Mirror photographer’s surreal and unreal images capture the hell of Helmand – World News


They call it a brown-out… a huge blinding, choking swirl of desert dust whipped up by the rotors of a Chinook helicopter in the unforgiving desert of Afghanistan.

Mirror photographer Philip Coburn was there to capture this spectacular image, and many others from the war against the Taliban.

He says: “The jet blast from the back of a Chinook is so powerful it’ll throw up rocks at you. It was a hard shot to get right, but I waited for it.”

They are powerful images that evoke the intense dry heat, swirling dust, immense bravery and painful losses of the Afghan conflict.

And competition judges agreed, picking them from more than 50,000 entries to award Phil joint third in the photo essay category of the Siena International Photography Awards.

A convoy enters the town of Musa Quala as part of a mission to clear the Taliban

An interpreter talks to an Afghan elder

The photographs take on an extra poignancy when you know that two years later Phil lost both lower legs while embedded with the US 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines in Helmand in January 2010.

He and Sunday Mirror journalist Rupert Hamer were travelling in a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle when it was hit by an IED.

Rupert and a young marine were killed and Phil was badly injured. He returned to work in 2011, and assignments since have included Gaza, Iraq, Nepal and Yemen.

Phil’s assignments have included Gaza, Iraq, Nepal and Yemen

The images won Phil third place in the photo essay category of the Siena International Photography Awards

He took this selection of photos while embedded with the British elite forces Brigade Reconnaissance Force 52 Brigade in Helmand in 2007. They capture both extraordinary moments and everyday life.

One of the most moving shows Corporal Darryl Gardiner in silhouette next to a half-mast British flag. A month later, Darryl was killed.

Humble Phil, who was given a solo exhibition at the show in Italy, said: “The prize isn’t just for me, but for all the guys who were out there. They lived it; I just captured it. The pictures were really difficult to edit as many of the guys are still good friends.

Members of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force mix their daily food rations into one pot for an ‘all in’ meal

BRF soldiers move through the Afghan plains in the dust

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“The assignment was a major ISAF mission and felt surreal and unreal – like being on a film set. They hold many sad memories of good friends lost.”

The Chinook churned up the brown-out while delivering vital supplies of food, water and ammunition. Another vivid picture, in which the air appears to shake, captures three soldiers crouching after launching a mortar attack.

Other informal pictures show soldiers working out during a lull and a trio sharing rations, eating from a can.

Of that one, Phil says: “On the left is Sergeant Richardson, who later broke the news to me in Camp Bastion’s field hospital that Rupert was dead so I didn’t hear it from strangers.”

Phil also caught the moment an Afghan elder walked to high ground near the brigade’s camp to talk to a translator two days after a battle.

“It means a lot to me that people appreciate the pictures,” he says. “Hopefully they will remind us all of the bravery of all the men out there.”