We are Defence tells the story of what Defence does, through the people who work here. Below, Petty Officer Owen Cooban, a Royal Navy photographer, shares his story.
From watching the world fly by to ‘capturing’ moments seen around the world.
When I worked at Gatwick Airport in the late nineties, I used to see people setting off to travel the world and knew that I wanted a career that would give me that opportunity.
As a child, my two grandfathers used to tell me stories of far flung places they’d seen while serving in the Submarine Service and the Royal Marines. It was these stories that inspired me to join the Royal Navy.
In my first job after training as a communicator, I flew out to join the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. I was supposed to join it in France on its return from deployment but it was diverted as it was the on call operational carrier.
I flew into Freetown in Sierra Leone and waited to be collected but this took a while as the airport had only just been recaptured and it was under a counter attack. Once clear, I was flown to HMS Illustrious by a Sea King helicopter stopping off to refuel on an RFA ship on the way. When we finally landed, it was late at night and had taken nearly forty-eight hours but at least I could celebrate my birthday onboard with a drink or two.
In April 2004, I was promoted to Leading Airman Photographer after completing a seven month photographer course. As a Royal Navy photographer, I’ve travelled the world and covered a wide range of Royal Navy tasks including; providing hurricane relief, conducting anti-piracy and counter narcotics operations, as well as conducting security patrols.
After ten years of this, I moved up to MOD Main Building in London. My arrival wasn’t quite the same as onto HMS Illustrious, but in my current role as the lead military photographer, it’s just as interesting.
I am responsible for ensuring important occasions in the life of the nation are captured and can be shared around the world. Recent highlights for me have included marking the centenaries of the Battles of Jutland, Passchendaele and the Somme. I’ve also had the honour of capturing memories of other poignant moments including the unveiling of memorials to those who fought in Korea and Afghanistan, as well as the annual Remembrance Day memorial at the Cenotaph.
Remembrance Sunday is special for me, as it allows me to take time out to think of lost colleagues and give thought to who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country I love.
For me, the personal connections I’ve made in Defence are the most important. In the last 18 years, I’ve worked with people at the highest levels in Defence, Government and have even met and captured members of the Royal Family and celebrities such as Angelina Jolie.
I went out to Kenya to cover Angelina Jolie in her role as an ambassador for the United Nations, when she was campaigning for the end of sexual violence in war zones. Angelina was so passionate about the cause, caring and fully engaged with all who she met during the trip — and that came across in the pictures.
In these situations, I’ve learnt that making subjects feel comfortable is the key to getting the most out of every opportunity. And that’s true whether talking to a sea cadet or the First Sea Lord…or a leading Hollywood actress!
In my work, being recognised by winning photographic competitions is a true honour. I’ve been the Royal Navy Photographer of the year in the past but in 2017 I won a photographic prize at the Army Photographic awards. As well as being open to all Service photographers, the category was also open to the British public. Thousands of entries were submitted but mine won.
My most meaningful win was on a much smaller scale though. A few years ago, I won an award to recognise distinction within our Photography Branch. It is an award which was set up to honour my old Photographic Instructor who sadly died in a car crash whilst he was based at the Ministry of Defence, doing the job I do now. I looked up to him in every way. He assisted me joining and throughout my training. His wife Julie gave me the award and it holds a very close place in my heart.
After 18 years of Service, it is still my opinion that there isn’t a better or more rewarding career than working in Defence. I love my job and the opportunities I get and I want to carry my career on for as long as I can.
To those starting out on their careers or deciding what to do, I would say choose what you do in the Military wisely but I don’t think there is a better career than being a Service photographer. I would be honoured if my children wanted to join up and I would encourage them if they chose to do so.