To Helmand and back

When acclaimed commercial photographer Robert Wilson shadowed the Edinburgh-based 52nd Infantry Brigade in Afghanistan for two weeks, he

discovered that the truth about war was reflected in the soldiers' faces

WHEN Brigadier Andrew Mackay, the officer in charge of the Edinburgh-based 52nd Infantry Brigade during its six-month tour of Helmand, was offered the chance to bring a war artist out to Afghanistan to chronicle his brigade's role in the conflict, he decided to invite a photographer to spend two weeks shadowing his men. If the medium was a break from the norm, so was the man he chose for the job. Robert Wilson is an acclaimed advertising photographer known primarily for his portraits of sportsmen such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, but he had no previous experience of war photography. "I wanted someone who would be outside their comfort zone, who would approach the task with no preconceptions," says Brigadier Mackay.

"The very essence of being a soldier in Afghanistan is not about the crash, bang, wallop stuff – it's the tiredness, the cuts, the bruises, the stubble, the grains of dirt, the tired eyes and the matted hair. That's what Robert Wilson's close-up photographs capture. There's no interpretation: this is our men in the raw. The faces that are staring out at you reflect the realities of war, which are very austere conditions, and men who may have seen friends or colleagues die and who are all dealing with the consequences of fighting a very tenacious enemy."

It was an innovative decision that has resulted in a remarkable body of work, which will shortly be published as a book simply entitled Helmand.

The original plan was for the fruits of Wilson's stint in the southern Afghan province to be exhibited at the regimental headquarters in Edinburgh Castle. But as soon as he returned home, Wilson knew he had an exceptional story to tell within his 12,000 images. He showed them to renowned photographic editor Mark Holborn, whose verdict was succinct: "We have to publish this."

It took Wilson almost three months to whittle his collection down to below 300 and into a meaningful narrative. Most of the chosen photographs are portraits: not only is that Wilson's speciality, but he felt that recording the war should be primarily about portraying the men who are fighting it. "We had five days in Musa Qala before moving on to the forward operating bases," says Wilson. "Each one became progressively harder, dirtier, less well equipped and closer to the front line. Those were five of the most amazing days of my life: they were the ones where 80% of the material and 80% of the memories came from. It was a polarised time, where I was sleeping outside in a sleeping bag and ended up looking the same as the soldiers, caked in dust.

"I was amazed at the conditions. The command centre at Lashkar Gah was stuffed full of computers and an incredible amount of technology, but the difference with the front lines was incredible. Out there it almost looked like Second World War conditions. They're so basic because you take a position and the last thing you think about are home comforts: all you want to do is make it as safe as possible. The result is conditions that are shocking."

Wilson has captured some astonishing scenes. Although he didn't go on foot patrols or any of the missions to take over Taliban positions, he spent much of his time within 400 to 500 yards of the Islamic fighters. One of the most striking aspects of his stint, he says, was the uncanny similarity with images from past wars. "These images could have been from the First World War. The big moustaches, the intense stares; there does seem to be this constancy in combat. It mirrors Roger Fenton's work from the Crimean War – the first war photography.

"Since then, with the advent of 35mm cameras, you can get closer to the action and you end up being desensitised. When you look at some of the pictures Don McCullin took in war zones, you wonder how he's still alive.

"But these images are much more static, and they try to capture the troops themselves, they try to take you into their world, to give you a sense of how these guys live; of how cut off they feel, how they live in a different world."

Because he was given access to all areas, Wilson's images provide the viewer with a glimpse of the pain and suffering that is an integral part of the soldier's life. His shots of the repatriation of Corporal Damian Mulvihill are the first such sequence to be published, and provide an emotional and sobering finale to the narrative.

"I hope the book stirs the senses of a wide audience and that its effect isn't confined to those who are interested in military matters," says Brigadier Mackay of Wilson's work. "I hope it sells because the profits are going to service charities Blesma and Combat Stress. And I hope it strikes a chord with people because these are sons, brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins. If people get a better understanding of our soldiers and what they're enduring, then it will have all been worth while." r

Helmand (30, Jonathan Cape) by Robert Wilson is published on Thursday