Definitely not cooks
In the modern era, women have forged outstanding Army careers as photographers too.
By Meleah Hampton and Jennifer Selby
By the early 1990s it was not unusual for women to enlist in the Australian Army, although their roles were more narrowly defined than they are today. Many became cooks, but not new recruit Robyn White. She later recalled thinking, “If I become an army cook I’m going to slit my wrists, I do not want to become an army cook.” Nor did she. Although she initially wanted to be a medic, her previous experience in newspaper photography led to her assignment to the Army’s Department of Public Relations. She was the first female cinematographer and photographer in the ADF. “I didn’t actually join the army to be a photographer. I joined the army thinking I was just getting out of Nowra, and thought I’d be a clerk or a medic.” Although she quickly proved her value, she was still occasionally referred to as “the woman we had to have” and regularly met resistance to her presence.
For Rachel Ingram, who enlisted five or six years after White, and grew up imagining herself serving in the Light Horse with her white pony, Army PR was a career she did not know existed. Not given a choice of job after her initial training, Ingram went into catering, as did most of her all-female platoon. She remembers she was “not very happy with that – no offence to catering – but I wanted to be a soldier and I couldn’t see cooking as soldiering, although these days I have an undying respect for what they do.” With aninterest in military history and the photographs she had seen in books and periodicals, Ingram eventually worked her way into the 1st Joint Public Affairs Unit as a photographer.
There are plenty of military activities for which a Defence photographer is needed, including military operations and exercises, public events and VIP visits. There would be few photographers, however, who are not looking to go on deployment. White’s first deployment was to the First World War battlefields of France and Flanders to record the exhumation and return of Australia’s unknown soldier. Disinterred on 2 November 1993 from his resting place in Adelaide Cemetery in VillersBretonneux, the Unknown Australian Soldier lay in state in the nearby Australian War Memorial, and later in the Cloth Hall at Ypres, before being sent home to Australia and entombed in the Memorial’s Hall of Memory. White’s photograph of the coffin being carried across the airfield in the mist was later awarded the Damien Parer Award, the annual award for the best photograph by a Defence photographer.
Ingram’s first deployment, to East Timor, was as a signaller, but she has returned many times since as a photographer. She was there in 2008 during the attempted assassination of José Ramos-Horta. The sound of helicopters told her something had happened. Hearing that someone had shot the Timorese president, she said, “Yeah, let’s go!”, but then paused. “Is he all right? ... Oh good, I’m glad he’s all right, let’s go!” Working her stills and video cameras one after the other, Ingram recorded the only images of Ramos-Horta’s evacuation to Darwin, images that were seen around the world. For all of White’s career in the military, and most of Ingram’s, women have been prevented from serving in combat roles. These female cinematographers, however, did find themselves on very dangerous deployments.
Following deployments to the Solomon Islands and Iraq, Ingram was deployed to Afghanistan with Mentoring & Reconstruction Task Force 2 in 2009, going on combat foot patrols outside the wire. When the platoon sergeant heard a photographer was joining his platoon, he asked “What’s his name?” The answer “Rachel” was met with “That’s a funny name for a bloke,” but there was never any sign she was not welcome or accepted by the patrol. With Afghanistan a war zone, Ingram had to wear full body armour and carry her weapon at all times, despite being laden with photographic equipment as well. Everything she needed had to be attached to her person with carabiner hooks. “That meant I could let go of my weapon, pick up a stills camera, take a couple of shots, put that down – then back to my weapon, go on; stop, pick up my video camera, go to a knee, take a little bit [of footage]. You know there’s no massive production out there, it’s just what you can get.” Her equipment had to be protected from dust and water, and it took a few patrols to work out how to juggle cameras, memory cards, batteries, food, water, medical kit, ammunition and all of the other equipment she had to take and use in “that Afghan bloody dust” in her time outside the wire. Constantly under threat from improvised explosive devices, Ingram had to maintain endless vigilance.
You just take each step and you watch your arcs, looking for suspicious characters and the unusual … You’re watching the guy in front of you, the guy behind you, the guy across from you. We’re all on headsets so we’re listening to the boss, what they’re seeing up the front, what they’re seeing up the back. I would just patrol slowly through the patrol to the front and all the way back. I would double around continuously. The mission always took precedence. Sometimes it wasn’t practical to take some photos. If I saw it, I would take it. It was remarkable to be out there … I could honestly say I was never scared [although] I would say I was apprehensive quite a number of times.
Years before, in 1995, Robyn White was in Rwanda, recording the activity of Australians serving with UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. The Australian force was a peacekeeping one, largely there to provide medical assistance and not to conduct a war. Long-serving Defence photographer Bill Cunneen advised White, however, always to carry a pistol in-country, to make it easier to juggle her equipment and stay armed. Before she left, Cunneen told her, “I will never forget being introduced to you as the token female, and the female we had to have, and I will not have it! Robyn, it doesn’t matter that you’re a female. You’re quite capable of doing the job of any man, but unfortunately there are people that don’t think that you can, so you have to work twice as hard.”
