“The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan changed me.“

As part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special, soldier-turned-photographer Alison Baskerville discusses the place of gender in the armed forces – and the unseen cost of conflict.Thursday, 7 November 2019

‘You need to be both compassionate and resilient when working as a photographer, especially as we are living through what feels like a very polarised society.‘Alison Baskerville.
‘You need to be both compassionate and resilient when working as a photographer, especially as we are living through what feels like a very polarised society.‘Alison Baskerville.
photo by Alison Baskerville
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.

Alison Baskerville is a widely exhibited documentary photographer, artist and former soldier. Based in Birmingham, themes in her work have included gender equality, female identity in the forces and the consequences of conflict. She is the founder of the safety training movement ROAAAR and co-founded Powering the Matriarchy Together, a Birmingham festival ‘celebrating womxn and non-binary people.’

As a young woman I made a choice to join the military. It felt very intentional at the time, and it's interesting to see how my views have changed following my time in Iraq and Afghanistan. It raised more questions than answers, and set me on the path to exploring the very difficult relationships we have to those wearing a uniform. The military can represent freedom to some, oppression to others. Working within this complexity is something I'm really interested in as a photographer and feels like a lifetime of work ahead of me. 

I remember turning 18 and my current boyfriend had just joined the local Army Reserve unit as an infantry soldier. I really wanted to do the same and it was the first time I was told ‘you can’t do that. Women aren’t allowed.’ I think this phrase then became a motivation to keep finding ways into places where women were ‘not allowed’. I just wanted to prove that women can do as well as men if there is more thought put into how we work.  

My childhood also made me use my imagination to escape difficult situations. I would often pretend the garden shed was a boat and we were sailing to a lost island. This nurtured a deep sense of exploring beyond my own understanding of the world.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan changed me. They left me with deep scars of not only trauma but moral injury. My challenge now in later life is working through the other issues the military has presented as I have become more aware of the colonial and racist history of the armed forces. Since then I have chosen work which seeks to create spaces to uplift and empower the voice of largely women in the context of conflict. I have chosen occupations that help others to find the knowledge I felt I did not have as a younger woman and my photography has also been a large part of this.

Islam Bibi in the gym, Afghanistan, 2012. Bibi, a mother of three, joined the police in a region of insurgency where women were often intimidated away from employment or roles outside the home. Alison Baskerville: “I met Islam Bibi several times. She was a police woman who very openly tried to encourage more women to join the police. She was assassinated by the Taliban [in 2013]. It was the starting point for my work as a photographer.“
Islam Bibi in the gym, Afghanistan, 2012. Bibi, a mother of three, joined the police in a region of insurgency where women were often intimidated away from employment or roles outside the home. Alison Baskerville: “I met Islam Bibi several times. She was a police woman who very openly tried to encourage more women to join the police. She was assassinated by the Taliban [in 2013]. It was the starting point for my work as a photographer.“
photo by Alison Baskerville

You need to be both compassionate and resilient when working as a photographer, especially as we are living through what feels like a very polarised society. I’ve worked out the need to navigate and question the ethics of representation throughout my career. When I started out in this profession I’d had a very blinkered view of the world, in that I had been inside an institution and then moved into photojournalism, which often perpetuates the white colonial gaze. I had no awareness of these dynamics up until 5 years ago when I started to question choices I made as a younger photographer. It was a deeply painful process and one I’m still working through to decide where I now fit or don’t fit into the photography world. I think I’m fortunate to have this awareness now as it really helps me choose the work better. 

Everything that’s in areas of visible power and success have been male dominated. The patriarchy has been in place for hundreds of years. We’re at a critical point in time where we can start to dismantle this structure and see ourselves reflected in each other by having multiple identities represented across society. In photography, the culture of celebrating work has often led to a dominant behaviour that is often perpetuated by men. It’s been hard to not assimilate into that male behaviour to ‘fit in’ - something I felt when I was in the military, the sense of erasing my sense of being a woman to be able to be accepted. 

