Soldiers first - the role of Army photographers

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Army photographers have an important job in communicating and recording military activity. But they are very much soldiers first. Report by Leigh Hamilton.

The appetite of the media in reporting world events is stronger than it has ever been, with online newspapers, 24-hour TV and social media available at our fingertips. But without images these stories have much less impact and are arguably less credible.

Take the death of former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. It was the photos of his body, sent across the globe within minutes of his death, which confirmed his demise.

This is why photography within the Armed Forces is of such paramount importance, it is to help communicate UK’s Defence messages to the masses.

MOD employs civilian and military photographers from all three Services who capture stills and video of the full range of activities undertaken by Defence personnel; from operations overseas and training exercises to homecoming parades and ceremonial events.

One of the 39 professionally-trained Army photographers is Sergeant Steve Hughes, who is currently posted to Headquarters London District.

Having taken stills in Kosovo, Iraq, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan, he is now responsible for capturing images in London of visiting dignitaries and ceremonial events involving the Royal Family, which, as he explained, is a completely different take on the job than he had experienced previously:

Within a month of being here, I’ve photographed most of the Royal Family, a lot of MPs and celebrities, and I hadn’t done any of that in the previous six years of being a photographer.

But with the glamour of being based in London also comes a lot of hard graft:

A lot of people say ‘oh, you’re a photographer, that’s a cushy job isn’t it?’ but you really do work hard,” he said.

For instance during the Remembrance weekend, I worked long hours and would be in the office until midnight sometimes in order to sort through all the images. Having said that, I really enjoy being a photographer. It has got to be the best job in the Army, without a doubt.

The trade of combat photographer has a rich history, beginning with Surgeon John McCosh, who was the official photographer to the Army of the East India Company in 1848.

To this day, the role of photography in reporting operations in Afghanistan remains paramount in keeping not just the public, but key personnel, government ministers and advisers up to date.

For those of us not on the front line, seeing images of our UK Service personnel in Afghanistan can help to bring us closer to the action from the safety of our homes.

We hear about operations, Afghan villages, shuras, Camp Bastion and many other terms which, without photographs of them, would be much harder to visualise.

But it takes a certain type of person to be a combat photographer and put themselves on the front line to capture the images that will bring the truth of an operational theatre back home.

When deployed on operations for example, a combat photographer carries the same kit as a regular soldier would, as well as additional camera equipment and supplies which can physically take its toll:

The body armour and a bag weighing 60 pounds can put a lot of pressure on your knees and as a photographer you have to be on your knees a lot more often than other soldiers,” Sgt Hughes said.

You don’t want to be shooting pictures at head height all the time and you need to get low angles or lie down on the floor and it really takes it out of you, getting up and down all day long.

You also have a weapon with you in case you need to return fire which I had to do on Operation PANTHER’S CLAW. I had to put the camera down and get a few rounds in, pick the camera back up and carry on taking images.

There clearly is a very real risk of coming under attack when on patrol in Afghanistan, but when your focus is on capturing images to illustrate what is happening, your priorities have to change in a second.

Sergeant Rupert Frere has recently returned from Afghanistan as media operations photographer for 16 Air Assault Brigade. He explained that although his trade is photography, he is still a soldier first:

As a general rule, depending on what’s happening, first and foremost your job is as a soldier,” he said. “If you’re getting fired at then we fire back. If the guy in front of me gets injured, the last thing I’m going to do is pick up my camera and start taking pictures of him.

I’d be the first one there helping him. But as soon as I get kicked out of the way by the medic and I’m back in a situation where it’s safe to do so, I’ll start taking pictures again.

As well as communicating military progress and being sent out to the media, for use in newspapers and TV broadcasts, the images and video captured by Service personnel fulfil an important role in officially documenting military events and progress, and all footage is stored at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) as an historical record.

Head Curator at the IWM’s Photograph Archive, Hilary Roberts, said:

Combat camera teams, comprising a photographer, cameraman and commanding officer, work with the latest electronic news gathering equipment in every conceivable situation.

Their work is preserved by the museum alongside that of preceding generations of Army photographers and cameramen where it forms a vital record of conflicts past and present.

Sgt Frere, who was crowned Army Professional Photographer of the Year at a recent ceremony, concurs that maintaining a historical record for future generations is one of the main reasons that military photography is so important:

Personally, I think it’s so important to have images down the line for historical reasons,” he said. “And the pictures that you don’t necessarily see now because of Op Sec [Operational Security], still get stored. So in 50 years’ time my grandchildren might be looking at my pictures that no one can see now.

According to Sgt Frere, capturing the right image at the right time is not the only bonus of being an Army photographer:

In this job you learn a lot about people, you learn that regiments don’t make up the Army; it’s the people that make up the Army and I find that fascinating.