Army life is not what it used to be - no one knows that better than ex-soldier Martin Figura. From within, he watched, listened - and eventually photographed - that bastion of tradition as it struggled to come to terms with the modern world. By Jane Richards
There are two images of modern army life in Martin Figura's study. One is a photograph of Figura's father-in-law, Brian Bartlett, a retired major, stiffly perched on a chintzy sofa in front of military memorabilia and a mannequin in his cherished uniform. The other is a self-portrait of Figura in his army days, relaxing with his wife among a chaotic mess of discarded clothes, ashtrays and bottles in their barracks accommodation, the morning after a party. Old school, new school.

"I never offered myself up to the Army, like my father-in-law did," says Figura. "For Brian, it was the most significant thing in his life, outside his family. It was a loyalty that was absolute."

As an accountant in the Army, Figura did a lot of listening and watching over the years - all of which came in useful when he came to build up a series of black and white photographs of modern army life. "I wasn't looking for shots of soldiers driving tanks and marching up and down," he says. "I wanted a more intimate vision, to help me show what defines the Army and what's troubling it now."

Figura favours a medium-format camera and a wide-angle lens which enables him to include a lot of detail around his subjects: we see a private on a promotion course - ironing his bed while waiting to have his kit inspected; a female captain stands with her back to the camera watching four male soldiers hanging by their arms from a gymnasium wall; a burly corporal stands alongside a pile of boots in the stores with a black soldier just visible in profile in the background. "I wanted an image that represented the marginal presence of black soldiers," says Figura.

Figura's images are highly constructed. "I found that the only way this project would work for me was if I planned my `decisive moment' and made sure it happened - rather than leaving it all to chance. I guess my photographs are quite theatrical - like frozen gestures." Indeed, these strangely distant and alienating coups de theatre are more Brecht than Cartier-Bresson. Brecht once described photography as a technique where "less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality ... something must be built up, something artificial, posed".

Take the image of the three drummer boys from the Duke of York's Royal Military School posed in front of the white cliffs of Dover. "Everything in the picture matters," says Figura. "Otherwise it wouldn't be there. I chose the white cliffs because it's a border - all very symbolic for this country, defence of the nation and all that. And the boys have `Sons of the Brave' inscribed on their drums - referring to the school, founded at the end of the last century for the sons of servicemen." The Duke of Wellington's declaration that the Battle of Waterloo was won "on the playing fields of Eton" is the reference for Figura's bizarre image of Eton cadets in combat gear and cricket pads, wielding cricket bats. "The idea of cricket as a metaphor for war is such a potent one," he says.

Apart, perhaps, from this preoccupation with precision and detail, Martin Figura doesn't strike you as the army type. Laidback, with an engaging sense of self-mockery, he looks back on his 25 years in the forces as an experience he wouldn't have missed, but is glad to be out of it now he's over 40. After all, his leftist beliefs and creative urges were never at one with the army ethos.

It had hardly been a desperate need to serve his Queen and country that had driven Figura to join the Army at 15. He joined because he needed a family. His father was a German soldier who had fought in the German army during the Second World War and his mother was English. Martin was born in Liverpool and the family lived in Shrewsbury until Martin was nine, when his mother died and his father couldn't cope. So Martin was bundled off to stay with relatives. The relatives couldn't cope either so they sent him off to boarding school and then emigrated without telling him.

After a year in care, he was rescued by former neighbours with whom he lived happily in Crewe. It was the eldest son in this family who inspired him to follow his example and join the Army. "He seemed to have lots of money and a car," laughs Figura. "And, as far as I could see, he did a lot of sailing - which seemed a pretty good way of spending your time."

More important, though, the Army offered him a way of becoming independent. "Although I felt very loved and secure with my adopted family, I felt a huge responsibility not to be a burden to them," he says. "And here was the Army, offering me food, accommodation and money - as well as excitement and adventure."

Figura gained O-levels and an A-level in the junior army, then graduated to the real army at 19, joining an Irish regiment in the Cotswolds, where he became a clerk in the finance unit. He met his wife, Dawn, a typist, when he was moved to Edinburgh.

Figura's interest in photography began in Cyprus 20 years ago when he saved up for an old Canon SLR. "I had always taken snapshots, and I wanted to take better-quality snaps really." At first he toyed with arty photographs of pebbles and flowers - "which the girls on the camp would kindly buy" - but that was only because he was shy. "It was always people that really interested me."

Figura knew that if he wanted to get his photographs noticed, he needed to find a project. He began to cover point-to-point racing, then latched on to the local Salvation Army, until, finally, he realised the wealth of material that was under his nose.

It was easy enough to persuade his colleagues to pose for him. But, he remembers, "they were very careful about what they said when I was photographing them, always following the policy line. But when we were having dinner, that's when I'd really listen, when their points of view really came out. And these photographs represent my attempt to visualise what all these people have said to me over the past 25 years - all the worries and problems of modern army life." Financial cutbacks, for example, meant restricting adventure-training trips. "Two weeks' white-water canoeing in Norway - that was the kind of wonderful adventure that made it worth putting up with all the rest of the crap. Without that, who could stand the rest of it?"

The Army still offers an image of action-packed adventure to lure new recruits. One day, Figura set up his camera and lights in the recruitment room, which is lined with pictures of commandos crawling through the undergrowth and driving speedboats. He was lucky - in came a weedy little lad and his cross-looking dad. "He was rejected, because he was underweight."

Trophies and relics of the old days, such as stuffed lions' heads in snooker rooms, are still dotted about the barracks of the Cheshire Regiment. One of Figura's images shows two bizarrely dressed officers and an Alsatian dog standing either side of a rather bad painting of Prince Charles. "There is still a rule in that regiment," smiles Figura, "which states that if officers are wearing sports kit, they must wear a blazer - stunning, really, isn't it?"

Despite such anachronisms. the military is re-evaluating its position in modern society. "The Army, traditionally, is about war and fighting - that, after all, is what it's there for," he says. "But on a day-to-day basis, it's about lots of other things. It's about loyalty, tradition, honour and duty. It sounds daft to say that war is marginal to the British Army, but it really is. And I'm trying to get across the more prosaic side of the story"

`One Man's Army', an exhibition of Martin Figura's photographs 1993- 96, is at the Watershed Media Centre in Bristol from 8 August to 4 October (0117-927 6444). The accompanying book, `One Man's Army', which includes essays by Antony Beevor, Liz Wells and Billy Bragg, is published by Dewi Lewis and is available to Independent readers for pounds 10 inc p&p (normal price pounds 12.95), enquiries: 0161-442 9450.