In February 2008 I travelled through Helmand province as a War Artist for 52 Brigade documenting the faces and conditions of the British troops.
Six years on, as the British troops are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan I decided to return to document the remaining bases and the draw down process.
I travelled with an assistant to three main areas. Firstly Camp Bastion, where the majority of British troops are, then to Kandahar Air Field - a multi National ISAF base and the main airfield for the ISAF forces, and thirdly to Kabul where the main training of the Afghan forces is done.
In September, Camp Bastion was officially handed over to the Afghan forces, and although it is still a huge sprawling base, it is getting smaller by the day as the International forces pack up and send back their equipment. The first thing I wanted to do was to document all the different areas of both Bastion and Kandahar to have them as an historic record, but then to also capture an essence of the draw down process.
In recording the bases, I wanted to capture something that people back home could relate to. We have all grown used to images of war and military bases and machinery, but when you see these things in a situation with an element from your day to day in the UK you start to look closer and contemplate life out in Afghanistan.
An example of this might well be the image of a soldier in his tent reading a book sitting on top of his Spongebob Squarepants duvet, whilst his gun sits close by.
I have an image of a soldier cleaning his gun after returning from one of the few remaining patrols. The gun is being cleaned gently by using a fine paint brush in his right hand, which is strapped from injury, whilst he holds the gun in his left which is adorned with the tattoo - Millie Rose – 03.12.13. The date is five months previous to when the picture is taken and that soldier probably has one more month before the end of tour.
On the day I flew back into Afghanistan there was a stark reminder of the dangers of war as a British helicopter crashed killing all five people on board. A few days later as I walked around the Theatre Equipment Support area I stumbled upon the five crosses being made from empty shells welded together that have become part of each repatriation for the soldiers’ families.
In the same area of the base I also came across a strong good looking guy, his right arm tattooed with a red rose, gently moulding and plying pieces of metal into the shape of a rose to take back for his loved one.
One of the fascinating areas of Bastion is ‘War Like Junk’. Used equipment that is due for the scrap heap, or being broken down first so it is unusable to the enemy. Here, old engines sit, almost resembling the faces and characters of a Pixar film, ready to be broken and scrapped. There are Crates and crates of recognisable household items alongside others that are the obvious leftovers of war. One crate sits full of empty shotgun cartridges and smoke canisters. The image of close range combat is projected into the mind.
There are the inevitable images of the sorting and packing away of equipment…An ISO Shipping container full of guns, equipment laid out in order on the floor, rows of bandoliers produce a surreal landscape of colour and shape, and finally the front of a 747 aircraft wide open like the mouth of a whale swallowing up the retuning boxes.
In Kandahar there are photographs from and around the hangers of the Tornado aircraft. One image is shot directly into the back of a tornado engine. This is done in a way that it no longer looks like a hard mechanical fierce structure but one of colour, beauty and symmetry, almost natural and organic.
Another shot from inside the protective hangers of the Tornados focuses in on a bird that has made its nest high above the jet, perched on a ring from the tent.
What I noticed on the flight lines from both Bastion and Kandahar were the incredible paintings on the blast walls, some five blast walls wide, put there by each individual unit that has served. As these were all being white-washed over in the week following my trip I decided to document every painting made. This in itself could well be made into a fascinating and historical book. Adorned with the names of those that served in the unit, each is individual in its style, colour, humour and sometimes dark take on where they are and what they are doing.
In Kabul you get a glimpse into the future. Here the elite Afghan troops are being trained. The future is very much in their hands. Some of the most symbolic images are of the Afghan forces being trained in hand-to-hand combat. The images show the faces of these incredible looking people, some with strength in their eyes and some with fear, but all with their hands up, with clenched fists ready to take on the fight.
Robert Wilson, September 2014