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Inspiration

Life as a War and Conflict Photographer in the U.S. Air Force

By Hanssie on May 26th 2014

It’s Memorial Day weekend and many Americans are enjoying a three day weekend with family and friends, partaking in some BBQ and perhaps swimming in a pool somewhere or watching a baseball game on TV. As we spend time enjoying our day, I hope you’ll take a moment to remember those that serve and have served so that we can enjoy the simple freedoms that can easily be taken for granted. Thanks to those who have sacrificed so that we can do so.

Today, I want to highlight three photographers who are serving in the US Air Force as military photographers. They kindly took the time to give us some insight on their profession and share a few photos.

[REWIND: WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: IMAGES OF ARMED CONFLICT AND ITS AFTERMATH]

Combat photographers go through advanced training to be deemed as a military photographer. Not only do they have the basic training all military personnel go through, know how to handle a camera, of course, but they also go through advanced weapons and tactics training. They need special skills and knowledge to help integrate them into whatever situation or team they find themselves in so they can do their jobs and “not be a liability while working with high speed teams.” In addition to the advanced training, they go through flying training and advanced physical training.

Ssgt Christopher Griffin  – USAF Combat Photojournalist

An Air Force basic trainee crawling his way through dirt at the BEAST (Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training), 9 Sep. 2009. The BEAST replaced Air Force Basic TrainingÕs ÒWarrior WeekÓ in December of 2008. Representing a combat deployment, the compound is designed for the ongoing evolution of Airmen working in joint environments in combat zones.

An Air Force basic trainee crawling his way through dirt at the BEAST (Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training), 9 Sep. 2009. The BEAST replaced Air Force Basic Training’s “Warrior Week” in December of 2008. Representing a combat deployment, the compound is designed for the ongoing evolution of Airmen working in joint environments in combat zones.

In 2005, Ssgt Griffin joined the air force with a contract to become a loadmaster, but the air force lost his contract and gave him the option of going home or choosing another job. Since choosing photography, Sgt Griffin had traveled the world covering humanitarian missions.

What was your most challenging photography experience?

The challenging times being a combat photographer is coming into contact with people who are in need and knowing that I can’t provide immediate change to better their lives. It’s funny how people just let you into their lives and open up to you when they see you with a camera in your hands. I try my best to tell each individual’s story the best way I can.

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A military working dog is called upon to attack his handler on the training grounds of Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas May 19, 2009. Military working dogs are enrolled in a 60 to 90 day training program where they are taught to detect explosives and drugs. They are also taught deterrence training and how to protect their handler.

A military working dog is called upon to attack his handler on the training grounds of Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas May 19, 2009. Military working dogs are enrolled in a 60 to 90 day training program where they are taught to detect explosives and drugs. They are also taught deterrence training and how to protect their handler.

What is the main goal of a military photographer?

The main goal of a military photographer is to gather story telling imagery for their boos’s priorities and talking points. More importantly to gather historical imagery and intelligence imagery to see how service men and women live and operate in the field to better help them accomplish their missions.

What gear is required for your job?

In my bag I have:

Tech. Sgt. Giles Moody and his military working dog, Jackson, sit on the plane that is to bring them home from their deployment, completing their journey Nov. 11, 2013, in an undisclosed location.Giles says "It's easier to get through this deployment with Jackson here, we have a strong bond like we're brothers, he's not just a partner". Jackson who's five years-old has Pannis eye disease which effects his vision while performing duties and Giles plans on trying to retire Jackson when they return home and bring him into the family. "Each dog has their own characteristics when searching for explosives, I can tell when Jackson is really hitting on something because he'll freeze up into a statue". Returning home from the deployment Giles is not excited about losing the closeness with Jackson due to the operational change and tempo differing than the deployment.

Tech. Sgt. Giles Moody and his military working dog, Jackson, sit on the plane that is to bring them home from their deployment, completing their journey Nov. 11, 2013, in an undisclosed location.Giles says “It’s easier to get through this deployment with Jackson here, we have a strong bond like we’re brothers, he’s not just a partner”. Jackson who’s five years-old has Pannis eye disease which effects his vision while performing duties and Giles plans on trying to retire Jackson when they return home and bring him into the family. “Each dog has their own characteristics when searching for explosives, I can tell when Jackson is really hitting on something because he’ll freeze up into a statue”. Returning home from the deployment Giles is not excited about losing the closeness with Jackson due to the operational change and tempo differing than the deployment.

What advice would you give an aspiring military photographer?

