“24878385 - my army number. I can recall it without hesitation, even after a full ten years have come to pass - so entrenched are these eight digits in my mind.” — Craig Ames, 2004
Between 1989 and 1992, Craig Ames served as an infantry soldier in the British Army. Like many young men who ‘sign-up’ he longed for adventure and the opportunity to escape the confines of home. ‘Eager to declare my independence, I readily swore my allegiance to Queen and country. Consumed by a new found pride and sense of patriotism, I was unconcerned, even blissfully unaware as to just how much of a contradiction my gambit for independence had been,’ says Ames.
During his military service Ames was deployed on a six month Tour of Duty in Northern Ireland. Patrolling the segregated communities of West Belfast, he witnessed the disturbing sights of a deeply divided land. Before being dispatched, Ames trained as an Evidence Photographer - a formative moment in developing his fascination of photography. As he describes, ‘I immediately wanted to create my own visual record of the city and my daily experiences within it. However, due to security restrictions and safety concerns this was not possible in an official capacity, so I began working incognito.’ Working intuitively and without the knowledge of his superiors, he started to take snapshots using a camera, concealed in his flack-jacket.
After three years service Ames left the army. Shortly after, he embarked on an extensive programme of academic studies, which recently culminated with a MA Degree with distinction in Photography from the University of Sunderland (2003-2004). Ames explains his passion for using photography to depict the harsh realities and entrapments of sectors within the community that he has a personal connection with. ‘I find that the photographic medium provides the ideal platform from which I can communicate my concerns, interests and emotions.’ In essence, his work is a hybrid of the two photographic genres he finds the most engaging and significant: 'Fine Art' and documentary.
In 2001, Ames returned to his former regiment to create an in-depth critique of the military institution and its ethos. Coincidentally, the project began on 12th September, and whilst the legacy of the terrorist attacks on the US did not directly affect Ames's photographs they inevitably have broader implications. Taking a year to complete, Left Right Left was photographed in England and Cyprus as the soldiers prepared and waited in earnest for potential deployment to the Middle East. The images in this body of work are in no way glamorised. Nor do they underpin the stereotypical representations of uniformed males that permeate our media so relentlessly.
Reflecting on his experiences Ames wrote: ‘… I was not prepared for the emotional conflict that initially overwhelmed me. On the one hand I was brimming with nostalgic notions - glad to be back in such a familiar environment. However, these feelings were soon competing with a deep sense of alienation. Submerged once more within a militarised zone, all the elements of control became apparent. This 'familiar' environment now felt incredibly claustrophobic.’ Ames continues: ‘The barrack block remains the only place where the soldiers can cling on to their individuality - and they do so in much the same way as I did; marking their territory, decorating their bed spaces with posters, flags, family snaps and porn ... And so I set about photographing the things I remembered so vividly: the endless battles with boredom, the 'squaddie' mentality - and also the things which I now found somewhat unsettling: all the trappings and traditions of a self contained, military world.’
In 2004, PhotoNorth, published a book featuring the army projects with support form Arts Council England, and the Victoria and Albert Museum subsequently acquired a collection of prints. Entitled Left Right Left, the book also features a critical essay by David Chandler (Photoworks). Chandler writes, ‘It is tempting to consider Ames's work as a documentary account ... But Ames's work is much more than this, because in each photograph we find the photographer gazing into the mirror of his past experience ... In taking this journey he has given us a very personal, but also entirely honest and uncompromising picture of what it is like to be a young soldier in the British Army today.’
Ames work was included in the ‘Made in Britain: Contemporary British Photography’ exhibition at The huis Marseille, Foundation for Photography in Amsterdam in 2005 and work from the ‘Left Right Left’ series is included in the Museum’s permanent collection. Ames has exhibited extensively throughout England; however, this is his first solo exhibition in The Netherlands.
All work is available for purchase