Afghanistan With a Camera Kit

A combat videographer tells it like it is on the ground with Special Forces.
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U.S. Army journalists Jenie Fischer and Ben Gable set up for an interview in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in Feb. 2011

Getting from point A to point B in a combat environment is never easy, and traveling with “luggage” that you can’t put on your back is frowned upon.

So when I, a woman, jump off a Blackhawk helicopter at a remote Special Forces outpost with a duffle bag that I could nearly fit myself into, the eyes start rolling immediately. What these bearded professionals don’t realize is that the duffle bag has only one extra uniform in it for my two-week stay; nearly 60 percent of the bag is camera gear.

As a military journalist, you have to be prepared for anything, especially when you’re attached to 3rd and 20th Special Forces Groups. I spent more than a year with them, bouncing around the eastern and northern regions of Afghanistan with the mission to capture everything ― photos, audio, video b-roll, interviews with team members and local villagers, as well as combat action.

As the 12-man teams spread further into remote regions of Afghanistan to train local police, they build combat outposts with dirt-filled walls made of burlap and chicken wire. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone with a camera has ever been there, and no one may be coming back anytime soon; you need to get as much footage and as many pictures as you can.

This is how I end up, within hours of being dropped off at a site less than 50 miles from the border of Pakistan, in the backseat of a Humvee staring through the spider web of a bullet impact on the windshield, loaded with camera gear.

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U.S. Army journalist Katie Tuton works with some of her Afghan counterparts in Afghanistan in Feb. 2011.

Every Army journalist is issued a camera kit depending on whether they specialize in photo or video product, but most often you are required to “cross-train” (learn both) as a necessity. I am by trade a photojournalist, though video became a hot commodity to my Special Forces commanders. I was happy to oblige, since my Nikon D7000 camera could easily perform both tasks. [Editor’s note: Nikon recently replaced the D7000 with the D7100.]

REALITY AND NECESSITY

All squad members arrange their equipment differently, but mine reflects both military reality and photo/video necessity. It turns out that a benefit of wearing a heavy, bullet-proof vest (besides the life-saving aspect) is that you can attach a bunch of stuff to it.

Since I’m right-handed, my M4 rifle attaches to my right shoulder and my backup Berretta 9mm pistol is on my chest. Attached to my left shoulder with a heavy black carabineer is my Nikon with a standard-issue AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens.

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Tuton used clear filters from Tiffen to protect her camera's lens.

I shorten the neck strap with a knot. Through experience running over rugged terrain and denting cameras, I’ve learned that a camera bouncing off your side (or rifle) isn’t a good thing. A trick a combat cameraman taught me was to pull out one of the Velcro dividers from the backpack issued with the camera kit, which is really a camouflage Tamrac Expedition 7x 5587 gear bag, and use it to secure the camera under my arm.

By zip-tying through the middle of the divider, it attaches to the side of the vest. Then the ends, which have Velcro on them, wrap around the camera lens and secure it under my arm. It works like a charm and keeps the camera out of the way while not shooting.

It’s also a good idea to use clear glass Tiffen filters to absorb impacts on the face of the lens as the camera bangs around. I can’t tell you how many filters I’ve broken instead of lenses― they’ve saved the taxpayers thousands and are worth every penny.

My kit is completed with a lens wipe, extra batteries and SanDisk 32GB memory cards in a grenade pouch (they don’t let just anyone play with live grenades), and an additional lens in my cargo pocket depending on what I expect to shoot. Usually I’ll bring a Nikkor 18-35mm f3.5-4.5 lens if I expect to record interviews, or the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 ED VR II lens if I want to record b-roll of things blowing up, which happens more often than you think when there’s an explosives guy with you.

If I know I’m going to be heavy on video, I’ll bring a The Pod beanbag camera support and set up on anything I can, such as a truck, wall or tree.

VILLAGE LEADER

Today’s mission is to meet with a village leader who was once confined on Bagram Airfield for aiding a suicide bomber. He has had second thoughts on the presence of coalition forces in the area and wishes to make amends with the soldiers that call an area nearby home.