On 22 April 1995, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) attacked and killed thousands of civilians in an Internally Displaced Persons camp at Kibeho in south-west Rwanda. The RPA killed thousands of their own countrymen in a savage attack using both military weapons and machetes. White was sent to Kibeho to record the activity of Australians in the area. She recalls being sent in, one of only two photographers allowed in that day, and working with the Canadian Public Affairs officer. Steeled to see dead bodies, White didn’t notice any until the Canadian started saying, “Bodies! Bodies! We’ve got to show the horror of this place! There’s bodies, there’s bodies everywhere!” She recalls, “He physically had to point one out to me, and it was a dead baby. I stood up and then realised that I had actually walked into a field of dead bodies and I hadn’t seen one of them.”
As White worked to record what was going on, four members of the Australian SAS who were embedded in the contingent came to tell her to hide, as the RPA intended to take her camera gear. Hiding her gear under chaff bags, she says, “It was me, four SAS guys, and the Rwandan Army.” From that point on she had to shoot secretly, using her video camera at knee height, or sneaking a photograph through fence palings. Despite the fact that she largely did not know what her cameras were recording, she took some iconic images of Australians at Kibeho – for example, the shot of Corporal Brian Buskell keeping watch over the Australian Medical Support Force casualty clearing station.
White says, “There were some horrible stories there, the way people would try to survive. There was a family actually in the toilet pit, and the Zambians had to rip the toilets down to get them out.” In another instance, she saw that as members of the Zambian UN contingent went to pick up a body, it jumped up and was alive. It was not uncommon for the living to hide among the dead. At the time she thought she was just doing her job. “I used to joke that I was okay because I didn’t have to touch any of the bodies,” but the images she saw that day haunted her for years.
“When it came to the Kibeho massacre, I had to make a real choice about what I did. With video you’ve got to capture the story from start to finish, and everything in between. Whereas, if you’re taking a photo, you’re picking your moments, but you couldn’t just put your [video] camera down, [waiting] to pick your moment and take a picture. It was hard.” White regrets that at times of national remembrance, such as Anzac Day, Rwanda has little place. She marches with peacekeepers on Anzac Day when she can.
At the elections
During the 2009 Afghanistan national elections and cordon and search missions, Rachel Ingram made herself available to conduct individual searches of Afghan women. She received a Silver Commendation for outstanding achievement in her performance as the Imagery Specialist in direct support of Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force Two. Her acute awareness of the insurgent threat within a hostile and rugged environment, and her ability to conform to the tactical requirements of the force elements that she accompanied, led to a commendation.
Your tireless efforts to capture accurate and believable images of the Battle Group’s soldiers has been an important factor in the maintenance of morale of deployed personnel and families at home. You have displayed outstanding commitment to duty and resilience, as you have endured the same hardships as the combat arms troops that you have participated with on patrol. Your acute awareness of the insurgent threat within a hostile and rugged environment, and conforming to the tactical requirements of the force elements that you have supported, exemplifies that you are a soldier first and a specialist second.
Ingram was present on the patrol when Private Benjamin Ranaudo was killed, and her role as photographer required her to capture imagery of the subsequent ramp ceremony.
The hardest thing was to watch the people that I had bonded with and cared for sending a 22-year-old home. Definitely, without doubt, the hardest thing I had to do … It was hard to focus a camera, trying to stay focused, not to look at fellow soldiers with tears in your eyes. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how I actually got any images that day at all. It was heart-breaking. Even after the ramp ceremony, it’s not finished, you have to edit, you have to clear, you have to do it all, you’re just looking at [the images] continuously.
A few days after the incident, Alpha company was back out on patrol, and Ingram was with them, “We had a job to do! We all stepped very lightly for a while the next time we went out, it was quite remarkable. And like I said, you know it’s out there. IEDs don’t discriminate. They don’t care if you’re male or female, black or white, fat or thin. If it’s there, it’s there.”
Ingram retired from the army in 2014 but continues to dedicate herself to serving others. Following Australia’s devastating fires of summer 2020, she volunteered with recovery efforts in fire-affected East Gippsland with Team Rubicon Australia. This is now called Disaster Relief Australia, an organisation uniting the skills and experiences of Australian Defence Force veterans, emergency responders and civilians to rapidly deploy disaster relief teams at home and around the world.
Rachel Ingram says, “At the end of the day, hopefully, my photos will end up in the War Memorial. I would rather have one photo hang in the War Memorial than have the front page of The Australian, any day.”
To read Jennifer Selby and Dr. Meleah Hampston's article, you can purchase your copy of Wartime here.
About the authors
Jennifer Selby is a curator in Photographs, Film and Sound at the Memorial. Dr Meleah Hampton is an historian in the Military History Section at the Memorial.