Gary Ramage on documenting Afghanistan

Clique talks to Gary Ramage about his work in Afghanistan. Ramage is a three-time Walkley Award winner and is currently the chief photographer at News Corp. Before becoming a press photographer, Ramage spent almost 20 years as a military photographer, becoming chief photographer of the Australian Army.

Tell me about your series Afghanistan. How did it come about, over what length of time were these images taken and where in Afghanistan were they taken?

Rest (2011), from Gary Ramage's new series, Afghanistan. <cite>Photo: Gary Ramage</cite>
Rest (2011), from Gary Ramage's new series, Afghanistan. Photo: Gary Ramage

I made this collection of black and white photographs during an embed with Australian soldiers, in 2011. They were working out of a remote US Special Forces base called Forward Operating Base Tinsley, which is located in Uruzgan province, southern Afghanistan. I spent about two weeks with Charlie Company 2RAR. I used my holidays and paid my own way during this embed. It was a huge financial cost to get there. The US base was previously named Firebase Cobra, renamed after the death of Captain John Tinsley near there in August 2009. 

The photographs were made during my time with the Diggers, including when I would accompany them on foot and mounted patrols. The photographs depict the quieter times of a soldier's life while deployed on operations. I wanted to capture the downtime – what these boys would do before and after a patrol. War is not all action and most of the time – 99 per cent, according to some of the boys I spoke to – it's boring.

Light Leak (2011). <cite>Photo: Gary Ramage</cite>
Light Leak (2011). Photo: Gary Ramage

Why shoot in black and white for your personal work?

I just love the B&W medium. It was what I first trained on 30 years ago and I have never forgotten it. The 6x6 square negatives I produce from my Hasselblad 500cm camera are very satisfying. The Hasselblad is a totally manual camera. I enjoy using it because it slows me down and makes me think harder about the exposure and composition of the photograph. The whole process takes me back to my roots in photography.

Covering conflict is a hard job. What was one of the most difficult things you came across when documenting this particular issue?

I have covered conflict for more than 25 years now. It never gets any easier. In fact, it probably gets harder as I get older because I am more objective about what it is I am trying to do with my camera. I try to justify every difficult frame I take. What will be the outcomes of this picture showing human pain and suffering? It is a continuous argument with myself every time I go away on an arduous assignment. One of the hardest times I have had was when I was embedded with a US Army DUSTOFF medivac unit in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. Over a three-day period, I had three US Marines die at my feet while on board the medivac helicopter. Trying to photograph the mayhem in such a confined spot while travelling at speeds of 130 miles an hour, 100 feet above the ground was challenging. On another occasion, while covering the Role Three hospital at Kandahar, we witnessed 17 mass casualties in one 24-hour period. The worst was when three children were brought into the emergency department, all with horrific wounds from improvised explosive devices. The two brothers and their sister had taken the full force of the blast. One boy lost an arm, while his brother had multiple wounds to his body and head. His screams while on the table with 10 doctors and nurses trying to save his life was utterly soul-destroying. He died later that night. Sometimes even now, during a quiet time, his screams still haunt me.

<i>Reading</i> (2011). <cite>Photo: Gary Ramage</cite>
Reading (2011). Photo: Gary Ramage

Do you have a message in your photography?

I am not a philosopher, I am a photographer. I do not attempt to force my views on people. What I hope is that through my photography I can show the public what these men and women do in our name. It is always a challenge to get a message out there. If anything, I hope my series on Diggers in Afghanistan shows another side to war. I have many photographs of pain, suffering, misery and death. But in this series, I hope to show the lighter side to war.

Afghanistan is on at The Photography Room, Canberra, from March 24 to April 30