Last week I headed up to Edinburgh to photograph the Army’s Personnel Recovery Centre. This is one of the first of such centres that are planned throughout the country that offer enhanced support to help wounded, injured or long term sick soldiers return either to normal working life with their units or to help them make a smooth transition into civilian life.
The centres will take the soldiers from the point of injury or illness, irrespective of cause and provide occupational, educational and welfare support to them in a military environment. An environment that they will be more familiar with and which has shown to be more beneficial during the recovery process. This scheme is delivered in partnership with the service charities the Royal British Legion, the Army Benevolent Fund and Help for Heroes. A new centre is soon to open in Colchester with building work beginning in early February.
The brief I had was fairly open, which is good to hear sometimes, as you can have far greater control over the pictures you take. I was told however to make it a little more ‘gritty’ than what can sometimes comes from these opportunities. In other words not to make the pictures overly ‘fluffy’. The centre is there, of course, to provide serious treatment and recovery to injured troops and that seriousness, quite rightly, has to be shown whether it is the physiotherapy process or the card system that the soldiers use to indicate their current mood on any particular day.
After arriving in Edinburgh I received a brief from the officer in charge of the centre who gave an overview about what care was provided. This briefing provided me with further ideas of what I could photograph. Adding these to the photo ideas I had already thought about a loose plan started to form. However, whilst keeping an eye on the plan you should always keep an open mind and remain flexible in order to react to the inevitable changes.
The Major who runs the centre used a phrase during his briefing to explain his understanding of what the best way of offering treatment was – ‘Time and Space’.
To offer time to the soldiers to deal with their physical or psychological injury and to give them the space to work through their treatment without undue pressure. As he said it I realised that this would be a good base from which to build my shoot and to use this as a guide for myself and think of this when I was taking pictures.
I had the names of a number of soldiers who were happy to talk about their treatment and have their pictures taken. The most important element of a job like this is to make sure that you treat people with respect. This isn’t just applicable to military personnel of course, everyone you take pictures of, on any job, should be treated respectfully and with due professionalism.
My plan was to introduce myself to each individual and have a chat to break the ice a little and build up a rapport, through this conversation I am able to tell if they are comfortable with pictures or if they might need a little more time. Most however are OK, maybe because they are military I know that a more direct approach is appreciated more. A little more plain speaking generally works better rather than skirting too tentatively around difficult subjects.
Once this was done we continued to chat as we went through the centre to find different locations to take some pictures. Some of the locations I had already picked out whilst others were noticed as we passed through a certain area or if the light happened to be right in a certain place. Looking for locations and the right light or setting up a couple of speedlights whilst engaging in conversation – conversation that makes sense and not just waffle – is quite a tricky job but the more practice you have with the technical stuff the easier it becomes allowing you to concentrate on the important part – building a relationship and taking pictures.
One thing to keep in mind however when chatting to anyone is to be genuinely interested in them. In documentary work this is hugely important. Not only will your subject see very quickly if you are simply going through the motions but they will not give you their full time and the pictures will suffer not to mention of course that it is disrespectful. In this case however you couldn’t fail to be interested in what these soldiers were saying about their experiences. Some of which were amazing stories.
From the soldier who lost a leg in an IED strike in Iraq, to one who had all his limbs broken in another IED attack, to a sporting injury that resulted in a severely broken neck that brought him close to total paralysis and to a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the soldiers that currently attend the Personnel Recovery Centre in Edinburgh have experienced many difficult things during their service and could not be blamed if they came across as a little bitter or resentful but all that I spoke to on my visit were pleased their treatment was on-going and that they knew that they were being looked after and that further opportunities were provided for them.
Moreover, they were also determined to work on their various treatments with commitment and determination and along with the usual injection of military humour that always comes from adversity they knew they would eventually get through their own challenges.
All the staff that we met, military and civilian, were completely committed to providing the best help they could to the soldiers and were dedicated to going the extra mile to provide that help. Many of these soldiers are due to be medically discharged but some will return to normal military life in time but whatever their futures hold they have earned the right to get the best treatment available and this centre goes some way to offering this.