A face we rarely see, but through whose eyes we often look, is one of the Army’s photographers, Staff Sergeant Rupert Frere. His images are always so telling, clever and provoking; so much so, that he recently won the Army photographer of the year for his professional portfolio, entitled ‘4 phases’, and a promotion!
A few of us are big fans, so we had to talk to him. Here’s what we spoke about – photography and Royalty, of course!
— Rupert Frere (@Rupert_Frere) October 26, 2017
The images you see in the article are all Rupert’s work (save the one of himself), some of his favourite pieces of work.
We’ll start with the obvious question, Rupert: how did you end up as an army photographer? It’s all guns and exercise, isn’t it?
To become an army photographer, you have to be in the army already. I was a bomb disposal in Aldershot, and I liked photography so bought myself a digital camera. I didn’t know there was this trade [in the army]… I saw this guy at a recruitment day with a load of camera kit who told me about the trade and I thought ‘Well, I’ll give it a go’.
So I went to this selection, a week-long thing, where they pick suitable candidates. This makes sure you’re confident enough to be put in these situations where you have to be in front of 300 Paras taking the mickey, or in a room on my own with The Queen when she meets somebody. Of course, on this side of it, you have to be robust enough to be able to do that.
It’s weird, you do a lot more work on your own… there’s a lot of administration, organising yourself, getting from A to B. Out in Afghan, for example, when I was there, I was trying to get on a flight and fit in where possible and latch onto a patrol.
So it’s more of an isolating experience than what we’re used to hearing about in the army?
It’s a lot different. We’re still in the army and we still have to go through the same rules as the others, but you look at the army as a whole. When I was BD [bomb disposal], I was part of a unit and the highest ranking guy I dealt with was a Major; now, I talk to Generals, Brigadiers, Colonels-in-Chief and have to engage with them. You see everything from a different perspective; you don’t realise that the army is actually quite small.
Was photography a passion you had before-hand?
I’ve always loved it, my dad used to work with film and was always in photography. When we went away on holiday, there would be endless rolls of film.
There’s always been something about creating a picture that I’ve enjoyed. Everywhere I’ve been always had a camera and I’ve always understood what’s made a good photograph. I had a natural eye for it. I’m dyslexic, so my handwriting is terrible and I’m not very good at drawing… I’ve tried playing instruments and I’m tone deaf. It’s frustrating – I hate it. I still get numbers and letters mixed up so photography is one of these things that I’ve been naturally been able to do.
What’s your favourite kind of event to photograph? Is it the ceremonial events, on-tour in the heat of a war-zone, or off-duty snaps?
I love going away on tour, because it’s easy. You go there, and everything is just dripping in emotion. It’s… lazy photography! I just have to make sure I don’t get blown up or shot at while taking pictures.
I do love the behind the scenes stuff, because that’s where its at. Ceremonial things, they’re performing to show everyone, so everyone can see that, and to take pictures of that, for me, that’s a bit of a cheat. It has to be something different or special, so I’m always trying to get up above or low down or into a sneaky position. If it means getting up at 2 in the morning and being there at early morning rehearsals… I know that those pictures are probably going to make more than the pictures of the actual event itself.
A good example is The Times ran one of my pictures the other day of some girls at the gun salute
Oh, yes, King’s Troop members having a chat!
— Rupert Frere (@Rupert_Frere) October 25, 2017
Yeah, that one. All the other photographers are off taking pictures of the gun salute, which we’ve all seen a million times. I saw them talking and thought, ‘actually, that makes a nice picture’ and it really worked. So it’s having that look at what else is going on and working out which part to shoot.
What are your aims when taking the photo? You’re trying to capture the moment, of course, but is there a prioritisation in the image?
I’m a photojournalist, but every job that I do, I give myself a brief or I’m given one. In terms of military photography, I prioritise my tasking, so I need to make sure the army is in it. If it’s a royal visit, I have to make sure I don’t get sidetracked with the rest of the press who are trying to get a nice headshot of that Royal. I need to get a nice headshot of that Royal, but with the military in that picture as well.
