Opportunity. It’s the word that sums up 2014. So much of what I’ve been able to see and do has boiled down to getting the chance to just be there.
I also feel like I’ve learned more this past year than I have in a long time. Learned more about the job, about parenting, and about life in general. I think that learning about life definitely ties back into photography and journalism. When I started out in this job almost 8 years ago, I had a vague understanding about how to tell a story, why to tell a story, or what was even important to talk about. I had always been interested in aviation and space, and through that school of thought focused so much of my attention on the physical side of what we do that I found myself taking a ton of airplane photos.
Airplanes are cool, and I still enjoy being around them, but the challenge this year was for me to put things into context, and to try to tell the human side of the story.
I credit 110% of what set me on this path with the DC Shoot Off.
You see, I had lived a very sheltered professional life. It wasn’t even until 2010 that I met other people in my career field from other bases, and it was very eye-opening. I had pretty much zero contact with anyone in the media, aside from the scant few repeat folks that would come out a few times a year for a story.
I was still a fan of photojournalism – and followed photographers like Corey Rich and Anja Niedringhaus (In April, Anja Niedringhaus was killed in Afghanistan. I had the supreme luck of being featured with her in The Atlantic – and trust me, I get that it was like a Little League player being shown with a Major League All Star). I had the pleasure of meeting Corey Rich at the Shoot Off. He gave a great presentation on what was basically his life story, and how he came to do what he does.
The next day, he was just hanging out, and he asked me a question.
“What kind of photographer do you want to be?”
I was stumped.
“What you do I guess,” I said. “An adventure photographer. But…I guess I enjoy what I do now, a military photographer.”
Then I told him how much I’ve loved his outdoor photography. I mean, I went from the week previous enjoy a spread of his photos to meeting the dude. It was surreal.
It was at that same event that I got to meet Michel du Cille, a photojournalist who passed away recently while covering the Ebola epidemic in Africa. The only thing I can really say is that the man was extremely humble, and eager to pass on knowledge.
I left the Shoot Off with a few things – the most important being friends and colleagues whose work amazes me, and who constantly inspire me.
It was a challenge, to bring the human element to my stories, but to also tell the stories in the best way possible, from every angle. I was lucky enough to do just that in April, when I did a story on our JTACS in a joint training exercise with the Army and Marines, called Operation Hammer North.
As soon as I heard about Hammer North, I started asking questions – the who, what, why, when, where, a few days in advance. I built a mental picture of the shots I wanted to get. I kept hearing Chip Maury speaking to me like the ghost of Obi-Wan, telling me to get as much variety as possible in my shots. I packed up my gear for the trip – my Canon 7D with the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, and a Nikon D300S with a Nikor 35mm f/1.8.
The reason I bring this all up is because this job was the perfect mix of opportunity and luck.
I found out that this mission would run into the night, so along with a Nikor compatible Astro Scope I brought a tripod for some long exposure shots.
There were a few shots I had worked out in my head beforehand, one of which were a low angle of TACP airmen with a helo dropping them off. I knew from past experience that they would be doing some type of air insertion that would potentially look cool.
I remember sitting in the Black Hawk, cruising at treetop level, and I kept thumbing the controls on the 7D, looking outside to judge the lighting conditions. As the pilots picked out the open area where they would be landing, I was trying to gauge where I would be as I exited, in relation to the sun, and was even working the aperture and shutter in-camera as I jumped out of the helicopter and dove onto the ground, which was covered in soft orange pine needles (for some reason this is very vivid to me, even though it lasted maybe 5-7 seconds, I remember thinking ‘wow, this is really comfortable’).
While my settings weren’t perfect, and I was shooting natural light, I think what I got was pretty neat in this case.
While Hammer North was a success, there were other opportunities where I made some bad decisions – namely Operation Kriegshammer, a two week trip for training in Germany.
We were at one of the ranges, where TACP were calling in air strikes, so the sky was thick with aircraft. Two French Mirages requested to do a show of force, and came in on the most extreme low-level pass I have ever seen. The downside to this was I put myself in the worst place possible.
The lesson I learned was stay close to people, and to manage your space – planes on their own are kind of boring, but if you can tie the two together, it will make for a much more dynamic image. I wound up climbing a 200ft tower, and really cut off the chance to get an amazing shot. Instead of something looking straight up at the Mirage, I got the belly and some boring sky. Ugh.
I went on to write more than I ever have this year, including a few articles featured on AF.mil - stories on our Silver Star EOD tech, and one of our officers who overcame cancer. Despite the emotional nature of those stories, the most meaningful for me were the stories I did on our Veterans.
Besides doing the basic core stuff for the job, the next best thing is teaching, and seeing our young Airmen grow and find their own successes. 2014 was the first full year for our two new folks, and I think they got to see and do more in that short time than the folks they graduated DINFOS with.
As military photo and video journalists, we get that amazing thing –opportunity. Access to some of the coolest looking technology, seats in some of the awesome planes, and spots to view some plain old cool stuff that most people never get to see. I had a fun year doing it.