A simple phone call was all it took to get David Bowering on his way to Afghanistan.
Bowering hadn’t considered a photography career while he was growing up, much less one that would lead him into the middle of a war zone. He had played around with is father’s Polaroid camera as a child, but his work led him elsewhere—he toured with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne as a stage and lighting tech before travelling the world doing heavy construction. Bowering’s interest in photography progressed while on a work trip to Japan building golf courses, where he watched a photographer shoot the courses on large-format film. In the mid ’90s he began shooting for car and motorcycle magazines such as Hot Rod Bikes before finding his niche doing dark, offbeat portraiture and fine-art shots of derelict buildings.
But it was a casual get-together in 2010 that changed things for him. A friend of Bowering’s, who was a major at CFB Edmonton and had served in Afghanistan, introduced him to Combat Camera, an embed program where photographers can live alongside soldiers.
“I liked what it was, but it wasn’t what I did, and at this point I was doing pretty weird, dark stuff,” Bowering says. “But I kept going back to it that entire weekend.”
Intrigued, Bowering called a public affairs officer at the Edmonton Garrison, and before he knew it he was on the phone with Lieutenant Kelly Rozenberg-Payne from Ottawa.
“She phoned me back and said, ‘Let me get this straight: you don’t work for a newspaper, you’re not a reporter, you don’t work for a magazine, but you want to come and photograph the troops in Afghanistan?'” Bowering recalls with a slight laugh. “She said, ‘Well, do you have work I can go see?’ She called me back pretty quickly and said, ‘Let’s get you to Afghanistan.’ Five weeks later I was on a plane going, what have I done?”
Bowering, a self-taught photographer, left for Afghanistan prepared with a camera kit consisting of a couple of SLR camera bodies, an assortment of lenses ranging from fish-eye to telephoto, flashes, plenty of batteries and chargers as well as a some extra camera bodies for video work. He was also equipped with an assortment of specialty camping gear to manage the weather conditions (temperatures in the winter months can drop from 30C or more during the day to freezing at night) as well as body armour required for work in the field—but when he touched down in Kandahar on October 15, 2010, his camera equipment and luggage did not. Thankfully, a Canadian Forces public affairs image technician had a closet full of gear he was able to use until he luggage arrived a week later.
This was the first of many acts of kindness Bowering experienced, and the sense of camaraderie between he and the soldiers grew from there.
“Within three days of being there I had people saying, ‘You’re different; you’re not one of those guys,'” Bowering recalls, adding the soldiers were often wary of reporters. “I found access was really, really easy and it got better and better every day, and I can pretty much say nobody’s ever had the access that I’ve gotten over the years there.”
Bowering also spent some time with the US Marines in Helmand Province and the US Army in Kandahar City during his first trip in 2010, which lasted 90 days—a day-by-day recount of his embed can be found on his blog, Afghanistan Through My Lens. He has returned twice since then to focus on video work for a documentary he is currently working on about the MEDEVAC units of the US Army 101st Airborne 6-101 Shadow Dustoff, and his last trip ended in the spring of 2013.
“Photography-wise, I haven’t picked up a camera since 2013. When I came home from Afghanistan I unpacked everything, put it away and never really took it back out again,” Bowering says. “I’m not sure how to present reasonings on it, but I think it has something to do with the value of work; shooting the stuff I was shooting over there and doing what I was doing over there, it’s just not the same, so I just don’t. I’ll pick it up again; I’ll probably go back to the old buildings.”
Though Bowering got a taste of many facets of military and civilian life during his time in Afghanistan, some of his most vivid stories come from his time with MEDEVAC. There were multiple rescue missions every day, and each one was different from the last—”from picking up somebody who thinks they have a kidney stone to five special-forces guys that have had the crap shot out of them,” Bowering notes.
“Mr Bowering has never hesitated to put down his camera and assist the crews in the back when they needed a hand,” said Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Rambo in a written statement. “Whether it is holding IV bags, grabbing litters, applying pressure to an open wound, loading the patient on and off the helicopter, or cleaning blood out of the back and helping unload gear at the end of a mission, Mr Bowering has never forgotten that dedicated, unhesitating service to our fighting forces is the utmost priority and that telling their story must come second.”
Bowering—who was later awarded the Knight of the Honorable Order of St Michael by the Army Aviation Association of America for his work helping with patients and security—learned to adapt to the unpredictable nature of MEDEVAC, which meant catching a few minutes of sleep when he could and being ready to go at a moment’s notice. The calls came at all hours of the day, ranging from a Charlie (wherein the MEDEVAC team had up to 48 hours to respond) to an Alpha (they had to be in the air within 15 minutes—Bowering’s crew tried to do so in less than eight). One of those Alpha calls resulted in rescuing well-known British photographer Giles Duley, though Bowering and the crew initially thought he was an injured solider.
Duley had been in Afghanistan for three weeks before he and Bowering crossed paths. After a decade shooting high-profile editorial work in Britain, Duley decided in 2003 to focus on humanitarian projects, and his travels took him to Afghanistan to document the impact of the war on civilians and soldiers. In February 2011, Duley was out on patrol with the American 101st Airborne when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED), which resulted in him losing both of his legs and his left arm.
“You don’t usually survive those, but Giles, he’s a different character,” Bowering notes. “He stayed conscious the entire time. He said some pretty humorous things to the ground medic. He says he sort of just opened his eyes—he felt the flash and the heat but he didn’t really know what had happened—but he says, ‘When I looked up and saw my underwear in the tree I knew this wasn’t good.’ I mean, it takes a special guy to say that, just to look at it that way.”
Bowering recorded the entire rescue on video, and he says it’s not often he gets emotional about Afghanistan, but Duley’s story is an exception.
“I’ve seen a ton of death and dying and blood and guts all over me—the whole thing, it just goes over my head,” he adds. “Giles I get emotional about. We talk all the time.”
Indeed, the pair connected on Facebook in the months after the incident, and Duley continues to work as a photographer, documenting the long-term effects of conflict around the world.
“On the day I got injured I don’t remember ‘meeting’ David. There were a few other things on my mind that day,” says Duley via email while in Cambodia and Vietnam documenting how Unexploded ordnance (UXOs) are impacting lives 40 years after the war. “However, in the few months after my accident, I became aware of the work David did that day. Through that we have built up a friendship through the wonders [of] the Internet. Hopefully one day we will get to meet properly in person.”
Duley’s journey has been a long and difficult one, but it has made him more determined push on with
“I’m very thankful David was there to document what happened to me on that day; I think it’s important he was doing the work he was,” Duley adds. “His powerful images and film footage have been used extensively in print and television, and I hope they have given greater insight into the realities of those injured by IEDs and landmines.”
Not all MEDEVAC stories have a positive outcome, though. Bowering’s unit received a call the day after his encounter with Duley to pick up a solider who had been injured by an IED and was in critical condition.
“I learned from that day on: don’t ever follow up on patients. As soon as I leave the helicopter, [to] just shut it off,” Bowering says. “I’ve been really good at that, but that kid I couldn’t do it. That was the first kid that ever died when I was holding onto him.”
The soldier’s name was Sergeant Patrick Ryan Carroll, and his mother reached out to Bowering a few months later through Facebook, much like Duley had—the two have remained in touch since. She also sent Bowering a letter and asked that he pass it on to the crew that had been with her son that day.
“They don’t ever get thanked for what they do, especially from a mother, a father, you know, son, daughter, of someone who’s died. They get blamed a lot; they don’t get thanked,” Bowering adds. “I get really emotional about Patrick Carroll … I’m just not an emotional guy. I kind of tear right through everything. I carry a picture of him when I go through battlefields.”