Afghanistan is meant to be dry and hot. But when we arrived in Musa Qala in early January, a town which had been seized back from the Taliban just a month earlier, the place was a mud bath. And it was snowing.
It was the coldest Afghan winter on record, and we were sleeping on the floor of an unheated concrete cell that the locals had previously used as a toilet. This was how the ITV News headcam project started.
We’d noticed how snippets of headcam footage filmed by soldiers were appearing on YouTube – sneaked out, because soldiers aren’t meant to film themselves fighting. With a week of coverage from Afghanistan planned, we approached the MoD to see if we could equip soldiers with our own headcams for a series of reports, over which we would have total editorial control. We agreed that we would not compromise operational security, as is usual with military embeds, but we would have the right to show whatever else was filmed.
And so I found myself in Musa Qala with cameraman Mark Nelson. The last stretch of the journey was by far the most dangerous: Risking the roadside bombs as we travelled by Vector, an armoured troop carrier, into the centre of the town. The armour-plating was not much consolation: The amount of old anti-tank mines lying around the place could easily be piled up by the Taliban, rendering all that protection useless. And we were in the first vehicle of the convoy.
When I returned to Afghanistan two months later to go through the many hours of rushes, I had no idea whether we’d have anything usable. We only had time to give our headcam wearers the briefest possible camera training, instructing them to film every detail of their lives and on top of that asking the soldiers, not known for being an emotional bunch, to share their innermost thoughts in a video diary style.
It is perhaps an indication of the terrible situation experienced by troops serving there that they all captured vivid images of the harsh realities of life on the front line. One young officer, Capt Tom Bailey of the Coldstream Guards, unintentionally knocked his headcam into record as he leapt over the wall of a compound where Cpl Damian Lawrence, one of his close comrades, had just been blown up by a Taliban booby trap.
It was harrowing to watch the rushes back, but, with the blessing of Cpl Lawrence’s family, a few carefully chosen shots made it into a five-minute piece, together with a touching tribute by Capt Bailey. It led the News at Ten bulletin on the first night of our week of programmes. It was a bold move, but this was a bold project and it paid off. One viewer who emailed in said ‘it was the most moving pieces of journalism I have ever viewed”.