Last year when I set about tracking down supporters for the Veterans Portrait Project UK I contacted all of the service associations. The Royal Naval Association were the first to get back to me and the first to see value in what we wanted to achieve.
I was invited to attend this years RNA annual conference so last weekend I traveled over from Germany and headed to Folkestone for my first encounter with Royal Navy Veterans. Having attended a few of these events I kind of know what to expect. Blazers, badges and medals seem are the order of the day and the pride is always evident.
A huge thank you to everyone who took part and told me their fantastic tales. My thanks also to General Secretary Andy Christie for looking after me.
You can find more information on the RNA on their RNA Website.
One thing I hope to achieve with the Veterans Portrait Project UK is help dispel the misconception that all veterans are elderly and served in the war. In the UK we now have veterans who are in their mid twenties, some of whom are suffering as a result of their service. I was on the lookout for a less conventional venue to take some portraits and hopefully one that would reinforce my point about younger veterans.
I was put in touch with Chris Holt, one time Royal Engineer Officer and holder of the MBE. Chris heads up the Lloyds military network in the city of London, a group I knew nothing about. It turns out they are the largest RBL branch in London and actively support many forces and veteran charities. With the assistance of Sam Aiken we arranged to meet at the offices of JLT Group in the city and conduct a portrait shoot.
We set up in a conference room with a fantastic view over London’s financial district and as the day progressed we managed to get a complete cross section of Senior officers, junior NCO’s, male, female and of course the younger veterans I was looking for. A fantastic day.
The Lloyds military network are the huge supporters of London Poppy Day, held in November each year. This year we have been invited to attend.
My thanks to Chris, Sam and to Brian Stanley at Concept Building Services for the initial introduction.
At the end of last year I was sitting at this very desk wondering how I was going to get access to some of the venues I had in mind for our launch. It now seems like a lifetime ago. Having hosted a few Chelsea Pensioners during my service years I knew how in demand they are and that it would be difficult to get access to a bunch of them at the same time.
I contacted Katie Kennedy at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (home of the pensioners) and pitched the idea to her. I was thrilled by her positive response and enthusiasm. Katie receives multiple requests from the media on a daily basis yet she immediately agreed to give, an as yet, unknown entity access. Better still we had a full day!
For those not fully aware, the origins of the Royal Hospital Chelsea can be traced back to the 17th Century. Currently there are around 300 In Pensioners (IP) all of whom are accommodated within the hospital grounds. In order to become a Chelsea pensioner you must fulfill a number of requirements: You must:
be over 65 years old
have served as a regular soldier (former officers must have served at least 12 years in the ranks before receiving a commission.)
have no dependent spouse or family
be “of good character”
A detailed history of the Chelsea Pensioners can be found here.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea is located just off the banks of the river Thames. It is not a small venue by any stretch of the imagination yet somehow I couldn’t find it, damn you body compass!!! In my defence, Tom Tom got it wrong also. After cruising round the area a few times I bit the bullet and asked someone. We were close by.
We were shown to the State Apartments by the incredibly helpful Emma Pollock. The venue for today was as grand as it sounds. Oak panels, huge oil paintings, ornate ceilings, and all very, very old (don’t touch anything)! The building was originally designed as a dinner room for visiting royalty. We set about setting the studio up and the Pensioners began arriving. One of the first was Frank Mouque, a Royal Engineer (Sapper), being a Sapper myself I had a connection with him immediately. For someone in his 90’s Frank cuts a spritley figure. He mentioned he had his original training photograph from 1943, no sooner had I finished saying “you should have brought it with you”, he was off out the door and across the courtyard, returning a short while later clutching said photograph.
John Humphries was born in 1914 and joined the Royal Engineers in 1934. He recalled one of his first jobs was looking after the horses, his unit had no mechanical transport. He also managed to escape twice from POW camps during WW2. John was amongst a handful of Sappers we photographed today. The Royal Engineers moto ‘UBIQUE’ translates as ‘EVERYWHERE’, how fitting.
John Humphreys OBE
Unfortunately our grand venue suffered a power outage soon after we got under way, meaning a quick strip out and relocation to the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary. Not as grand, but none the less a great venue. A few more photographs then it was time for the pensioners lunch. We had also been invited to lunch but first some of TV interviews, a new experience for me.
Lunch in the Great Hall…….yes, it is also as grand as it sounds. We were joined by Emma and In Pensioner (IP) Steve Lovelock. I had briefly established that Steve and I had served in Hameln, Germany. A place where I had spent most of my career and where I now live. We had a great conversation about our exploits (not for publishing) and how great our time serving in Germany had been. Although we were years apart we had both frequented the same establishments and got up to the same shenanigans, in fact many of the places we had in common are still there today.
