2018_07_30 How I become a photographer - Andy Barnham

Two questions I’m regularly asked are how I became interested in photography and how I made the transition from the British Army to a photographer. My light hearted answers are that I’ve always loved photography and as a former Royal Artillery officer, it’s only natural that I shoot with Canon (it’s the same thing, just a different calibre). Also people are happy to be shot by me today.

Given my former military career and my current career as a menswear photographer, it’s rather appropriate that I have always loved both war and fashion photography. The two topics are at complete opposite ends of the photographic spectrum, but I found them fascinating from a young age. My father was in the Royal Hong Kong Territorial Army and was called up when the Cultural Revolution in China spilled over into riots in Hong Kong. Meeting my mother at a military ball, my parents joke that the hot pursuit stage of their relationship included my mother being stuck in Vietnam, where she worked for the American PX (the retail stores operating on United States military bases) during the Tet Offensive. Throw into this equation my godfather is a retired US Marine Corps officer and it is no surprise I was drawn to war photography and photographs from the Vietnam War in particular. Taken by the likes of Robert Capa, Eddie Adams, Larry Burrows, Philip Jones Griffith the images are visceral, brutally honest and utterly absorbing. I never imagined I would have the chance to take anything in a similar environment myself.

Against this was the backdrop of the 80s and 90s and growing up during the rise of the supermodel and the likes of Linda, Naomi, Christy, Cindy and Claudia. Attracted to the glamour and polish of fashion I quickly became a fan of Helmut Newton, Steven Meisel, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Peter Lindbergh. For those of you familiar with these names yes, I love and prefer black and white over colour photographs.

And yet… despite my love for photography, I was a horrible photographer. I asked my father to teach me ISO, f- stop and shutter speed and between his teaching technique and my learning method I was so traumatised it took me 20 years to learn these basics.

Afghan National Army soldiers firing a 122mm D-30 Howitzer

Jump forwards a few years and I found myself a Young Officer in the Royal Artillery, deployed to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Gulf War II just weeks out of training. Taking a basic digital compact camera my images were terrible. There was no way I could have known about future deployments and I felt that I had photographically wasted the opportunity of being in a conflict zone. My images look like holiday snaps taken in war zone. Poorly composed, taken on a basic camera using digital zoom, hampered by shutter lag and slow autofocus… and trying to be arty and using sepia and B&W filters in-camera.

Seeking the advice of a colleague who doubled as the unit photographer, I was advised on the Rules of Thirds and to practice composition. Taking this on board my next serious chance to practice was when I found myself in Afghanistan in 2006 including a stint with the Italian Army in Herat Province. The results were better but, in terms of quality, still nothing to write home about. I have some desperately sad images; a lone woman in a wheelchair by the side of the road, another woman begging as she walks through traffic, carrying a very still baby with her blind husband’s hand on her shoulder. Old and fragile patients in a hospital needing supplies. And also a very tense series of images of a Spanish Army vehicle convey stopped for 90 minutes, on a single track valley road, due to a truck breakdown. I also have images of the infamous swimming pool in Kabul, which I later learned had been built by the Russian and used by the Taliban for executions. I wish I’d been a better photographer to accurately capture these moments.

Woman begging on the roads of Kabul

The turning point came a year later in 2007 when I found myself in the jungles of Belize for a month. I took with me two batteries and one memory card, knowing I wouldn’t be able to charge batteries or upload the card. As a result I had to be disciplined with how and what I took; I didn’t turn the camera on unless I thought I had a shot and I didn’t waste battery power reviewing the images. My jungle images were suddenly noticeably better than anything I’d taken previously. It took film era discipline in a digital world for me to gain a level of competency.

British Army soldiers marching in the midday heat of Belize

My last hurrah was volunteering to deploy to Afghanistan in the summer of 2008. Buying a Canon G9 this was the first time I shot in RAW and, taking I took my laptop with me, the first time I used editing software. While I would have loved a bigger camera, not only was I unskilled with anything larger than a compact, I could never justify the weight and distraction of a dSLR when carrying a rifle, radio set and other essentials. The results were, at last, something to be proud of. I have images of Afghan artillery being fired, an estimated £3million of opium and heroin that I was charged with destroying, poppy fields, children playing on the streets of Lashkar Gah (the capital of Helmand Province). Similar to the jungle, I would only turn the camera on if I thought I had the chance of a good image. However unlike Belize where I stumbled upon images, here I anticipated them and after double checking the coast was clear of danger, unpacked my camera to take the photo.

Girls waiting by the side of a road block in Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah

Moving into civilian life I started taking street shots for a now defunct menswear blog which connected me to a men’s style magazine called The Rake. And that, as you say, is that. Despite my lack of experience the publication fed me ever increasingly complex shoots and assignments. Starting with small contributions taking images of workshops and mills in the UK I found myself covering fashion weeks, learning catwalk photography as I went along, to covering the legendary classic car event, the Mille Miglia, and then taking mens’ editorial fashion shoots. My first shoot included six models and my second shoot was the very next day. Within two years I had photographed five covers including the CEOs of Kiton, Zegna and Gucci as well as the artist Harland Miller.

With domestic assignments including the tailors Henry Poole, Gieves & Hawkes, Huntsman, Dege & Skinner and Anderson & Shepherd I can now count most of Savile Row on my client list; not bad for someone once called the scruffiest officer in the Royal Artillery.

A gallery with more of my reportage images taken whilst serving in the British Army can be found here.

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