It kind of makes my job a bit easier, as I haven’t got PA [press association] or Getty [images] breathing down my neck wanting 1000 pictures – you see them hosing [when photographers have their camera on fast shutter speed and take continuous photos] – I don’t shoot like that as I don’t need to: I’m more about waiting for them to come in to that position where I have it all lined up then get the picture there. And work a bit slower and get the right photograph. That’s my job done then.
For my personal work – I do a lot of protests and things like that – to get those photos to stand out to go to civvy [civilian, non-army] papers, you’ve got to try to find something different that tells the whole story.
What are your cameras – or weapons (excuse the pun) – of choice?
I shoot Nikon most of the time; my day-to-day camera is the D5, which is the top camera at the moment, using it with a few lenses. But I also use a Fujikit, X100T, a point-and-shoot one which is handy.
I use a 50mm lens quite a lot. I like fixed lenses, ’cause I work more and I have to think about the subject more and get into it.
For London poppy day, I just used my point and shoot. They’re lightweight and quiet. If I’m doing memorial service or church service or something like that, the Nikons you can hear them clicking. Fujis are good for that, they don’t make any noise… I’m not getting people looking over at me. Quite handy for Remembrance at this time of year.
Your days are quite varied, then. What is a typical day, if such a thing exists?
There’s no such thing! I can literally be in Brunei or Belize, land, then get the tube to London and be on an early morning rehearsal, and then get on a bus and go to France. It’s an interesting job, you travel a lot and spend a lot of time away.
I’m a bigger fan of late nights than early mornings, I’m not an early starter. It’s mixed and quite hectic. When guys look at coming into the job, it’s something they don’t realise. Army life is quite structured, you get up and have the same time you’ve got to be in work and parades you have to attend, got to do PT [personal training] on these days and have these afternoons off… Whereas we work a lot of weekends, do late nights, early mornings, have to fit in our own personal admin and PT in our schedules. And be prepared to move.
When the hurricane hit the Caribbean, the rapid deployment teams had to go. A video photographer and cameraman and reporter grabbed all their kit and jumped in a plane and were over there before the contingent to be there to capture it all. It is quite stressful… most of us end up divorced! [he laughs].
I’ve heard that about academics too…!
Do you learn about the Royals from photographing and observing them? What do you get to see that we don’t?
Yeah, you do definitely. I love photographing The Duke of Edinburgh, because he hates photographers, so it’s good when he’s around.
You’d say something and he’ll start chuntering at you… *does impression*. Now I’ve done it a few times, so my relationship with the royal press office is good, they trust me because of the amount of times I’ve done stuff. Y’know, being in a room on my own with The Queen. It’s that sort of stuff I’ll never forget in my life.
I met her at the National Army Museum, when I did a lot of work for them, so they invited me to come along when The Queen visited-
-Oh, when Her Majesty saw her old uniform?
Yeah, that’s right and my daughters presented her with a posey. And The Queen said to me then ‘You should be over there, taking photographs.’
I see her all the time, but it’s nice to know that she remembers who I am and what I do and that I’m not just a blank face. Considering how many people and photographers she sees on a daily basis, she has an amazing memory. So that was quite good.
The Duke of Edinburgh is funny.. he’s just amusing. When I had to photo all the Colonels-in-Chief, they all looked very serious and I said ‘I’ve just got to check [the photo]’ and he’s like ‘What are you bloody checking for? We’re all going to be in the picture!’ And everyone laughed, and then I got a photo of them all smiling.
It was bizarre when I had Prince Edward behind me taking the mickey while I was taking photographs, and The Queen sat in front of me – that was last year’s Queen’s birthday parade. A really bonkers moment.
It’s an honour.
Inspired by SSgt Frere’s work, we’d like to see your royal/military photos! Rupert has kindly agreed to judge the entries.
You must be 16 or over to enter the competition, and own the copyright of the images. You may submit photos on behalf of someone else, providing they have given their permission and they are credited. We will organise them into categories (eg royal, military, state event) based upon the images we receive.
Winners will receive a copy of Julian Calder’s ‘Trooping the Colour’, a certificate and their photo(s) published on our site and social media.
Closing date is 15th November, with winners announced later that week.