A Photographer? In the RAF? You’re having me on???
Quite often when I’ve been out and about on photog tasks I’ll chat to people who didn’t realise that the RAF (and Navy and Army) had photographers, and that’s just people serving IN the Forces! But the military have been using photography as a tool since the very early days of flight, beginning with mounting cameras on balloons for reconnaissance photography, before moving on to mounting them on powered aircraft. And where there’s cameras and film, there’s photogs!
Within the RAF there used to be two distinct photographic trades – the “Air Phots” – Air Photographic Processors who were responsible for dealing with the air-to-ground recce photography – processing the films, from the cameras mounted in the aircraft, maintaining the cameras, loading them etc.. and then there were the “Photo G’s” – Ground photographers who dealt with the more traditional view of photography – using a normal camera taking the pretty public relations pictures, and other such normal photo tasks.
A couple of years before I joined up they decided to amalgamate both the photo g’s and air phots into one “Superphot” trade, trained in both ground and air photography. Even now there is still banter between those who joined as Air phot and those who joined as G’s. I think I was quote fortunate joining when I did as I got to sample both sides of the trade. In the “air” phase of the training we got to work with these massive processing machines called Versamats. They needed to be massive to take the rolls of 9 inch, yes 9 inch films – “mans film” we used to call it. The rolls would come spooling out of the machine at a rate of knots and you’d have to fix it to the take-up spool and get it rolling before you ended up with a pile of processed film falling around your feet!
In the “Ground” element of the training we learnt how to operate the Hassleblad medium format roll-film camera. It was a fantastic camera, so simple, but such good quality – a real camera. I loved the ‘Blad, and still get that nostalgic feeling for it when I see one today – the “kerrrr-lunkkkk” as the mirror slammed up when you pressed the shutter followed by the ratchet noise as you wound the film on a frame.
And then there was the anticipation of not actually knowing how the images would turn out until you got them back in and processed. We learnt all of the darkroom skills on out basic photographers course – how to prepare the chemicals, maintaining the processing machines, machine printing and “hand-bashing” black and white prints in a tray of chemicals. You used to go home stinking of them! The worst was the fixer – used towards the end of the process to “fix” the image – no matter how much you washed and scrubbed you just could not get the smell out!
The work of an RAF Photographer out on the units is pretty varied. Unfortunately due to the advent of digital we no longer process the Aerial imagery, but we still have plenty of other tasks to do. I’ll give you a very brief run-down of some of the tasks I’ve covered over the years, on a base-by-base case, because pretty much each posting I’ve done has been completely different!
So, first posting was Kinloss, home to the Mighty Hunter – the Nimrod. Work there was very varied, back then we still did the air film so there was a little bit of that, but mainly the recce imagery was captured by the Nimrod crews on 35mm film cameras, so we dealt with the processing and printing of those on what was essentially a mini-lab machine, just the same as you would find in a high street photo processors.
As far as ground photography goes over my 3 years there I covered a fair range of tasks ranging from damage to the top of a Nimrod caused by lightning strikes to photographing my first Royal – HRH Prince Philip in his role as Honorary Air Commodore of RAF Kinloss. Since then I’ve also photographed 3 of his children at various locations – Prince Andrew in Kuwait, Prince Charles at a polo match in Tidworth and Princess Anne on a visit to the Defence Animal Centre at Melton Mowbray.
From Kinloss I was fortunate enough to be trained in video and posted to No1 Parachute Training School, based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. No1 PTS is responsible for training all our airborne forces and I loved being there as I pretty much got to spend days stood on the tailgate of a Hercules C130 (strapped in of course!) filming paras jumping out the back as part of their training! I was also able to spend quite a lot of time with the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team, photographing them on their public displays across the UK.
After No1 PTS I moved across the runway at Brize Norton to the Joint Air Transport Evaluation Unit. If its got to go in, hang from under or jump/be thrown out of an aircraft then the trials are carried out at JATEU, anything from tanks to people. To ensure that all trials are fully documented the photographer based there film and photograph all of the trials as the happen.
Then I moved to what was possibly the highlight of my career – I was posted (on promotion to Corporal) to Headquarters Personnel and Training Command (now amalgamated with Strike Command to form Air Command) at RAF Innsworth where I was the Command Photographer, photographing anything from senior officers to sporting events across the RAF, to funerals of downed RAF pilots who went missing in action during WWII and had been located, their aircraft dug up and the crew given the proper burial they deserved. I have so many stories from my time there; I think I’d best save them for another blog post!
Whilst at Innsworth though I did have a few trips to Iraq – luckily for only a few weeks at a time – to capture images for the media – one of the things that sets a military photographer apart from their civilian counterparts is the training and opportunities that enable us to work in areas that others may not be able to get to. It means that even when the media can’t get there, we can still produce images and footage for the outside world to see, and to archive it for historical purposes. It’s good to known that in 50, 100 years or more the events that we, as military photographers, have documented are there for those who come after us to see.
From there I was posted to RAF Cottesmore in Rutland (after 4 months in the Falklands), where I helped to run a Photographic section of around 8 personnel. As a section we covered all kinds of tasks – VIP visits, formal portraits, group photos and technical imagery – if there is a problem with an aircraft, then we would get called to photograph it for documentary purposes before they repaired it. In fact my last job there before I was posted out I found myself curled up in a ball in the intake of a Harrier with camera in one hand, trying to hold a flashgun and a ruler at the same time to photograph a small defect inside!
Whilst at Cottesmore I also spent 4 months in Afghanistan, something else that I’ll save for another day, because there’s just far too much to say about it!
And then I came here, again with promotion, this time moving up the ladder to Sergeant – a proper grown-up now! And now I find myself passing on the knowledge and skills I’ve acquired over the past 14 years to other photographer, and finding that I really enjoy it. So much so in fact that I’ve just started to do my Certificate of Education, which is something that will not only increase my teaching skills whilst still in the RAF, but will also enable me to teach in Further Education when I finally get out into the real world at the end of my RAF career. Which isn’t for a while yet, but it’s never too early to start planning!
So that’s a very brief skim through some of the jobs I’ve had over the years, I will talk about some more aspects in greater detail at some point, so if there’s anything specific you want to know, let me know!