Between Duty and Downtime

During the long, hot summer of 2008 Reportage by Getty Images photographer Marco Di Lauro spent two months embedded with British Paratroopers who were conducting operations in Afghanistan. It was his second long-term embed in two years and here, in his own words, he describes the role of the British Army and how he documented the hugely contrasting periods of bursts of military action and downtime.

I have been back to Afghanistan several times in the last couple of years, mainly embedded with the British Army. The last time I was there was this past summer for an unusually long embed with the Parachute Regiment during the hardest and hottest months of the year – June, July and August – when the temperature in the desert of Helmand and Kandahar Province reached 55°C.

It was unusual because journalists embedded with the NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are usually only granted between two and three weeks embeds, while mine lasted for two long months. Due to my relationship with the British Ministry of Defence (the MOD), I have been able to stay with the soldiers as long as I wanted. I usually prefer to do long embeds with the forces because that allows me to get the real sense of what is going on and to built a unique, special relationship with the people I photograph.

I was directly invited by the MOD on both of my last two month long embeds during the summers of 2007 and 2008 – then supported by my agency, Getty Images, which represents me as a photographer and distributes my pictures worldwide – so I decided to accept their invite.

I travelled from Italy to Afghanistan by myself and then I flew on a NATO flight from Kabul to Kandahar, where I joined the paratroopers. I moved around the country with them by Chinook helicopters, which is the main way of transportation for the troops during operations.

I knew what to expect because of my experiences with previous embeds with the military and, as I said, I had to face some of the hardest living conditions on the planet due to the weather conditions. It was also a truly, truly painful emotional experience due to the fierce fighting between the Taliban and the British soldiers.

Several times I witnessed situations in which the Taliban ambushed soldiers. I would be just standing there in the middle trying to capture the moment with my Canon camera, whilst soldiers were screaming at each other during the action. The bullets were flying over our heads often injuring very lightly, or seriously, some of the soldiers from the Parachute Regiment I was embedded with.

For me the most painful and difficult experience is to be calm and distant, or at least to keep that distance that allows me to photograph during those moments – especially when people start getting hurt – and not to take sides when a controversial incident happens among the Afghan civilian population.

For this last trip I was using a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and its features impressed me. For me the most important things in this camera are the 21 megapixel full frame CMOS sensor, the dual DIGIC III processors, the EOS Integrated Cleaning System, the wide ISO range, and the weather-sealed, magnesium alloy body

For my work I need a reliable, high-quality camera that allows me to take high quality files that, even if they exceed the standard quality demanded by leading photo agencies, allow me to print my photos in large formats for exhibitions while maintaining an incredible quality.

What I was really amazed by was the cleaning system. Up until now I had to clean all my pictures one by one (which was incredibly time consuming), due to desert dust on the sensor or, once home, I had to bring the camera to a Canon Service Centre to have the sensor cleaned. Now, this feature has allowed me to save so much time – at the end of the year if you added this time all together it amounts to days and days.

Very often I have to shoot during the evening, at night, or inside places with very low light conditions so the wide ISO range allowed me to take pictures that a few years ago I could have only dreamed about. Moreover the camera is incredibly solid, durable and reliable in the hardest possible weather conditions. I was shooting for 60 days in a rough desert, with much worse conditions than those suggested by the Canon Operating Environment specifications, and the camera didn’t give me a single problem.

Unfortunately the situation hasn’t changed much in Afghanistan since 2007 from what I’ve seen. The fighting is still going on; more and more soldiers have died; and hundreds of Afghan civilians, woman and children keep losing their lives under the indiscriminate NATO aerial bombing campaigns and the fighting between the Taliban and the NATO forces. The Taliban are in control of most of the country. They are almost an invisible enemy and with their brutal regime they keep oppressing the people and denying the rights of the Afghans for democracy, freedom and peace. In my opinion a military solution can’t solve the problem.

The daily routine for the paratroopers was pretty much the same. They were based along different Forwarding Operation Bases (FOB), mainly in remote areas in areas under Taliban control, and they conducted daily patrols to reassure the population, to gain control of the territory, or to conduct specific surgical operations to attack and destroy the enemy targets.

