As an Army photographer Pete Bristo covered war zones from Afghanistan to America.
As well as capturing the news he also made his own headlines as mid conversation with a news crew in a war zone he was shot in the head. The 49-year-old, made an MBE by the Queen for his services to photography, has just picked up a string of Yorkshire awards for his wedding and portrait work.
But speaking from his studio in Harrogate, he explained it hadn’t always been so safe. After taking up photography as a hobby when he was in Berlin with the Army in 1981, Pete began as an Army unit photographer, before becoming its national photographer.
He was trained in a City of Guild’s course at the Joint Services School of Photography at RAF Cosford before being sent out on postings.
“My first posting was in Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, then Belize, South America and Berlin,” he said.
Pete went to Belgium for three years becoming an Army press photographer. “In 1992, I went to Bosnia and that was when I was shot.”
As press photographer, Pete’s job was to escort journalists from newspapers and film crews to the front line, taking pictures for feature pieces to be sent back home.
“I’d been there for five months and put out more than 10,000 pictures,” he said. “I had two weeks to go and I got shot by a sniper on the front line.”
Recalling what happened, he said: “I was photographing refugees coming over the border. I’d taken the same pictures the week before and The Times had run them, so I thought I’d get more of the same.
“I had an ITN crew behind the protective border and I was just chatting to them. The next thing I knew I was gone.
“I fell to my knees, then I was gone.”
Luckily he was wearing a helmet and he smiles wryly as he talks about what happened. His picture, lying on the ground just moments after he was shot, was later plastered over newspapers and news bulletins.
“When I came round, I felt the bullet,” he said. “I felt the blood running down the side of my face. I took off my helmet and there was a hole in it. The bullet punched in just above my ear and left fragments on my brain.”
Within 10 minutes Dutch paramedics were on the scene. He was ‘casevaced’ (casualty-evacuation) out on a Hercules to Woolwich for treatment. But even recovering in hospital from surgery, he was desperate to get back to the frontline. “Every single day I was in Bosnia I was in the action,” he said. “It was buzzing. Now I couldn’t sit down. Within three days of being back in London I was fed up. Within two weeks I was back at work.”
He went to Germany, to work with the Army newspaper. Keeping busy, he said, was what got him through.
“Something like that affects everybody in different ways,” he said. “You see all the signs, you see dead people and children. You just thank God that you’re still here and get on with it. When I was shot, the lights went out. Then they came back on again when I woke up. You have to live for today. You just have to move on. There’s always the next job.”
And as well as the physical scars from his time in Bosnia, he has something to remind him of the work he did there. “I got an MBE for that tour,” he says, almost as an afterthought. “Not for getting shot. For services to photography.”
Pete now has a string of letters after his name. After his 22 years’ service with the Army was up, he moved into commercial photography.
In addition to the MBE, he is now a fellow of the Master Photographer’s Association (MPA), of the British Institute of Professional Photography and the Royal Photographic Society. His full title is Pete Bristo, MBE, FSWPP, FRPS, FBIPP, FMPA.
“I was ready to leave the Army,” he said. “I had always wanted to do wedding photography. I’d been photographing weddings anyway, in the Army. The fellows based in Germany still get married, and I’d be there. It was a natural progression.”
After meeting his wife Sheryl and setting up Bristo Photography together in 2004, the pair established themselves as wedding and portrait photographers in Yorkshire.
They are now one of Ripley Castle’s recommended photographers and, having set up a new studio at Harrogate’s Hornbeam Park, said they average 40 to 60 weddings a year. “Over 10 years, we’ve probably done about 500 weddings,” said Pete. “What can I say, I like wedding cake!”
Pete has just won a string of awards in the Master Photographer’s Association Yorkshire and Northern Region. He took first and second prize in the classical wedding photographer of the year category, best overall image, and first and second in landscape.
He also teaches wedding photography and some of his pictures from this won first and second in the open category, others taking second and third in children’s under five, and third in parent and child. And despite the trials he has faced as a war photographer, he says the challenges in wedding and portrait photography are equally as satisfying.
“A wedding is not just the case of turning up at the church, it’s a full day event,” he said. “People are not always comfortable having their picture taken and as much as anything it’s about putting people at ease.
“I have my own style. Anybody can take a picture. But it’s about what you put into that picture that counts. And don’t ever stress the bride. If it rains on the day, we have brollies.”