A historic market town with a distinctive 17th century town hall, Wootton Bassett is worth a visit – but the crowds that gather here with grim regularity are rarely interested in the tourist sites. Instead, as British troops face a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Wootton Bassett, west of London, has become synonymous with the repatriation of soldiers killed in action.
After they arrive at a nearby air base, the bodies are driven slowly through the town en route to a hospital. For the past two years, townsfolk have joined grieving relatives in paying spontaneous tribute to the passing dead.
Covering the repatriation cortege is an uncomfortable assignment. There is always awareness that some people think photographing and filming mourners at a moment of emotional vulnerability is a thoughtless intrusion. Even after scores of similar ceremonies, this feeling of awkwardness is evident, including at the latest one I attended on July 22. Friends and family of soldiers line one side of a narrow road in Wootton Bassett while photographers and television crews face them from the opposite side.
The timing of the procession of flag-draped hearses is always an uncertainty. Participants on both sides of the narrow street usually arrive early, often ending up standing face-to-face for hours with little or no interaction. Such was the case as we waited under brooding storm clouds, and blazing sunshine. The bereaved fidgeted in their heavy dark attire, as photographers perched on stepladders and shifted their heavy cameras in aching arms. I believe it is out of respect that very few pictures are taken before or after the procession. However, in the few minutes as the coffins pass and flowers are laid, photographers snap away, capturing raw and painful emotions.
It is often only as the cortege rolls past that the grief hits home for many of the families present: when it begins to sink in that their brother, father, best friend, son, daughter, spouse will never come home. And it shows. Even as I shoot I’m aware this grief is only the tip of the iceberg of what they will experience over the years to come, long after the press attention has moved on.