I would grab my sketchpad and head into the thick of the action.Matthew, Special Constable
When I was an art student in London, I heard reports of the Notting Hill Carnival riots and the violent strikes of the Wapping dispute. Instead of sensibly staying away from the incidents, I would grab my sketchpad and head into the thick of the action. Perhaps this is why, when later in my career I received a call from The Times asking me to be their official war artist during the Iraq War, I jumped at the chance. The Times had a long history of commissioning art from war zones – although there would be photographers, they wanted me to bring a new perspective.
Looking back on the experience of being there during conflicts seems unreal now. Only a day after getting the call to go out there, I was in the newspaper’s offices being presented with a large kitbag containing everything I would need to keep me safe. This kitbag included a helmet, body armour, water filters and a Nuclear Biological Chemical suit. I ended up hiring a car in Kuwait City and driving across the border into southern Iraq. It took me two months to reach Baghdad. Weirdly, when I was there, I didn’t know what was happening. I had no news, no radio network – I essentially was living in a media blackout.
When I arrived in Baghdad, it was being looted and massive parts of the city were on fire. I saw some tough scenes, as was the nature of being there, but I managed to distance myself. Perhaps my art was a way of taking one step back, and then I could filter what I was seeing through my drawings.
I had a satellite phone, so I’d send my drawings back to The Times almost daily. It was like being a photographer. They used one of my drawings on the front cover on the day the war started, and it was quite surreal having my work being the first thing people were seeing about this conflict. It was hard to contact my family who were back home while I was out there – my wife found it hard not knowing where I was. I went out to Afghanistan probably seven or eight times drawing for different army brigades.
With the British Army, there is a history of drawings and recordings. I have paintings in various officers’ mess and the sergeants’ mess, the Ministry of Defence and the National Army Museum. When people move on from a three-year posting, they’re nearly always given a print or a painting as a gift. Is that war art? I’m not sure. However, even down to the newest soldier, they will know that there’s an art collection. Almost every conflict the battalion has been involved in will have an art piece associated with it.
No one really batted an eyelid when a war artist was with them. It made my work easier – and the soldiers very quickly figured out I work in a different way to a photographer. There was no “don’t include me” or “please only get my best side” – they worked out that my drawings take a lot longer, and I’d sit there quietly sketching away rather than directing them. They carried on working as normal and forgot I was there, meaning I got to create art without any boundaries.
I’ve only been part of the Special Constabulary for a short time, but I would love to do some drawings to showcase the life of police officers. For a newcomer, seeing a room full of computers with officers sitting down in their body armour, ready to leave for an unknown job at a moment’s notice, can look a bit bizarre. But to the officers, that’s their everyday “office” life.
As well as the constant possibility of a new job, there’s also the need for recording and detailing those jobs, so there’s also a lot of sitting at a laptop and completing paperwork. The public rarely get to see this side of policing, but it’s just as important as any other aspect of the role. Traditional photography might want to capture the action of policing – car pursuits, battering down a door, or police officers on the street. I would want to capture the human side through drawing life in the station, naturally talking to each other or suiting up for the shift.
I’ve learnt a lot about myself since being in the organisation, but my experience of observing conflicts surprisingly feeds into my role as a special constable. Being hyper-aware of your surroundings when you start your shift, remaining calm in high-pressure situations. However, one of my main takeaways in both roles has been seeing the sides of things the public don’t normally see – gaining more perspective and understanding of people I work alongside, and the civilians that I meet.