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Snapshots of war.

Byline: ALEX HICKEY

[bar] ITH a university professor for a dad and an artist mother, it never seemed predestined that Ioan Gruffudd Roberts would sign up for a life on the high seas. When you throw five half-sisters into the mix - all to varying degrees involved in the world of arts and academia - his decision to join the Royal Navy as a fresh faced 21-year-old seems even more striking.

The former Ysgol Cae Top, Bangor pupil took the plunge, so to speak, in January 2005 and emerged from his basic training on HMS Raleigh and HMS Collingwood as a mine warfare rating.

Ioan, now 27, looks back on that fateful decision with amusement: "I walked into the armed forces recruitment office in Wrexham and told them I wanted to become a seaman. I was a bit of a rebel and joined the forces for the adrenaline, excitement and the explosions."

.His parents, Dr Emyr Wyn Roberts, a retired Bangor University electronics professor, and Christine, an artist sculptor and teacher at Coleg Menai, were "surprised but supportive" of their son's decision.

After a year in the south of England training and then a stint on Horatio Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, he was posted to Faslane in 2006.

It was on the west coast of Scotland naval base where his career took an interesting turn, perhaps more in keeping with his family heritage. He became a Forces' photographer.

Ioan said: "I was flicking through Navy News one day and I saw all these interesting pictures and it got me thinking this could be the job for me.

."I spoke to the navigation officer on HMS Pembroke and the most I expected was to be sent on a course. Instead he handed me the ship's camera, a Canon EOS Digital SLR, and that was that."

That weekend he bought a book on photography and mugged up on it cover to cover. The following week he was the ship's photographer on its tour to Cape Verde off the western coast of Africa.

"I was just thrown in at the deep end to learn depth of field, rule of third, leading lines and the basics of the craft. Out of that deployment I managed to pull together a portfolio."

Since then he has covered the kind of assignments only available to the most determined and resourceful of war photographers. He has just returned from Afghanistan where he captured the Royal Irish Regiment's efforts to help secure Helmand Province for the Afghan National Forces, ahead of the scheduled British withdrawal in 2014.

.He has also documented life on a nuclear submarine, trained the Ugandan People's Defence Forces on how to handle the media ahead of its peacekeeping deployment to Somalia, and flown with barely a day's notice to cover a training exercise on the Falkland Islands. There is also the small matter of a four-month "long look" with the Royal Australian Navy in 2009, where he met his fiancee Michaela Brown.

Out of all of these experiences, covering the claustrophobic, underwater world of life on a nuclear sub was his most "memorable" assignment. He spent four days on HMS Vanguard with his cameras and a Trident nuclear ballistic missile for company.

."For security reasons only the Captain and First Officer had any idea where we were. It's a different world down there and a challenging environment, but it's fair to say easily the hottest woman I've ever slept next to (a Trident missile) was on that sub."

Technically a leading airman - a sailor with the Fleet Air Arm - in reality his role is to capture life as it is for service .

personnel in the Navy, Army or RAF. And with six years' service - five of them as a photographer - he feels he is being paid to do two jobs he loves most: photography and serving his country.

But the job is not all sun, sea and deployments to exotic locations. There is the grim task of covering the funerals of those who have lost their lives while on duty. "Filming or photographing the funerals of those who have been killed .

is the hardest part of the job. We do it purely for the families and not for the press, but when you see a 21-year-old who has been blown up in Afghanistan being laid to rest, that stays with you."

The poignancy of covering these events perhaps goes someway to explaining his long held wish to take his camera to the frontline in Afghanistan. That wish was granted earlier this year when he spent time in Helmand Province - firstly at Camp Bastion to profile the RAF's fire service, and then to a forward operating base at Attel, near the frontline, on assignment with the Royal Irish Regiment and the Afghan National Police.

"My boss called me shortly after I had come back from a tour with the Ugandan People's Defence Forces, asking me if I wanted to go," said Ioan.

He didn't have to be asked twice, and was posted to the Defence Media Operations Centre. "It wasn't all about bombs and bullets. My job was to take photographs and shoot videos of the positive work being done to reconstruct the country. Right now the focus is on empowering the Afghan's to rebuild their own country."

Nevertheless that involved going out on patrols in what is still one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be in a British uniform. Naturally enough, his mum, dad, sisters and fiancee were "anxious but supportive". "Michaela warned me not to be stupid or gung ho," he said.

And as a former member of the Royal Australian Navy she knows what she's talking about. How he met her sums up the life-changing nature of his decision to walk into that army careers office in Wrexham in 2005. Two years ago he was given a dream posting: a four month "long look" at the navy's Aussie counterparts. "I met her in Canberra, where she was the PA for the chief of the Royal Australian Navy," he said.

They got engaged soon after and she made the ultimate sacrifice for love by quitting her job so the two could spend time together. "We take turns to visit each other every three months. If she had stayed in her job we would have never been able to see each other."

With a wedding in the offing to a girl from the wrong hemisphere, Ioan is unsure of what the future holds. But whatever it is, there will be a camera of some sort in his hands. "I love photography and maybe eventually I would like to get into film or TV (as a camera operator)." But right now Forces' life behind the lens with the world as his oyster is suiting him just fine.

TELL YOUR REAL LIFE STORIES Call us on 01492 574452 or e-mail welshnews@dailypost.co.uk Shawkat market, Afghanistan, this year

CAPTION(S):

Ioan took this photo of the Royal Irish Regiment in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, earlier this year Ioan Roberts in full body armour in Afghanistan Afghan National Civil Order Police off icer guards the Friendship Bridge HMS Vanguard submarine in 2009
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Sep 24, 2011
Words:1196
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