An Article on Contemporary Army Photography by John Cogan ARPS

Corporal Fisher and the Nikon D4

Look at the image and what do you see? A soldier: armed; camouflage paint to the face; kit ready and the ubiquitous SA80 (L85 IW) rifle to hand. It takes time to register the weapon is fitted with the yellow blank-firing adaptor. It’s training!

The background is utilitarian and could be anywhere from Ulster to Helmand, Basra to some distant part of Alberta (Canada). The context and the uniform help contextualise the feeling of anticipation exemplified by the stance of the body; a moment out of time whilst the soldier waits.

From a photographic point of view the image is sharp and well rendered. The colours are carefully harmonised and the overall “feel” is one of integrity and sensitivity. “Sensitivity”? This is a lull before the noise of battle… why sensitivity? Yes, sensitivity, especially when you consider the possibility that the subject might be fearful, the impending combat may only be training but it might well secure promotion, and have other rewards. It is one of those situations when a lens and the click of a DSLR might be an unwanted intrusion.

Look closely into the face of Corporal Fisher, look at the eyes and feel their steely determination, the “blueness” of them and draw back a little. There is concentration here, focus and determination. Look again and understand that Corporal Fisher is a woman! This should surprise us not at all, not in 2014! Yet, there is a degree of ambiguity in the composition and the image… it questions our preconceptions; it demands our attention and triggers in our minds a debate about how we perceive women in the armed forces and what we expect of them. Can we rationalise a world in which beauty (and Corporal Fisher is certainly beautiful) and the horrors of conflict go hand-in-hand? Yet, as a civilian and an elderly one at that, what right have I to impose my views on a situation in which Corporal Fisher obviously feels comfortable.

I spoke to Allison Baskerville about a photograph I had taken of two heavily armed police officers (one female) on patrol at King’s Cross Railway Station. “They give them far too much,” she said. Ali had photographed the “White Women” for the Royal British Legion and was curating her exhibition at the Oxo Gallery. During her time in Helmond she had come under fire and felt vulnerable not being able to fire back.  

I grew up post-1945 and met many women who had worn uniform. There was great pride in what they had achieved. My mother delivered food and such and always travelled with a loaded revolver. One of my Aunts worked to repair Swordfish biplanes. Women in uniform is not a new phenomena. What is new is the look in Corporal Fisher’s eyes. It is how she feels about herself.

'Cpl Fisher' by Sgt Russ Nolan

This photograph by Sergeant Russ Nolan won the first prize for a professional portrait in the 2014 Army Photographic Competition.

'The Waiting Game' by LCpl Ian Chapman

In the amateur category the portrait section was won by this image from Lance Corporal Ian Chapman… Classic in structure and one that so easily could have failed, Lance Corporal Chapman has made us look into the waiting soldier’s eyes. The details of the image are sharp, clean and not one pixel is wasted. The careful harmonization of the jacket and background give a muted texture to the image allowing the strong contrast between the whites of the eyes and the deep brown of the eyes themselves to be showcased. Using the rules of composition Ian Chapman has placed the eyes on the top third line and the right eye (as we look at the face) is on the top right-bottom left diagonal.

Arriving at Army HQ in Andover, security is clinically tight. You are left in no doubt that this is a secure establishment. However, once the processes have been concluded the hospitality is both generous and friendly. There is no doubt but the Army takes its photography seriously and not only from a PR point of view. This is a very professional organization and strives for the highest of standards. However, and I am sure isn’t a problem for the Army, the focus of every image is military… naturally. Being in uniform presents the cameraperson with photo-opportunities that the rest of us would kill for. Excuse the use of words there. Take, for example, these two images… the first is from the winning professional portfolio:-

12 Mech Bde in Canada

Monochrome and all the more powerful for that. It is part of a long tradition of combat photographs stretching back to the work of Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith, where a wounded comrade is carried to safety. There is a photograph by James Nachtwey taken in Nicaragua. One of the government troops is being carried, feet first, out of the “bush” by three of his comrades. This comes from the Contra wars. The image parallels many of the religious paintings of Christ being lifted from the Cross and carried to the sepulchre. Nachtwey favoured the standard, iconic format. Yet, Corporal Morrison, by hiding the “wounded” man’s face and concentrating upon the exertions of his rescuer, we have a more dynamic sense of movement and urgency. The carrying soldier’s left arm swings free to counterbalance the weight of the wounded man… it parallels the victim’s right leg. Nachtwey’s image is good but the structure is static and tableaux-like. With Morrison’s image the expression on the face of the soldier to the far left of frame is one of concern… the use of the armoured vehicle to the right provides not only a sense of enclosure but hope in that there is shelter being offered. These simple additions only add to the sense of it being a moment captured. Only when we see the blank-firing adaptor do we realise the scene is a training exercise.

 There was an overall winner chosen by public ballot.

Fireball Flyers

The power and dynamic quality of this image says it all. Seemingly to be hovering there, above the engulfing fire, the Apache Longbow helicopter’s colour scheme is a complement to the oily muck of the smoke… a phoenix waiting for a chance to come into its own. Because of the nature of helicopter flight and bodily configuration there is always a moment when it looks as benign as a dragonfly before the nose drops and the thunder strikes. The contrast between the hover and the background fire identifies one such moment… this image is about anticipation… the metamorphosis of the predator.

One last image and it’s one I couldn’t resist because it honours all those who have submitted images to the competition… An Army photographer complete with Nikon D4…

Sgt Paul Morrison

                      Sargeant Paul Morrison

John Cogan ARPS

This article first appeared in the RPS Comtemporary Times e-newsletter



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