One thing that I was aware of before our day here, the Chelsea Pensioners tell their stories time and time again and, I assume, can sometimes tire of hearing their own tales. Today when they were recalling their memories to us they seemed to have an extra glint in their eye. Maybe it was because, as veterans, we could relate more to them? I don’t know, I do know that they are all incredible people and we made a lot of new friends. I was also reminded one of the pensioners that in 18 years time I would qualify for a red coat and a spot in the Royal Hospital Chelsea. If the situation arises I could think of no better place to spend my latter years…………
Thank you to Katie, Emma and all of the Pensioners for a fantastic experience. We will be back soon.
You can find out more about the history of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the Chelsea Pensioners here.
I have been asked a number of times about the equipment I use for the Veterans Portrait Project UK. Here is a list of the main equipment I take with me on a typical engagement:
Lighting and Backdrop
4 x Elinchrom BRX 500 Compact Flash Head
2 x Elinchrom Skyport Speed Transmitter
2 x Elinchrom 21cm Reflector
1 x Elinchrom Rotalux 100 x 100 Softbox
1 x Elinchrom Rotalux 50 x 130 Softbox
1 x Manfrotto Background Support System
4 x Manfrotto Stackable Light Stands
1 x Manfrotto 055 – Tripod + 498RC2 ball head
1 x Sekonic L-308S Light Meter
1 x Colorama Paper Roll (1.35x11m) – Arctic White
Manfrotto Prolight LW-99W
Manfrotto Prolight LW-88W
Manfrotto Pro 70
Cameras & Lenses
Canon 5D Mk3
Canon 650D – video
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM
Canon 17-35mm f2.8L USM – video
Now fully embedded in our hotel we could begin to get the show on the road. After an initial mix up over conference facilities we were able to set up our studio and test fire. Being relatively new to Studio lighting, the next few days were to be a crash course, but I was in safe hands. Thankfully Elinchrom and Manfrotto UK had offered to extend their support to the UK project so my equipment mirrored that used by Stacy in the US.
A few weeks prior to arriving in London I had used the Sapper network and touched base with Charlie Martell. Charlie is known as the ‘Charitable Adventurer’ due to his various challenges (and a few Guinness world records) including rowing the Atlantic, Pacific and skiing to the North Pole, all in the name of good causes. Charlie had graciously agreed to take part in the Veterans Portrait Project and came down to London to see us. Initially I watched as Stacy went about interacting and photographing him, the first of many masterclasses. My turn, the nerves were now kicking in but I refused to let them show. Why was I nervous? I knew what I was doing, didn’t I?
After a while I began to relax and even enjoy myself. It wasn’t until I looked at my watch I realised we had been there for 2 hours! Thank you Charlie. Thank you for seeing value in the Veterans Portrait Project UK and finding the time to take part, it was a pleasure.
First engagement over, equipment tested successfully. So far so good.
Blind Veterans UK (formerly St Dunstans) strive to make sure that no one who has served our country battles blindness alone. Since 1915 they have been assisting and supporting veterans who have been blinded due to accident, service or illness. Our first major engagement was to take place at the Brighton centre, an impressive building overlooking the English Channel.
The Trophy room made and ideal location to set up and it wasn’t long before the veterans began coming in. WW2 veterans and National Servicemen and Woman alike. One thing that struck me was the sense of humour that we all connected with immediately. I was greeted by one individual like a long lost friend. Steve, he said, How are you Steve? Have we met before? I asked. No, everyone here is Steve, the guy in the gym is Steve, the guy in the canteen is Steve…………….
Elizabeth Anne Nelson
Every one of the veterans here made an impression on me. I do consider myself a veteran, however, these guys and girls had been involved in more action in a few years than I had seen in almost a quarter of a century. Inspiring, enthralling, funny and extremely welcoming.
We had a fantastic visit to Brighton and I can’t wait to go back. My thanks to Mark Wheeler for making it possible and thank you to everyone who took part, including:
Clifford Gower who was blinded during a German Stuka attack during WW2 in North Africa. You can read more about Clifford here
Elizabeth Nelson who was an Operations Officer at Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.
Robert Dunn who served as a Signaler during WW2 and made it through the North Africa Campaign.
We didn’t get lost today and I only drove past the Blind veterans centre once. I did take a wrong turn leaving Brighton, but I knew where I was 🙂
1 week to go until we converge on London. The planning is done, the press release is out and my ferry is booked. The BBC contacted me yesterday. Nothing confirmed, but an exciting step in the right direction. We have had confirmed coverage from Forces TV and the British Forces Broadcasting Service who will accompany us to the Royal Hospital Chelsea also Soldier magazine and national Radio will be covering the Veterans Portrait Project UK.
