Skip to content

Photographer making waves to document veterans' charity

A veteran from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has used photography to document a surf charity working to help ex-soldiers who have returned from conflict.

There is a considered sensitivity that Bryon has photographed that allows objectivity and humility.

Max Kandhola, Photography course leader at NTU

A veteran from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has used photography to document a surf charity working to help ex-soldiers who have returned from conflict.

Byron Kirk served with the Household Cavalry Regiment from 2003 to 2011. When he left the Army, he was shocked by the negativity shown towards him and other veterans reintegrating into civilian life and the misconceptions surrounding mental health issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

An aspiring photographer, Byron began a degree at Nottingham Trent University in 2011, having already had images taken during his time in Afghanistan included in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum that year.

He decided to embark on a project for his Photography course which would allow him to contradict the stereotypes of "troubled veterans" he had encountered.

"I lived with another veteran who suffered from PTSD and several other mental health disorders," said Byron, 28, of Long Eaton. "The more I spoke to him I realised that if anything, his mental health disorders were nothing to do with what he had seen in war, they were more to do with the fact he missed his mates and he felt he had lost is function."

Byron, who had already paid for a camera through crowdfunding on the internet, turned once again to social media in search of an organisation which was helping veterans to understand their identity. When he was told about the Surf Action charity in Cornwall, which brings together military veterans affected by PTSD and physical injuries to enjoy surfing, he felt he had found the right subject for his photo-documentary project.

He made several trips to Cornwall and spent weeks at a time living with the veterans and travelling with them to document their surf trips and meetings.

His subsequent catalogue of photos, called Surf Action: The Wanderers between two Worlds, is a first person account of the surfers, taken as Byron saw and understood them.

It starts with passport images of the soldiers taken by the military when they signed up – most at the age of 16.

"It's about identity," said Byron. "These passport images are the last image taken of them before they joined the military. That same image and a number is used for all identification purposes – it is what you are reduced to as a soldier."

His photo-documentary shows how the charity has helped its members to find their identities and purposes again once leaving the military.

"One guy I met used to be a lifeguard before he joined the military," explained Byron. "When he joined Surf Action, he started to grow his hair long again and refused to wear shoes – he would go everywhere barefoot and he didn't care."

The photographs were displayed at the Free Range Festival at the Old Truman Brewery in London along with work by other graduating photography students from Nottingham Trent University.

They include black and white images of the veterans preparing to hit the waves and of contemplative portraits. Byron also took photographs of paintings done by some of the members revealing their inner thoughts. The catalogue ends with a positive, hopeful painting by one of the surfers showing a fist punching up through the waves with the words 'When you walk on the sea, have no fear. We will be there for you, when you sink beneath the waves.'

Byron explained: "I wanted to show that because that's what I saw during my time with Surf Action, I saw how the charity helped people. It helped because it brought guys together to share a new passion and have new shared experiences, unrelated to the war, to talk about."

Byron is now hoping to self-publish a book of his photographs through crowdfunding and to embark on a career in photography.

Surf Action founder and director Rich Emerson said: “Surf Action was delighted to accommodate Byron and his project on the work of our charity. His integrity and passion with the veterans was carried out with amazing care and professionalism. The awareness of issues surrounding post -military life for the individual and the families has such importance in future personnel who have yet to make that journey. We are very impressed with the angle Byron has taken in showcasing those who have served our country and the difficulties they face once the uniform is handed back."

Max Kandhola, course leader for the Ba(Hons) Photography degree at Nottingham Trent University, said: "There is a considered sensitivity that Bryon has photographed that allows objectivity and humility. As a soldier based in Afghanistan his personal knowledge and experience at the front line of war allows him to enter the private and sensitive world of the veteran with dignity. This passage from the war zone to home is most often not represented or it is misrepresented; here we view photographs of individuals, a community integrating back into their life."

  • Notes for editors

    Work by selected graduating Nottingham Trent University photography students will be on display at the Free Range Festival, Old Truman Brewery, London, between June 20 and 23.

    View more information about Byron Kirk's work.

    Surf Action is a charity dedicated to supporting military veterans (including TA and reservists) and their families, especially those affected by PTSD and physical injuries or struggling to re-adjust to civilian life. More information is available on the Surf Action website.

Photographer making waves to document veterans' charity

Published on 23 June 2014
  • Category: Press office; School of Art & Design

Still need help?

+44 (0)115 941 8418