Foreign jobs often drop out of the blue with no warning as happened a couple of weeks ago with a trip to Afghanistan as the pool photographer for British Prime Minister David Cameron. Never having been to any war zones before (however securely protected), I was actually quite excited before going. Knowing that I would be the only photographer on the trip added a few nerves to it too as I’d be using a Bgan satellite terminal to transmit my images while working in a whole new environment. As is the way with these kind of trips, the photographs were shot by one agency and shared on a pool basis between all of the other agencies that had put their names forward to send a photographer. With the rotational system landing on AFP, I was picked and off I went.

One of the most memorable parts of the two-day trip was the variety of transports that we took, ranging from a private business-class plane from the UK that was last used by Tom Cruise to an Apache helicopter over the streets of Kabul. With Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Suite at Heathrow providing an array of magazines and biscuits including, I kid you not, “What Pool and Hot Tub” magazine, the 8 hour flight in the back of a Hercules transporter plane was never going to quite match up.

Unfortunately, this was never going to be the fulfilling assignment that I’d hoped for as the schedule essentially said “run, shoot, fly, run, shoot, fly… Repeat until asleep” On landing in Camp Bastion, while the text journalists headed into the camp to settle in and have a poke around, I was straight onto a Chinook and off for a day of handshakes, long-distance walking shots and general hurrying. Covering these kind of jobs certainly gets you up to speed on your backwards running and obstacle detection abilities.

Logistically, I quickly became very grateful for the advice from AFP colleague Carl de Souza that I should ditch the 300mm that I had planned to take. When carrying my backpack, beltpack and cameras, I’m usually pretty heavy but adding a Bgan transmitter, helmet and body armour just makes it ridiculous. All previous ideas of taking time to play with feature ideas and lens choices quickly became “get it sharp and all in the frame before the helicopter starts it’s engines again”.

After visiting two mid-point bases between Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah, it was time to head back to base and transmit. As was crushingly predictable, this was problematic with no uploads seeming to transmit via satellite and only two network cables for a room full of journalists. With the transmission taking way longer than normal, the offer of the evening meal in with the soldiers and PM came and went. Thankfully, one of the soldiers in charge of dealing with the media offered pizza and soon enough, a stack of branded boxes arrived from the on-base branch. I’d heard that there were regular stores on the military bases before but to call out for Pizza Hut while in the middle of the Afghan desert was decidedly surreal.

After a night of inhaling dust in a room heated to sauna-like temperatures by what sounded like a jet engine, it was off into the skies again. Tuesday’s schedule involved a visit to a MERT base, a visit to a post office on a military base and then on to Kabul to meet with President Karzai.

As David Cameron wrote a surprisingly long “Fax Bluey” of Christmas thanks to all military personnel serving in Afghanistan, one of the few unusual pictures of the trip presented itself, thanks to a well-placed soft porn calendar. Aside from this, the day was a deja vu of meetings, introductions and inspections. The problem with these type of trips is that the thought and preparation is put into the logistics of getting around and little is focused on if the content that the location provides will work as an image. On a number of occasions, I was nudged by the Downing Street media team as I was “missing a shot”, when in fact it was simply another opportunity to photograph the Prime Minister walking across some tarmac with a soldier. A couple of opportunities for pictures appeared but these were noticeable for their rarity. It’s a real shame as the fear of having a possibly embarrassing moment being captured results in such close supervision regarding angles and proximity that the iconic “happy accidents” are never allowed to occur.

The final visit before heading to Kabul was to a training base for new members of the Afghan Security Patrol with what was possibly the fastest visit of the whole trip. I think I could have possibly held my breath for the length of time we were on the ground but it managed to give me one of my other favourite frames, below. On landing, we were taken straight through to a training yard where the latest graduates were lined up, ready to meet the PM. What may look like a somewhat motley crew contained a bit of a surprise in that the chap second from the right with the false hand is currently the Afghan security force’s top sniper. Yup, you laugh at that ‘tache and he’ll pop a cap in your dome from a mile away.

Tuesday concluded with a day where, if the military gave out air-miles, I’d have enough for a nice weekend away. Flying from Bastion to Kabul on a Hercules and into the Presidential Palace on an Apache helicopter, a wonderful grip and grin followed by a sparkling press conference in an artificially-lit room was the extent of the Kabul leg. A planned stop-off at the British embassy to edit and transmit pictures was shortened to 15 minutes, leaving no time to transmit any images at all. Somewhat frustrated, it was back on the Apache then onto the Hercules for the first stage of the flight home.

With the images un-filed, I sat on the Hercules for three hours as we left the country fuming over how I could manage to transmit while changing to the commercial flight to the UK. With this ruled out, I reverted to dumping the images onto a memory stick and handing it to embassy officials during the cross-over. The biggest headache of the trip though was the security embargo in that, despite flying out on Sunday night, no word or image of the trip could be released until 5am on Tuesday morning. This resulted in a situation where the journalists could file their copy and have the words sat on the page ready to publish while AFP had to hold the images back until way after the publishing deadlines. Due to this, a handful of my earliest pictures that I took of the PM with the machine gun eventually made the newspapers on the Tuesday but by the following day he was home and the story was quite literally yesterday’s news. Damn this speeding news cycle!