If I had my career again I would have possibly been more involved in activism. But I'm also aware that my past has shaped the woman I have become today and without this past I would not be doing the work I deeply care about today. Part of my reasons for joining the forces was to prove that I was good enough as a woman. I also know that it helped other women to find confidence to take up more space. I was the first woman to be a combat camera team photographer in 2011, and this broke down a lot of barriers. I live with a life-long condition now, and I've often lamented on what it would have been like to have not joined the military. But I also recognise that it gave me a lot of skills I can share with groups of people who help women through grass root movements. I really feel like I can give something back in this way, and make use of my past. 

‘There is little privacy within the checkpoints and patrol bases of Helmand. Soldiers often use their mosquito tents to provide some personal space, decorating them with gifts from loved ones.’ Checkpoint Oulette, Afghanistan, 2012.
‘There is little privacy within the checkpoints and patrol bases of Helmand. Soldiers often use their mosquito tents to provide some personal space, decorating them with gifts from loved ones.’ Checkpoint Oulette, Afghanistan, 2012.
photo by Alison Baskerville

“I remember turning 18 and my current boyfriend had just joined the local Army Reserve unit as an infantry soldier. I really wanted to do the same and it was the first time I was told ‘you can’t do that. Women aren’t allowed.’”

Alison Baskerville

What is your greatest strength?

The strength to keep an open mind even when facing the worst you can see in humanity. I’ve been on the brink of despair many times when I see the cruelty humans can inflict on each other, but I’ve also seen kindness in the worst possible situations. I find it easy to talk to people. People are their stories and being able to listen and make time and space for this is how we keep connections and learn. I find that we often turn our opinions into belief systems and the rise of social media has created this sort of shouting at each other, whereas sitting down with someone face to face, whilst often challenging, can really bring about changes in perspectives and views. Some of my greatest advice has come from the people I’ve met on assignment and in day to day life. 

What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome?

The realisation that 20 years of military and photography life has taken its toll on my mental health. And, trying to cope with this new version of myself that has to manage things differently to when I was in my twenties where I felt more resilient and capable. Situations I would find easy then are now more of a challenge, but I still believe with the right support and less stigma surrounding the realties of our mental health now and not the memory of what it once was. 

What was your breakthrough moment?

There was never really one in the way people may imagine. I just knew that I had to leave the military to really get a sense of freedom and to become the woman I truly believe I can become. For me, it was attending events after leaving the military and learning more about feminism. I think we have to remind ourselves that everyone comes to things in their own time and we should not judge someone for being less aware of an issue and taking the moral high ground. Compassion and love are the keys to working with respect and trust when working with other people. 

 

'Letter from home:' Afghanistan, 2012.
'Letter from home:' Afghanistan, 2012.
photo by Alison Baskerville

“When you find yourself with a seat at any table make sure you’re there for good of all, and you’re not going to replicate toxic behaviour to keep that seat. ”

Alison Baskerville

What is the most important challenge that women face today?

The challenge for me is for women not to turn on each other. I’m finding the anti-trans women movement disturbing, and we need to be a united front to recognise that the patriarchy damages us all.  Also when you find yourself with a seat at any table make sure you’re there for good of all, and you’re not going to replicate toxic behaviour to keep that seat. I’m really concerned about white feminism failing to really think about and include the voices of all women [of all gender identities] along with women of colour. If you’re organisation is not built with a foundation to represent the people you work with then it just won’t work. 

What is the most important change that needs to happen for women in the next ten years?

My view on this is really about what important changes need to happen with men to allow all women to take up more space. I think progress is about intersectionality and this can come in many different forms. If cis heterosexual men don’t adapt and learn to access their femininity then we will be stuck with a progressing movement of women but a dissatisfied group of men. And we all know the consequence of men who have the power to use force as a way of domination. 

What advice would you give young women today?

Own your identity. And be soft – don’t erase who you are all the time. Think of yourself as a prism: multi faceted and different depending on which way the light hits or travels. Life is not just joy it also has it’s moments of suffering, and be okay with this – because you can get through it. It can often make you more resilient. I’ve covered a few wars but I can say the conflict we face now involves us all stepping up to make changes where we can.  Our war is the one we have within the mis understandings of culture, gender and race. The next generation of women are really those who can mobilise and act out the changes that feminism is working towards.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Explore National Geographic's Women of Impact articles – and get access to our landmark November 2019 issue here. 

Lance Corporal Ross Mills, Afghanistan 2012.
Lance Corporal Ross Mills, Afghanistan 2012.
photo by Alison Baskerville
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