Friday, November 8, 2013

'Embedded' Ben on the ground with Afghanistan's Pacific 'freedom operation'

Task Force Guam leaders present photojournalist Ben Bohane (centre) with a special award after Bohane recently embedded with the Guam Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment. After years of covering conflict throughout the Pacific, Bohane ventured to Afghanistan to cover Pacific Islanders serving Operation Enduring Freedom. Photo: Sgt Eddie Siguenza]

Sergeant Edward Siguenza reports from Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan for the Guam News

Benjamin "Ben" Bohane's strides are long, perfectly fitting his 6-foot-3 thin Australian frame.

So when he walks with genetically short-statured Pacific Islanders -- as he did as an embedded photojournalist with the Guam Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment throughout October -- he immediately established conflict with his military escorts.

"Hey, slow down," a 5-foot-7 Guam soldier shouts as they prepare to board a plane to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. "Take smaller steps. The plane's not going anywhere without us."

Bohane turns around and notices his 10-foot lead.

"Sorry mate," he proclaims in his Australian tone. "Size 12 shoes. I was born with big feet."

For the next three weeks, there really was no slowing down. Bohane's pace isn't because of big feet, but of a large heart for Pacific Islanders and an enormous feat to photo-document service members serving Operation Enduring Freedom. He insists not just any soldier, but Pacific Island-born service members.

It's fitting he fell in with Guam. Close to 600 Guam Guardsmen are in Afghanistan. They occupy all six International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) regions, and Guam itself is an international hub for other islanders.

Battle roster
Task Force Guam's battle roster features Micronesians, Samoans, Palauans and residents of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Bohane’s thankful and blessed to find these nationalities under one roof, but he wants more.

“It’s my strong belief everyone in the Pacific Islands is united in some way,” said Bohane, now a resident of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. “Nobody really covers the islands. We live in the most special part of the world. I relate to the islands – the beaches, the trees, the salt water.”

Ben Bohane with flak jacket in Afghanistan.
Photo: TF Guam Facebook page
With Guam’s assistance, Bohane ventured to different parts of Afghanistan searching for ALL Pacific Islanders. Things immediately work as he finds a Tahitian with the French Army at North Kaia in Kabul. The soldier is one of just two Tahitians among the hundreds of French soldiers in this camp, he says.

A few hours later, when boarding that Kandahar flight, a Tongan soldier is part of the ground crew and a New Zealander is travelling on the same flight.

If only things were this easy, Bohane reflects, as he mentions previous treks into Burma, Solomon Islands and West Papua. The war in Burma was his first photojournalism stint. He was 19 and covered the toughest part of any war - the rebel side.

Same goes true for the West Papua conflict, where Bohane won the hearts of the Papuan rebels who clashed with invading Indonesians. He ate, walked and dodged bullets with the rebels, who in turn saved his life several times.

“There have been lots of challenges in covering this region, from having to do serious trekking in jungles and mountains, often trying to avoid patrolling armies,” Bohane explained.

Dodgy boat trips
“There have been dodgy boat trips, hot landings on occupied beaches, and a few near-misses. But on another level, the big challenge is always winning local people’s trust so that I can do the job that needs doing.”

Bohane’s Pacific adventures of war, conflict and religion are documented in his book Black Islands: Spirit and War in Melanesia released in September 2013. This black-and-white photography lineage displays about two decades of his work.

He presented this book to Lt. Col. Michael Tougher, Task Force Guam commander, who in turn initiated Bohane into the Omnipotent Order of the 294th Infantry As a True Guardian of the Right, an honor rarely bestowed to non-military.

“It’s just Ben’s ability to blend in as one of us. It’s his life as a Pacific Islander that made it easy for us to understand him, and vice versa,” Tougher said. “He’s welcomed into our home on Guam whenever he wants to come back with us.”

Jump back two paragraphs, or in Bohane’s case, to a forgotten time, to “black-and-white photography.” The antique Leica camera strapped around Bohane’s neck makes a first impression of “You got to be kidding me,” or “Dude, you seriously gotta upgrade” for those initially meeting him.

But Bohane defends himself well, letting others know the 35 mm film camera still functions great, has served him for all of his nearly three decades of photography, and has traveled more miles than the average man ever will.

“So, my IPod camera isn’t good enough?” a Guam soldier asks.

Bohane laughs and responds, “If it’s good enough for you, stick with it.”

Love for photography
It’s no laughing matter to see Bohane’s love for photography. When people see black and white photos, he sees color in them. He sees definition in the subject, and uniqueness of its presentation. Bohane’s old school, but there’s nothing wrong with his vision. He tucked nearly 50 black-and white films into his camera bag (again, old school and out-dated) and used all of them in a span of three weeks.

“A lot of people are looking for that one photo that will be their claim to fame, but I don’t think that exists,” Bohane said. “I think a person will be defined by the number of things he has done, not just one thing.”

A contributor to Australia-based Wakaphotos, Bohane has the largest individual photo archive of the South Pacific. Prestigious places like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, British Museum and Australian War Memorial collect Bohane’s products.

He has also had his work featured in Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and other worldwide popular publications.

His current work will be featured here and in upcoming documentaries at a later date.

Afghanistan isn’t Bohane’s world, but he still tracks down Fijians, Papua New Guineans, Chuukeses, Hawaiians and of course, Australians. Aside from their Pacific unity, the nations have one big thing in common: An Afghanistan exodus in December.

The drawdown of NATO coalition forces by next year means a lot of nations will not come back.

Tongan 'no play'
Not all turned to Bohane’s favor. He tracks down a Tongan unit at Camp Bastion and fully explains his intent. They refuse to comply. He reiterates his purpose and immense love for the Pacific, but the Tongans don’t care.

“They just didn’t want to play,” Bohane said. “Oh well, bad on them.”

There are no signs of Marshallese or New Caledonians. Bohane didn’t even come across a Ni-Vanuatu. Maybe they’re here in Afghanistan, but Bohane runs out of time to search. Or maybe it’s just because the Pacific Ocean is just too vast, and not every nation views Afghanistan as a stopover. It is the beautiful Pacific after all; more to see on that side of the world than one in conflict in the Middle East.

Yet another reason why Bohane’s strides are long. There’s so much the Pacific Islands have to offer – aside from conflict, wars and religion – that even after 25 years, Bohane’s just taking the first few steps.

“I’m not in this for the career,” Bohane said. “I’m in this for the love of life. All I know is, my photos will live a lot longer than me.”

Black Islands: Spirit and War in Melanesia


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