As I walked out of Heathrow airport and climbed into the back of a taxi, the driver asked where I’d flown in from. Where to begin…

19 Responses to “A quick dash to the Karzai”

  1. Wow, long way to go from Sheffield mate. And you’ve come even further from the kid I got to know in a muddy field at Glastonbury all those years ago.

    Awesome write up and pic’s as usual, hope you didn’t get sunburn.

    Keep up the good work.

    TTFN.

    Posted by Jim
  2. Great stuff Leon, there’s no sign of the time and bureaucratic pressures you talk about in the images, lots of great play with light and shade. Love the shot of the Afghans. Glad your obstacle detection abilities were honed, I imagine there are a lot of obstacles over there you would rather not connect with.

    Posted by Miles
  3. @Jim Yeah, it does seem a long way away from the Hallamshire Hotel! :)

    @Miles Thankfully, travelling with the PM means that there was very little danger to the whole thing so please don’t think I was out there playing Action Man!

    Posted by tabascokid
  4. Top work fella, just love the Afghan security patrol pic, a real gem.

    Posted by Jools
  5. Sounds a nightmare wiring wise, must be a bit of a downer when you know you have great images for the UK paper’s but no way of getting them out. Otherwise, I imagine a great trip and some nice photos. Particularly like the Afghan shot – wouldn’t have him down as a sniper. Looks can be deceiving!

    Posted by Adam
  6. Great work at usual Leon

    What kind of interaction do you get with the PM when travelling and on these jobs? Is he and those surrounding him quite aware of the camera?

    Posted by David
  7. @Jools Cheers, bud! A rather lovely fella has just sent me a copy of the Dutch newspaper NRC, where they used it on the centre spread across two full pages. :)

    @Adam Yeah, as I’ve written before, technology failure is my personal pet hate. If something is designed to do something but can’t, it deserves to die.

    @David Thanks, David. One-on-one interaction is pretty limited aside from a brief off-record chat on the plane out of and returning to the UK. During the working day, it’ll just be a little “Hi” and that’s as far as it goes. From my limited experience of personal interaction with Prime Ministers, they’re so on-guard all of the time, you don’t get an idea of the person. Oddly, they seem more relaxed with journalists who will quote them and twist phrases around than with a photographer who’s not taking pictures. On the flight home, the head of the media team asked me to show the PM my favourite shots which I was happy to do, although the shots I like and the shots he liked were probably somewhat different. Not being there as a personal PR photographer means that those odd expressions and uncomfortable bits of body language all make it into the final edit. Still, he retained the diplomatic composure and showed an interest in some of the shots!

    Mark Edwards, the sound guy with Downing Street shot a frame of him checking out my slideshow actually. Note the well-rehearsed point at random feature that comes as standard to all politicians when presented with something to look at. ;)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/leonneal/5268996260/

    Posted by tabascokid
  8. Wow, fantastic shots, sounds like a really exciting- if not very difficult assignment.. I love the slanted horizon shot out the back of the Chinook

    Posted by James
  9. Top stuff Leon, one of my favourite posts of yours. I could feel my heart racing as I read through this, sounds like an incredible trip!

    Posted by Neil Davidson
  10. Just love the shot of the Afghan sniper and his chums. Top.

    Posted by daviddb
  11. Cheers bud! :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  12. Great Blog. Really love the shot of the PM with his hair all over the place as he had just taken his helmet off. Just shows everyone has a bad hair day. It must have been a great trip. I am very jealous. Well Done.

    Posted by Craig Shepheard
  13. A very interesting blog. I love the shot out of the back of the helicopter

    Posted by ladysue
  14. Really brilliant pictures from a potentially difficult assignment. I liked your description too but..

    The headline for this post! Honestly! I think it demeans what is otherwise a great piecs and that kind of cheap pun is beneath you.

    In every other respect I really enjoyed it though. Justin.

    Posted by Justin Sutcliffe
  15. @Craig Ironically, the only thing that I was requested not to shoot was Cameron in his helmet. I agreed in exchange for access to another part of the trip. As you’ve seen yourself though, the freshly “de-helmeted” look was equally interesting!

    @Ladysue Cheers. It’s quite a test on keeping your food down when they run through the evasive manoeuvres before they land!

    @Justin Cheers, Justin. As for cheap puns being beneath me, thereare WAY more depths for me to plumb yet. There are too many serious types in this business. If the picture subjects were clearly emotive, I show respect but for a politician travelling to another country for a quick photocall? Nahh…

    Posted by tabascokid
  16. Excellent pics and blog – got your link from @Clivemasongetty tweet, am now following you and will spend time going over all your images on this site – thanks for sharing

    Posted by S Miles
  17. Thanks Steve. Clive’s words were far too kind but it they were much appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to check the site out.

    Posted by tabascokid
  18. A great read – from an old school pal – keep up the good work!! Looks (and is) for more interesting than my day in the office playing at being an accountant!!

    Posted by Dan Blackwell
  19. Cheers Dan! It might look exciting at times but that balances out with a whole load of hanging around in the rain and cold!

    Posted by tabascokid

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