Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Behind the Image - U.S. Army and War in Afghanistan

Zoriah Miller
Dec. 8, 2008

© Zoriah/www.zoriah.com

This image was taken in the fall of 2007 in northeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. I was spending my days going out on patrols with the Afghan National Army, crossing over the border into Pakistan in search of militants and rebel fighters.

At night, I was in a small combat outpost that was split between U.S. and Afghan forces. Myself and a German photojournalist arrived on the same day, and much to our dismay, did not receive the warmest of welcomes. Apparently there was some miscommunication between the Army public affairs officers and the commanders on the base, because no one had any idea who we were or why we were there. As you might imagine, showing up at a military base in a war when no one is expecting you is a bit awkward for all parties involved.
We ended up being housed on the far side of the American half of the base, in an area that was still under construction and, unfortunately for us, was not close to being done. We were shown to a small, concrete building with a partially finished roof and told that this would be where we would sleep.

Inside the building there were several green Army-issue cots that we assumed were surplus from either world World War II or possibly even World War I (that is to say they were not the most pleasant devices to sleep on...or assemble!). The recessed floor was filled with water, which required a fair amount of acrobatics to protect our equipment from getting wet. All of this was further complicated by the fact that there was no electricity and we had to illuminate the room with flashlights. The bugs that dropped from the ceiling onto our faces as we slept are another story for another day.

On our second or third day, we were sitting in our dark room complaining about how miserable we were when an explosion blew our metal room door off of its hinges and wide open. We jumped up and ran outside in our socks, soaking our feet in the lake we called our floor.

Outside our room we saw a several other groups of soldiers exiting their barracks. We ran up to them and were told that they had just received a new artillery cannon that packed an unbelievable punch. The German photographer went immediately to photograph the happenings and I set myself up with the night shift to photograph later that evening.

It is hard to describe the nights in Afghanistan, but they're about as dark as you could possibly imagine. I forgot my flashlight one night when I went to the chow hall and had to crawl back to my living quarters on my hands and knees—something that the soldiers on base watch wearing night vision goggles must still be laughing about. This utterblackness can provide incredible challenges for a photographer, as that which is hard to see is even harder to photograph.

That night I arrived to the location of the artillery crew as they were cleaning and preparing the cannon. I used a wide angle lens and propped the camera up on some rocks on the ground and attached a remote shutter release to avoid jarring the camera during the long exposures I would need to get the shots to come out.

The soldiers were using red flashlights to illuminate their work, common in the military because red is easier for your eyes to adjust to in dark conditions and also makes you less of a target if an enemy happens to be trying to attack you. This image shows the trails of the red lights as the crew cleaned the barrel of the cannon and adjusted the firing settings. One LED light provides the purplish glow toward the back of the cannon. A close look at the sky, especially to the right of the image, lower to the horizon, the stars appear blurry due to the long shutter speed, which captured the rotation of the Earth.

Technical: This image was shot with the shutter open for 30 seconds at f/6.3. I kept the ISO at 400 to avoid noise in the blacks. I spend very little time reviewing images like this as I shoot them and focus on getting as many exposures as possible in a limited amount of time, giving me the ability to choose the best frame later on, in better conditions.

The most difficult aspect of this shoot was moving my camera after the cannon was fired each time, as they would re-aim and fire as quickly as possible. Trying to avoid getting in their way, being in front of the cannon, setting up the shots and getting my earplugs inserted in time before the next round was fired proved extremely difficult. The images of the cannon firing were impressive, but the shock waves generated by the blast made getting the perfect frame nearly impossible. The frame below shows the canon firing as well as an electrical storm that was illuminating the clouds on the horizon.

© Zoriah/www.zoriah.com

Technical: Shutter speed was 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1000. The ISO was boosted a bit higher than I like due to how dark it was. A tripod would have minimized the shake generated by the blast and allowed me to set up the shots quicker but I prefer to travel without tripods and often like the low angles when setting a camera up on the ground or on rocks, as in this case.

Source: http://www.zoriah.net/blog/2008/12/behind-the-image-us-army-in-afghanistan.html

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