The best advice I could give to an aspiring military photographer is to shoot, keep shooting and most importantly, get feedback on your images to become a stronger visual storyteller. A basic photographer can give the commander what he needs to illustrate his objective, but a strong story telling image can make immediate impact. 

You can see more of Ssgt Christopher Griffin’s work HERE.

Tech. Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts – Military Photojournalist

Coalition forces conduct a raid against  known al-Qaeda in Iraq operatives near Mahmudiyah, December 15, 2008.  (Dept. of Defense photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua DeMotts)

Coalition forces conduct a raid against known al-Qaeda in Iraq operatives near Mahmudiyah, December 15, 2008. (Dept. of Defense photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua DeMotts)

Technical Sargent Josh DeMotts was born in Montana so a love for the outdoors was a given. He always loved art as well and after 6 years of  “enjoying life by playing in Montana’s beautiful backcountry, traveling, and a bit of school,” TSgt DeMotts followed his brother into the Air Force. He currently works for an independent news source funded by the Department of Defense called, Stars and Stripes in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

Tech Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts won second place in this year’s Military Photographer of the Year awards for Combat Documentation (Operational) and third place for features.

Combat Outpost Sabari, Khost province, Afghanistan. Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

Combat Outpost Sabari, Khost province, Afghanistan. Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

Why is it important for people to see war photography/have a job as a military photographer?

I think war and conflict photography is important as it not only informs the world but it can potentially motivate people to action. And photography in the military is important for the same reasons. It’s important to document the good, the bad, and the ugly so that leadership can make informed decisions as well as keeping the American public abreast of military activities as transparently as possible without violating operational security.

From left to right, U.S. Air Force A1C Bonnie Burks, Senior Airman Aaron Dickerson, A1C Josiah Austin, from Ramstein Air Base, Germany walk to their bus after a reception following the American Memorial Day Ceremony at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, France. A large group of Airmen from Ramstein Air Base, Germany volunteered to participate in the ceremony held Sunday morning. Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

From left to right, U.S. Air Force A1C Bonnie Burks, Senior Airman Aaron Dickerson, A1C Josiah Austin, from Ramstein Air Base, Germany walk to their bus after a reception following the American Memorial Day Ceremony at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, France. A large group of Airmen from Ramstein Air Base, Germany volunteered to participate in the ceremony held Sunday morning. Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

What training do you have to go through to become a designated Military Photographer?

Once we finish basic training we’re sent to technical school (every service calls it something different) at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Due to fiscal challenges across the Department of Defense most services have basically followed the civilian industry trend of backpack or platypus type journalism as most of us are required to produce various combinations of video, photo, print and sometimes all three products.

Beyond technical school, there is an awesome culture within the visual career fields of mentorship and advanced training through workshops and advanced courses at DINFOS as well as the advanced photojournalism and motion media program at the S.I. School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y. (although the Navy is currently the only service to be attending Syracuse for the last two years as the fiscal landscape has also affected that program).

An Afghan National Army soldier poses with a poppy near the village of Karizonah, Khost province. In Afghanistan, the poppy crop is a major source of funding for extremist groups involved in the Taliban-led insurgency. Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

An Afghan National Army soldier poses with a poppy near the village of Karizonah, Khost province. In Afghanistan, the poppy crop is a major source of funding for extremist groups involved in the Taliban-led insurgency.
Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

Can you tell us what’s in your bag?
My current gear list consists of:

I also always carry a Zoom h1 audio recorder.  I own most of my gear, but as a military photographer we’re fortunate to be issued some pretty good stuff. However it varies from unit to unit or duty assignment.

What is your favorite photo and why?

I’ve made a few pictures that I’m proud of, but one of my favorites is one I made fairly recently of a soldier who’d just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan and his daughter is reaching for his hand as he’s carrying his bags home.  To me it illustrates the sacrifices that service members and their families make in service of our great country and it really hits a soft spot for me.

Jaden Monteleone, 5, grabs the hand of her father,Pfc. Jeremy Monteleone, as he carries his deployment bags home after a seven-month deployment, April 8, 2014. Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

Jaden Monteleone, 5, grabs the hand of her father,Pfc. Jeremy Monteleone, as he carries his deployment bags home after a seven-month deployment, April 8, 2014.
Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

To see more of Tech Sgt. Joshua DeMotts’ work, check out his Stars and Stripes profile.

Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III – USAF Photojournalist

Shipping specialists Staff Sgt. Star Samuels (left) and Tech. Sgt. Willard Rico place a U.S. flag over a casket March 31, 2009, during a dry run of shipping process procedures for the dignified transfer of remains at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Shipping specialists Staff Sgt. Star Samuels (left) and Tech. Sgt. Willard Rico place a U.S. flag over a casket March 31, 2009, during a dry run of shipping process procedures for the dignified transfer of remains at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

For the last 17 years, Technical Sargent Bennie J. Davis has been a photojournalist in the U.S. Air Force. Joining the Air Force to become an occupational therapist, the path to becoming  a military photographer was chosen for him, but he’s “pleased how everything turned out.” Originally from Orlando, Florida, TSgt. Davis came from a long line of military relatives dating back to the Revolutionary War. One day his grandfather told him it was “his time to go” and 17 years later, TSgt. Davis has traveled the world, worked as the lead photojournalist with Airman Magazine and now finds himself teaching the next generation of Air Force photojournalists at the Defense Information School.

Brady Rusk, 12, hugs Eli at a retirement and adoption ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The bomb-sniffing Labrador retriever was assigned to Brady's older brother, Marine Pfc. Colton Rusk, 20, who was killed in action in Afghanistan by Taliban sniper fire Dec. 5. The Department of Defense granted the Rusk's permission to adopt Eli and allow him to join their family. (Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III/U.S. Air Force)

Brady Rusk, 12, hugs Eli at a retirement and adoption ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The bomb-sniffing Labrador retriever was assigned to Brady’s older brother, Marine Pfc. Colton Rusk, 20, who was killed in action in Afghanistan by Taliban sniper fire Dec. 5. The Department of Defense granted the Rusk’s permission to adopt Eli and allow him to join their family. (Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III/U.S. Air Force)

What was the most challenging and/or memorable photographs you’ve made?

The most challenging photographs I ever made was at a dignified transfer of a fallen soldier as he was laid to rest with full military honors. It’s difficult being a military member in that situation knowing it could have been you.

Now the most memorable image I’ve ever made was a photo of an AF Thunderbird pilot ejecting from his F-16 Falcon while crashing the aircraft at an air show in 2003. The image documents the first live ejection captured and the plane landed sixty feet in front of me.

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It opened my eyes to the power of a photograph and it lead to my love and dedication to photography. Now I also have many favorite assignments, the most recent that comes to mind was covering an AF space observatory in Maui and the time-lapses our team created. Seeing the Milky Way from one of the best spots on Earth to view it with the naked eye was amazing.

What is the main goal of a military photographer?

The main goal of the military photographer is to be there when history happens. Photographic activities can range from studio work, medical photography, accident investigations, news, aerial to combat documentation. It’s our duty to capture every facet of military operations and military life.

What’s in your bag?

Capt. Shahn Rashid stands inside the Advanced Electro Optical System. The system is a 3.67 meter telescope space surveillance system specifically designed to improve the means of collecting, and the quality of, space data at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex facility in Hawaii. Primarily intended for Department of Defense space surveillance missions, the telescope is also used by scientific and academic astronomy communities from across the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Capt. Shahn Rashid stands inside the Advanced Electro Optical System. The system is a 3.67 meter telescope space surveillance system specifically designed to improve the means of collecting, and the quality of, space data at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex facility in Hawaii. Primarily intended for Department of Defense space surveillance missions, the telescope is also used by scientific and academic astronomy communities from across the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

What advice would you give an aspiring military photographer?

The best advice I could give to any aspiring military photographer is the story is the only thing that matters. It’s not about you, it’s not about the camera, it’s just the story.

To see more of TSgt Bennie J Davis’ work, check out the Airman Magazine, the flagship magazine for the AF.

Special thanks to these three men for taking the time to share with us a few aspects of their work, for their service and for the service of all the men and women in our armed forces.

Also special thanks to Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf of the U.S. Air Force for connecting me to these men for the interview.

CREDITS: All photographs by Joshua DeMotts, Bennie J Davis III and Christopher Griffin are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.

 

About

Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at www.hanssie.com and www.fittedmagazine.com. Follow her on Instagram. Email her at:
[email protected]

Q&A Discussions

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  2. Phil

    Anybody else notice that the D800S is listed as gear used? Looks like they get the new stuff before it’s even announced to the public! Or it’s just a typo.

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    • Hanssie

      I think he meant 2 Nikon D800 cameras…but since I copied his answer over, I don’t want to put words in his mouth in case he really does have some mystery prototype :)

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  3. Mark

    Great article! I imagine it must be hard getting in touch with these guys so kudos for tracking them down! Would love to get some war & conflict photogs onto Shotkit!!

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    • Hanssie

      Possibly working on a 4th of July article with a different branch of the military. Maybe we can collaborate. Email me :)

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