Having just met the team members for the first time, I try to make myself invisible. In the Special Forces world, you can easily be seen as a liability. Also, because of their high level of training, they aren’t used to having their photo taken and I have strict rules for protecting their identities.

I’ve found that until they learn to trust me, I need to stay out of the way―but get the shot.

At the village leader’s home, we are invited in for lunch. The floor of the room is covered in brightly designed wool rugs that contrast with walls made of dirt and mud. I am the only woman in the room with a dozen men, so I pick a corner to sit in that has a good view of the village leader and team commander, who are seated next to each other.

The lunch is elaborate, with dishes of braised goat, sautéed eggplant, tomatoes with onions and plenty of sweetened tea. I eat with my fingers and occasionally take a picture of the room, wiping my greasy hands on my uniform before each shot. After lunch, the elder notices me and insists I have tea with his two wives, who by custom are in another room.

I am introduced to two adult women and more than 10 children. I always find it amazing how a camera can overcome language as the younger children are fascinated with seeing their images in the camera viewfinder. Since our only interpreter is a man and can’t enter the room, I communicate with the photos and take pictures of the boys and young girls (per custom, I can’t take photos of the women or girls older than age six or so) before the meeting ends and we return to the vehicles to leave.

I’ve gotten what I came for: video and stills as documentation for my battalion commander and photos to release to the public.

GREAT IN LOW LIGHT

Over the course of my stay, the team warms up to me, and I’m able to write a story and produce a video on construction progress at the site for the commander back at Bagram. The Nikon D7000’s HD 1080p with full-time autofocus works great for me since I’m still learning the video side. The ability to use a high ISO setting without getting a lot of noise lets me shoot indoors in surprisingly bad lighting.

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Panasonic AG-HPX170 Camcorder

For actual video cameras, the Army recently switched from old standard-definition camcorders to Panasonic AG-HPX170 P2 HD camcorders. Two former Army broadcast journalists, Jenie Fisher and Bransen Dillon, both prefer the Panasonic P2 for its durability and size, and think it’s much more user-friendly for beginners.

“The P2 is not as comfortable for the videographer who prefers manual operations,” said Fisher. “But, for the beginner, it’s a great place to start ― and you have more creative license with zoom speed and function options.”

Dillon agrees that the P2 is a better choice than the older standard-definition camera that he previously used, but thinks that it’s likely a stepping stone to a DSLR product. Even though Dillon is a videographer, he prefers the Nikon D7000 or a Canon EOS 7D for this reason.

AUDIO PROVISIONS

The one thing each of the still-camera systems lack is an external audio connector. As a result, I carry an Olympus DM-620 4 GB voice recorder, which works great for interviews. To sync sound in post-production, I go “old-school” and turn both audio sources on, then clap my hands as an audio marker.

Dillon prefers the Sennheiser MKE 400 compact shotgun microphone; but if you know you’re going to do interviews, stick with the P2 and use a Sennheiser ew112-p G3 camera-mount wireless microphone system with an ME2 lavalier mic. The sound is great, and in a combat environment you can wire up a subject and go on a mission without losing contact. During a foot patrol near Jalalabad, I did this with a Special Forces team commander and the audio turned out fantastic (and he forgot he was wearing a mic, which is always fun).

According to Dillon, additional “must-haves” for video shoots are Koss or Bose noise-reducing headphones and a Bracket 1 rain cover, just in case. If a tripod is needed, Fisher says the Manfrotto 504HD Head with 535 3-section carbon fiber tripod “is so amazing I would marry it” for its quick setup and durability.

For me, the Army gear is bulky enough so I will always prefer a two-in-one camera with video capability.

When my two weeks are up and my memory cards full, I get back on a helicopter to leave another team of hard-working guys. Each day I spend with them gets a little easier and it’s not uncommon that on my way out they try to help me with my bag, which always makes me laugh.

We part with a “take care,” but more often than not the last words I hear are: “Don’t forget to e-mail me those pictures!”


Journalist Katie Tuton served in the U.S. Army from 2008 to 2013, including a year in Afghanistan.

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