came up with. Camp Bastion is a town the size of Aldershot: 30,000 people working, living and playing together just like any town around the UK. If you had to chronicle this you would appreciate the diversity of life that could form part of this narrative. From charity events, group photos of touring regiments, vigil ceremonies and social events, covering construction projects, working with local communities and the Afghan National Army (ANA), covering patrols and the military side of the military, and so on… If you can imagine it, they have probably photographed it, in Afghanistan, the UK and around the world.
In Afghanistan, that responsibility is held by four people: Team Leader Major Mark Scadden, Photographer Sergeant Steve Blake and ENG (Electronic News Gathering) Camera Operator, Sergeant Mark Nesbit. They are supplemented by Sergeant Wes Calder, a smiling and cheerful Zimbabwean who is the team’s photographer
in Lashkar Gah. These monikers don’t fully ratify the scope of their responsibilities though. Team Leader is also Force Protection – he provided our cover when we were working. They are all soldiers first. I carry my body armour and cameras; they carry their body armour and cameras, plus their radios, rifles, pistols and ammo. They are probably some of the most widely published photographers around, yet the source of the images is often an anonymous ‘MOD’. Personal ambition is left aside though, whilst they are used to seeing their images published, this is not why they do it. They feel an intrinsic sense of duty to the Army, to the history of the Unit and to servicemen and their families who endure so much. As Sergeant Steve Blake said in conversation with me: “I am most proud of the Vigil package we produce that goes to the families and Units of soldiers killed in action. We provide the images that show their loved ones final journey home. I think this is hugely important in enabling families and colleagues to come to terms with their terrible loss”.
Next to the media tent in Bastion is the Vigil Ceremony Parade Ground. Inscribed on brass plates are the names of every soldier that have given their lives in Helmand. Carved into stone are these words: “When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today”. It is as moving a place as you can ever witness, and it underlines the sense of pride with which the CCT carry out their duties.
When I arrived in Bastion we had an informal briefing explaining what we would be up to for the next two weeks, the basic training that I would go through, the security and safety procedures to be learned and adhered too, all the stuff you would expect. We then discussed the operations that we would go on, support, and provide stills, write words and moving image for. We discussed three operations, but in the middle of these they would head out on a fourth ‘job’ and leave me in Bastion. This was just too dangerous for me to go on, there would be no clearance and this proved an immovable object.
There is a mental process that you go through when you leave to go on embed, and the first part is ‘gung-ho’ and fearless. After all flying across the Helmand dirt in a Chinook Helicopter gunship, being dropped in the middle of a war zone, sleeping under the stars as Apaches fly overhead punching out flares to illuminate the enemy on the ground, seems cool and exciting and appealing. And we all have this profound sense of immortality in these situations –it’s not going to happen to me!
The more time you spend talking with people who do this for a living however, you begin to contemplate that you are living in a bubble if you think you are bullet proof. I have had the great honour this past few weeks of spending many hours talking with established ‘war photographers’ here, and they are a tight-nit community. They cover the same events, share the same hotels – they are a small band of brothers as it were. They all knew Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros who died in Libya, they are good friends with João Silva, The New York Times photographer who lost both legs in Helmand in 2011. And they will all tell you, with an aching profundity, of the tragic story of Giles Duley who became a triple amputee in 2011, on his first ever embed in Afghanistan. And when you do the maths on this one, when you realise that in any patrol there may be only eight men and you, you begin to appreciate that there is a very real chance that you may become a statistic.
I remember speaking with the former editor of PP earlier this year, and we were discussing the untimely death of Tim Hetherington. We discussed that Tim’s major motivation for what he did, was that he loved the total camaraderie you feel living in this strangely rarefied world. I remember at the time thinking to myself that surely the images you might get would be the key driver. Sitting in the media tent at Bastion with other photographers, talking with soldiers about upcoming operations, listening to endless stories and having to endure days and days of constant and ruthless piss-taking, suddenly I was beginning to grasp this perspective.
Returning tired from a patrol, sorting out your camp bed and sitting down for tea discussing today and tomorrow, what we could have done better, make sure you stay in your ‘safe lane’, do we have the right counter measures? Have you seen the latest copy of Nuts magazine? Fancy a game of poker – you put it all together and I confess it is intoxicating, it draws you in. And you begin to realise that the pictures will happen by default, this much is given, because the situation demands that you cannot fail visually. But the whole thing only works if you operate completely as a team, an unbroken team. Professional Camaraderie is King, and I finally understand this!
So this is the backdrop, this is the history of the unit, this is the job they do, and the pride they share as professional soldiers, as a bonded team in the face of significant danger. But what is the reality? I wrote a diary whilst in Helmand and I thought I would use this extract to illustrate that sense of living in a rarefied world that is both exciting and unlikely and such a far cry from the realities of the day to day of most professional photographers. Because next month we go on patrol, we transit in armoured convoys and fly nap-of-the-earth in Gunships, and I relay the truth about the unimaginable dangers, and finally we live that sense of camaraderie and professionalism for real! There is a pastiche grandeur to it all – I say this with sincerity – and you feel as though you are in a movie. Not your own, but a movie all the same.
Soldiers set out fluorescent markers that pinpointed the landing site, and after 40 minutes staring at the stars, eyes wide open, a radio crackled into life and it was clear that our chariot was inbound. Two flares ‘tracered’ skyward and split the ambient, and silently a black ghost appeared over the perimeter, a serene scene destroyed and transformed into a dust bowl dance.
We grabbed our bags and ran to the ramp that ascends into the metal torso of the Merlin helicopter, avoiding the slashing tail rotor and the buffeting down draft in our midst, strapped ourselves into our harnesses and watched as
two gunners secured the cargo. A trip of a switch and our brief illumination gone, we were away climbing high into the night sky to provide ‘over watch’ to our companion craft. We approached Bastion at just after midnight; our pilot tipped the nose forward and as we dived earthbound, our collective stomachs were left at 5,000 feet, only catching up in time for landing. Every minute of my time in Helmand felt like this, an extra in someone else’s performance.
If you like Martin Middlebrook's writing, why noy buy his newly launched e-zine, or subscribe to Professional Photographer to read his monthly column.
Back to Categories
- Average Article Rating 0 Stars
- You must be a registered user & logged in to rate this.
Login | Register