While I was there I spent a period in a much bigger base than just an FOB, and there the parachute regiment was mainly used as a sort of ‘special forces unit’. Mainly it conducted surgical operations against Taliban compounds and specific targets – with the aim of destroying weapons caches, confiscating drugs, or arresting Taliban leaders – simply by landing by helicopter and deploying on the ground and attacking. From what I saw I can’t say they were very successful. This is due to the fact that the Taliban can blend in so easily with the population and by the time they hear the helicopter landing most of their compounds were found to already be empty.

The dangers in a situation like this are mainly from landmines, which are my biggest fear, and from ambush by the Taliban. Basically every step you move forward can be your last step – this is something that is emotionally extremely heavy to take; that consumes me minute after minute, day after day every time I’m in a situation like this.

I prefer to use short lenses than the longer EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM I have in my bag, they are more suitable for the type of photography I do and they really fit my personality. I use the EF35mm f/1.4L USM for at least 80% of the pictures I take – I need to be close to the subjects I photograph. Some photographers are really good long lens photographers; I am not. I need to feel the breath of the subject I photograph, I need to feel what he feels, I need to go through his emotions and, if he is suffering, I need to suffer with him.

Soldiers have a lot of downtime during their daily routine since tours for the British last up to six months and for the Americans up to 15 months. In the case of the paratroopers based in small, remote FOBs when they don’t patrol or conduct specific operations the place is so small that it doesn’t offer very many amenities unlike the bigger bases that are almost real cities, with restaurants, cinema, gym and shops. These soldiers spend most of their downtime exercising with makeshift equipment, sleeping, eating, watching a lot of movies and reading a lot of magazines. I would say porno movies and porno magazines are the best downtime companions of the soldiers.

When you are embedded with the British army you sign an agreement called the ‘Green Book’ that regulates the relationship between the military and the press. The MOD and the British Press Association drew it up, and the US military has a similar agreement.

Basically you are not allowed to photograph a wide range of situations. First of all, anything that can compromise the operational security but also you can’t take picture of anything that can be embarrassing or that can be consider embarrassing by the military. If you are allowed to photograph by the ‘Green Book’ and it doesn’t make the military happy they will black ball you. You can be sure the next time any embed is required they will not approve it and you will not have access to them anymore.

For instance they aren’t happy if you photograph their soldiers injuring or killing, by mistake, any Afghan civilian. You are not allowed to photograph prisoners of war, even though technically the Taliban are not considered prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention since the UK is not at war with Afghanistan but is there on a so-called mission to support the Afghan National Government.

The relationship between the press and the military has always been a complicated, intricate, difficult, very delicate relationship made by a lot of written and unwritten rules and regulations. You are basically their guest and you have to do what they want or what is good for them. Basically 80% of the photography produced is PR for the military. If you are good, have a long-term relationship and are lucky, from time to time they go a little bit loose and so you are allowed to produce remarkable stories like ‘Casualties of the Nameless’ which I shot last year. This was a story that usually photographers embedded with the army would not be allowed to do.

The relationship between the locals and the NATO forces is obviously very tense considering that NATO planes have bombed civilians by mistake. Generally speaking the Afghans, due to their history with the British and foreign forces, consider the British and all the NATO forces to be an army of occupation.

Regarding the editing of my pictures I operate in different ways according to the situation. Sometimes I shoot only RAW files, then I edit when I go back home – I have an assistant who post-produces my RAW files. Otherwise, if I have to file from the field, I shoot in both RAW and jpeg formats. I keep the RAW and I send the jpeg, which I do some mild work on in Photoshop. When I go back I do a serious editing with the RAW and I have them worked with properly.

On this last trip to Afghanistan I was working for Getty Editorial, which mainly feeds the news industry on a daily basis. I was sending them the jpegs and I filed a total of 862 pictures in two months. Then, when I got back, from all of those pictures I did a personal edit of 32 pictures that I put together as a story with a journalistic narrative. When I am in the field I file pictures via a BGAN Iridium satellite modem.

I feel as a photojournalist and as a human being, especially as a human being, who was born into an extremely comfortable western world environment that I have to document the life of people who struggle daily to survive being torn apart by useless wars, famine and social issues. For me it’s always an attempt to capture the sacred side of life and its deeper meaning.

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