The 'changing face' of the British Army


Rory Lewis

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Rory Lewis

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Rory Lewis spent two years photographing 278 portraits

The British Army’s new recruitment adverts have caused a bit of a stir by targeting minority groups with their more ‘touchy feely’ message.

The intent was clearly to appeal to an audience that might have reservations about a career in the Army.

But there’s also another message: The British Army’s changing.

A new photographic exhibition, Soldiery, portrays the Army in a similar light.

A ‘labour of love’

Rory Lewis specialises in portraits – taking inspiration from artists like Hans Holbein the Younger, Titian and George Dawe.

He says he likes to capture solemnity. None of his subjects are seen smiling.

It took him two years to photograph 278 portraits of today’s soldiers for what he calls a “labour of love”.

He says the faces show the British Army in all its guises – from ceremonial to combat as well as the more iconic regiments from the Ghurkas to the Grenadier Guards.

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Rory Lewis

Many of the uniforms are a manifestation of the history and traditions of the service.

But the faces also illustrate the transformation of the men and women who now wear them.

In reality the vast majority of the British Army is still male and white – men like General Sir James Everard, who was instrumental in getting Rory access for his project.

Like many of the Army’s top brass General Everard is from a relatively privileged middle class and privately educated background.

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Rory Lewis

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General Sir James Everard joined the Army 35 years ago

But he believes these old stereotypes are slowly being broken down.

When he joined 35 years ago he reminds me that “homosexuality was still illegal in the Army”.

A strong advocate of diversity, General Sir Everard has served as patron of the Army LGBT Forum.

Female role models

Among the portraits on display at the National Army Museum is that of Susan Ridge – the first woman to hold the rank of Major General in the British Army.

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Rory Lewis

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Major General Susan Ridge was the first woman to hold the rank of Major General

General Everard believes it’s only a matter of time before the Army has its first female four-star general.

“It takes time to grow them but it’s definitely coming,” he says.

But he insists that in some ways the Army hasn’t changed.

When he joined the 17th and 21st Lancers, now the Royal Lancers, he recalls “despite all the rules and regulations, they didn’t care who or what you were as long as you could do the job”.

That attitude he insists is the same today.

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Rory Lewis

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Captain Julian Anani-Isaac says the army is a “force for good”

Captain Julian Anani-Isaac is also an officer in the Royal Lancers, whose history stretches back more than 300 years.

He joined the army four years ago because he says he believes it’s “a force for good and I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk”.

As a black officer he says: “I haven’t had any problem with racism.”

While he says he’s still sure racism does exist and “we’re not angels” he also believes it’s quickly stamped out.

“If you have problems,” he says “there are people you can go to”.

‘Rufty-tufty’

Warrant Officer Deborah Penny, of the Royal Logistic Corps, says she’s proof the Army’s become more inclusive.

She joined more than 30 years ago as a he.

“When I first joined it was rufty-tufty and a lot of bullying went on,” she says.

She adds if she’d identified as a transgender soldier when she first joined in the 1980s she’d have been thrown out.

Now she says you can be “transgender like me”.

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Rory Lewis

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Warrant Officer Deborah Penny was one of six LGBT soldiers photographed

Deborah became the first transgender soldier to serve on the frontline in Afghanistan.

She says “transitioning was a bit hard to begin with but now we’re allowing soldiers to be themselves”.

She was one of six LGBT soldiers photographed by Rory Lewis.

Rory says he was especially keen to take their portraits after Donald Trump announced his ban on transgender soldiers.

Deborah defiantly adds Trump “got it wrong and the British Army’s got it right”.

Rory claims: “The British Army is one of the most diverse organisations I’ve ever worked with”.

Though that’s not backed up by the statistics.

Women still make up just 9.2% of the Regular Army. It wants that figure to reach 15% by 2020.

Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) personnel across the regular armed forces currently stands at 7.5%.

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Rory Lewis

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This portrait of Sergeant Seeto is one of Rory’s favourite pieces

Most are not British by birth, but from other Commonwealth countries – like Sergeant Seeto of the Adjutant General’s Corps who’s from Fiji.

This is Rory’s favourite portrait as he says her face tells you everything about her – she’s a soldier, wife and mother.

Mr Lewis says he hopes his portraits capture a modern British Army that’s inclusive and diverse while encapsulating its old traditions.

The statistics suggest it still has some way to go, if it wants to claim it’s a true reflection of the society it represents.

A selection of photos from “Soldiery” are on display at the National Army Museum until 7 February.

Rory Lewis’s photos can be seen here.



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