Saving Private Ryan?

This Steven Spielberg film “Saving Private Ryan”, is widely regarded as one of the best ‘war’ films ever made.  Visually stunning and emotionally gripping it is a modern take on an event that is now sadly beyond most of our memories.  One of the most memorable scenes for me is the opening, the assault on beach.  The mood felt tangible.  Was this what it was like?  The scared to death soldiers vomiting through fear as they head towards a heavily entrenched enemy.  I imagine there were plenty of instances of this.

Of course you cannot draw too many similarities between WW2 and what is in comparison almost a skirmish in Afghanistan (not to belittle the threats on the ground of our our soldiers).  That said, for our guys on the ground it is immaterial as we all live our own experiences which don’t really ever draw reference from other’s experiences.

I recently went out to photograph a ‘HAF’, a Helicopter Assault Force with the Brigade Recce Force.  I am not what you would call a fighter, not battle hardened, I do, however, go out on patrol with many of the guys and consider myself to have been  very ‘lucky’ so far.  This was the first time on this operation (I have done similar things in Iraq) that I moved into what is perceived as a hostile area by helicopter, to be dropped off in the middle of a field to then watch our transport quickly vacate.

What were the feelings like?  Although only a couple of weeks have past now, those feelings are fading fast.  The night before was a night without much (or any) sleep.  I won’t lie, I was, you could say, a ‘tad’ apprehensive to say the least.  These are normal feelings that I have felt on quite a few occasions.  Adrenalin is good for you and keeps you alert.

We met up at early o’clock for tea (the staple drink) and a ‘bacon butty’, which we forced down.  The operation was planned to enter an area believed to be an insurgent held area by helicopter, together with elements of the Afghan National Army, clear suspected enemy compounds and then extract all in time for lunch.

There was an atmosphere over the butties, one I have experienced before and no doubt will again.  It was one of focus, bravado, morale, humour.  The old ‘squaddie’ humour, though unique is very welcome.  The coaches laid on to get us all to the helicopter were a squeeze as we were laden like donkeys with all we would need for the operation.  The nervous laughter as each soldier tries and almost fails to find passage through the narrow aisle.

Waiting in the dark for our charriots, three Chinook helicopters with their distinct audio signature, line up ready to load.  We wait in our order to cram in.  On the order to move we all get in and sit.  There is no strapping in here.  Just sit, wherever you can, lucky if you get a seat.  As a photographer I push the camera towards its limits to get an image, any image.

As we fly, the lights inside the cab are extinguished, the noise stops vocal communication and briefings come in the form of simple hand signals.  10 minutes, 5 minutes, 3, 2, 1!  We land in the early morning dull light, GO!  Quickly the helicopter spews its cargo into the middle of a mud field.  ‘Fan out’, I know the shot I need, so move as quickly as I can to get into position before the helicopter takes off again.

Its still pretty dark, so I have to think quickly about exposure.  It keeps my mind occupied.  I still want to give some sense to how dull it is.

All too soon our transport has gone and all that remains is silence exacerbated by our ear defence.   Then we wait……………………… another bloody ditch!

Before long we move from compound to compound, we meet locals, chat, drink chai (Afghan tea), move again, more chat, more chai.  All the time alert.

Exploring a compound looking for vantage points over the neighbours and there is always an opportunity for a photograph.  Some of these places are so dark it is a constant battle with exposures.  Challenging but rewarding.

After meeting up with our Afghan colleagues it soon becomes apparent that by turning up in such numbers and prepared to fight a common enemy, the insurgents have employed their only real tactic in these situations and have melted into the community.  There is obvious frustration in this but there have been finds of weapons and no lives lost.

Before long its time to make our way to the pick up point and all the soldiers involved in this operation gather in their groups in the middle of a field awaiting once again our chariots.

As quickly as the disembark, we are all back in the Chinook and soon back to our temporary home, as we say in the military, back in time for tea and medals.  As I look back, I don’t really think I can say I enjoyed the operation but I certainly cannot say I hated it either.  I am glad I went, saw these guys operate and I am certainly glad that this time at least we all came back.

These images were all taken during the operation, some under quite difficult lighting conditions.  This is what I enjoy doing so much that I feel so fortunate to be able to.  I know how lucky I am to have these opportunities even though they come with a huge sacrifice to my family, I know I have their support, which means so much to me.  I hope you like the images.

  1. Andrew said:

    I think you should be proud of these images.They are full of empathy and I can only begin to imagine how tough the conditions were. I found Don McCullin’s Shaped by War an amazing book and wonder how people find the nerve to focus (no pun intended) on making images whilst there is so much tension and at times action happening around them. I tried to pick a favourite but couldn’t. Maybe the kid with your NIkon or the image below the burnt out car.

  2. LIke them? I love them and thanks for sharing. Stay safe xx

  3. Ted Morris said:

    Hi I was @ catering college with your other half many moons ago. Great photos. My Dads an ex Para WW2 vintage, I always find combat photography an intriguing subject as its moments captured in time by people doing something that i never had the balls or conviction to do, but have the up most respect for. You get a glimpse of the world you see, people you meet and life you live. While I may not support our governments point of view I do support those that have to carry out orders of the suited crettins playing god.

    Thank you to you and your comrades both past and present.

    • Thanks Ted, glad you liked it. Anything that raises awareness of the experiences of the guys out here is a good thing. Everyone out here does their best.

  4. Mark,
    Thank you for this – puts into perspective my ‘day at the office’.
    I re-iterate Ali’s sentiment – Stay safe x

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