Life on the front line for women soldiers

By Matt Yelland, Picture Manager Alison Baskerville
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Captain Anna Crossley is a Female Engagement Officer in the Upper Gereshk Valley of Helmand. Here she kneels down as she joins a patrol to see whether she can access a local Afghan compound in the hope that she may meet women and children.

A unique and thought provoking photographic exhibition held by The Royal British Legion over the period of the Poppy Appeal, gives an original view of what life is like in Afghanistan for female soldiers. Shot by photojournalist Alison Baskerville earlier this year, the images highlight how women, both British and Afghan, respond to the often austere conditions in which they find themselves and how they maintain their morale and individuality in the face of demanding circumstances. The images focus mainly on the life of the British Army’s Female Engagement Officers (FEOs) who work to build relationships with Afghan women in some of the most dangerous parts of Helmand.  As interaction between women and male soldiers is strictly forbidden in these small communities, the FEOs are drawn from female volunteers from across the army who receive specialist cultural and language training to enable them to carry out their role.

The exhibition is titled ‘The White Picture’ after the term used to describe the effect that they contribute to by gathering information for the wider intelligence picture, which sits outside the usual military objectives but is vital in the battle for hearts and minds. It opens on the 25 October and runs until 11 November at gallery@oxo on the South Bank.

Alison Baskerville is an award winning photojournalist. She served with the Royal Air Force for 12 years, during which time she saw active service in Northern Ireland and Iraq. Whilst in Iraq, Alison was inspired to capture her surroundings on an old Nikon camera. This gave her the motivation to leave the RAF and train as a photojournalist. In 2011, the Territorial Army called on Alison’s professional military and photographic skills. She was deployed to Afghanistan as a Territorial Army photographer where she served with the Defence Combat Camera Team for six months. Her work from this tour won awards for Best Operational Image and Best Portrait in the professional category of the 2011 British Army Photographic Competition. Her experience and skills made her the immediate choice when The Royal British Legion looked for a volunteer to travel to Afghanistan to document women’s lives on the front line. Asked about her photography she explains “With my pictures, I wanted to show an alternative view of what life is like for women on operations in Afghanistan. I didn’t want to show them as exceptional or different from the men they are working alongside, but to give an understanding of the difficulties they face in doing their job and how they respond to their surroundings and environment.” More of her pictures can be found at her website http://www.alisonbaskerville.co.uk/

The Royal British Legion stands shoulder to shoulder with all who serve. It is the nation's leading Armed Forces charity providing care and support to all members of the British Armed Forces past and present and their families. It is also the national Custodian of Remembrance and safeguards the Military Covenant between the nation and its Armed Forces. It is best known for the annual Poppy Appeal and its emblem, the red poppy. www.britishlegion.org.uk

 

 

Alison Baskerville
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Patrol bases within Helmand have limited showering facilities which will often consist of a hosepipe in a tent and only one shower for both men and women. A small hand made sign provides the only guard to privacy.

Alison Baskerville
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Jessica French takes time in between patrols to clean her personal weapon, a 9mm Sig Sauer pistol.

Alison Baskerville
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At the end of her tent Jess and the other girls have created their own ‘lounge’. It’s a space where the girls can escape to the very different world of Downton Abbey.

Alison Baskerville
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Known informally as a ‘death letter’, most women will write a message to their family which will be kept somewhere safe and only delivered if the worst should happen.

Alison Baskerville
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A bucket is the only way to keep clothes clean at Forward Operating Base Oulette in the Upper Gereshk Valley in Helmand.

Alison Baskerville
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Anna receives a parcel from home at least once a week. Her mother, Carol usually fills it full of items such as rosehip tea and sweets.

Alison Baskerville
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Favourite toiletries are an often requested item in care parcels sent from friends and family.

Alison Baskerville
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Captain Alice Homer is an officer with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. She has just spent six months running a small section of soldiers in Camp Bastion.

Alison Baskerville
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There is little in the way of privacy within the check points and patrol bases of Helmand. The women use their mosquito tents to provide some personal space, often decorating them with gifts from loved ones.

Alison Baskerville
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Jess often works with women in other roles. Harriet (pictured left) is a qualified army vet. They prepare to head out on a joint patrol to engage with local Afghan families to train them in basic veterinary care. It is often the children’s responsibility to look after the goats for the family.

Alison Baskerville
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Lance Corporal Rachel Clayton ties her hair in a french plait to keep it tidy under her helmet.

Alison Baskerville
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Non-issue underwear is a way for the women to keep a sense of their own identity and a chance to add some colour to their surroundings.

Alison Baskerville
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Anna preparing to join soldiers from 3 Rifles as they prepare for a patrol to help her gain entry into a local compound.

Alison Baskerville
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Anna heads out to join soldiers from 3 Rifles as they prepare for a patrol to help Anna gain into a local compound.

Alison Baskerville
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Anna on patrol in Helmand about to visit a compound to meet local residents.

Alison Baskerville
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Anna’s language training has helped her to gain access to compounds and the residents are intrigued by her. On many occasions she often pretends to have what she refers to as a ‘Helmand husband’ to help her gain rapport with the women who do not understand the concept of remaining unmarried.

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“When I meet soldiers like Jess I hope that women from Afghanistan will see her and also want to put on a uniform, get a job and learn to be independent’ states Gulalli.

Alison Baskerville
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At the Kabul Military Training Centre Afghan female recruits take part in a 20 week course with the hope of becoming an officer in the Afghan National Army. Captain Susanna Wallis is a Royal Signals Officer who has volunteered to mentor these women.

Alison Baskerville
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The women take a break after practicing their marching skills. Although the training takes place in a separate facility to the men Susanna has pushed for the women to graduate alongside the male soldiers.

Alison Baskerville
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Anna arrives home at RAF Brize Norton at the end of her seven month tour and is met by her father Alan and mother Carol.