The British Government recently announced 3 days of commemorative events to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, which is fantastic. Unfortunately this made things a difficult for some of our launch engagement venues which resulted in some rescheduling and panicking. It will be a memorable weekend to be in London.
In an attempt to keep current and seek inspiration I generally have a video or podcast playing when I’m in the office. Recently Scott Kelby released the latest video in the trailblazer series entitled, Powerful Woman in Photography. The first interview is with our very own Stacy Pearsall , founder of the Veterans Portrait Project. I have seen many of Stacy’s interviews, mainly as research as we have yet to meet in person!!! This one is the most powerful. Stacy lays bare her combat experiences, how it feels to lose friends and colleagues in combat and how her own injury lead to the Veterans Portrait Project. An inspiring, humbling and extremely moving account which will strike a chord with veterans and service personnel alike. You can view the video here.
I am now literally ‘chomping at the bit’. Almost 3 weeks of meeting some of our countries veterans, meeting and working with Stacy. Being a more hands on kind of student, this will of course be a huge learning opportunity for me. One that I will grab with both hands.
The VE70 weekend is also a huge date in the military re-union calendar, particularly to Army and Navy veterans. The annual rugby match will take place at Twickenham on 9 May. Having attended this event on more than a few occasions I know there will be a huge number of veterans attending. If you are going and fancy joining the Veterans Portrait Project UK family please drop me a line and we will let you know the details. We would love to see you.
I’ll update the blog as we head into the launch so please stay tuned. I best start packing……………can’t wait!!!
One of the major issues with launching anything is cost. This is particularly true in London and especially when you have no budget or funding on which to draw.
Concept Building Services have arranged our accommodation in Central London, which is a God send. This was the cause of some of those sleepless nights I mentioned in an earlier post. An old friend [Steve Whitlock] has been an absolute legend, as has his boss and company owner Joe Carty. Joe has never served in the forces, however he has seen the true value of Veterans and provides an enormous amount to our community through his charitable work and providing employment opportunities. I am looking forward to thanking them properly in May.
Last year when I was introduced to some of our sponsors, I found myself in new territory. I have never had to sell anything to anyone. The UK Photography show took place in March at the NEC in Birmingham and our main sponsors, Manfrotto UK, Elinchrom and The Flash Centre were there. This was the ideal opportunity to put faces to names and sell myself and the project to them.
What a fantastic experience. I admit to being a more than a little nervous before hand but was soon put at ease by the team from Elinchrom and The Flash Centre. Their enthusiasm for the project and their grasp of the potential it has was incredible. In particular Chris Whittle, President of Elinchrom, seemed genuinely excited which was wonderful. When Chris told me that I was no longer asking them to be part of the Veterans Portrait Project UK, they were telling me they wanted to be part of it, I was over the moon. Mark Astmann took time out to run me through the complete Elinchrom range which was very kind. Having never used these lights before a personal guide was a massive help. Mark hails from New York and I think my Scottish accent may have confused him at times, sorry Mark.
Manfrotto UK next and Mark Langley. A busy man who was looking after their ambassadors. I was scheduled to discuss the details between the talks given by some fascinating photographers but ended up watching some speaking about their work. It was quite Inspiring. Again, I was blown away by the enthusiasm shown for our project. Something you should never say to a Sapper (Google it) – “have a look round and let me know if there is anything else you need”……….so much shiny stuff, sorry Mark!!!
On conclusion of the meetings I made my way to one of the many eatery’s within the NEC, I was hungry and tired but the place was mobbed. Eventually I found a table and sat down next to some other visitors. I got talking with another Scot who sat opposite and it turned out he had spent some time with the Army Reserve. He went on to explain that he wanted to join the regular Army, however his father would not sign the paperwork, which at that time was mandatory. This led me to explain about the Veterans Portrait Project and that I to was a veteran. The guy was immediately excited, extremely complimentary and wanted to take part. It then transpired that he attended the same karate school as I did in the early 1980’s and was also good friends with a friend of my late father. I have to thank Ricky for the 30 minutes or so we spent chatting. I hope to meet up with him in Scotland and take his portrait. What a small world.
My final vote of thanks must go to you. Thank you for joining us as we ready ourselves for what lies ahead. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for caring.
The planning is now almost complete, in a month Stacy and I will meet for the first time and the Veterans Portrait Project UK will be officially launched. Excited? You bet. Nervous? Definitely. My overwhelming feeling though is one of pride.