Photojournalist, My Roots That Impact My Photography
U.S. Army Best Ranger Competition
Execute, Execute, Execute
Note: This photo was taken during my film shooting days as a photojournalist, so these are approximate values based on my original shooting habits back then.
Camera: Nikon F4S
Lens: Nikon 20-35mm f/2.8 D AF
Focal Length: 20mm Shutter Speed: 1/250 (camera sync)
ISO: ASA 400 Kodak Tri-X Professional Film
Camera Mode: Manual
Lighting: Nikon SB-26 Speedlight, on-camera fill flash
While working as the Chief, Pictorial Branch, Army and Air Force Hometown News Service, Air Force News Agency, my editor sent me out as a photojournalist to cover the annual U.S. Army, David E. Grange Jr., Best Ranger Competition in Fort Benning, Georgia.
This grueling, annual event determines the best two-man Ranger team from the entire United States Armed Forces whether enlisted or officer though the competitors must be “Ranger” trained and “tabbed.”
The Story Behind The Photo
About ten days ago Heather Carden and I got on Periscope (Heather’s Periscope, my Periscope, follow us!) and we’re loving it! During the last ten live video stream broadcasts I’m always asked about my photojournalist background, so I’ve decided to share a little background, plus one of my most favorite photos I’ve shot in over four decades as a photojournalist and photographer.
I was 15-years old, a sophomore at Victoria High School and enrolled in the school’s journalism program when after the first trimester, our instructor Barclay Burrow moved me into his photojournalism program as one of his high school photographers. In my junior year he made me the school’s head photographer—so you can say my roots, even though I started shooting when I was nine-years old, is that of a photojournalist.
A photojournalist is someone who is a visual storyteller, though you’ll find many differing definitions online, some photojournalists have a Bachelor’s degree in photojournalism with a minor in journalism. In addition, A photojournalist is both a photographer and a reporter who follows ethics to illustrate the truth whether it’s on the spot news, sports, or an “evergreen” feature news piece.
Photojournalists are often asked to provide fashion photography for the fashion section of a publication, by their photo editors that employ them, or freelance clients. They are also called upon to create “environmental portraits” of subjects of interest for publication. My point is, a photojournalist can cover many genres of photography during their career, from fashion to sports photography and more. Think the Royal wedding here, yes, I’ve covered weddings, but that was in my early years.
While people like Mike Badough taught me photography before Burrows began grooming me into becoming a photojournalist, photojournalism is truly my roots and the mindset that drives my style of photography—a photojournalistic style, telling a story, or editorial, in almost all the photos I take or have taken. My mentor and friend, iconic photographer Robert Farber once told me, “You have a photojournalistic style in all your work, and it shows.”
Fast-forward 17-years later after I graduated high school and my editor and photo editor, Rich Lamance, sends me out to cover the U.S. Army Best Ranger competition. This is one of the most grueling events for anyone in the military, even those that proudly have earned and wear the “Ranger” tab on their military uniforms. It is also an amazing event for any photojournalist to cover, and very physically exhaustive as you chase Rangers in the woods plus obstacle courses for several days at all hours of the day.
I chose the main photograph for this article because to me, it’s one of my more iconic photos I took while a combat photographer in the U.S. Army, and at one point it was enlarged and hung in the Pentagon at the entrance of the Army Public Affairs office. I’m not sure if it’s still there today and if it is, I’d love someone to take a photo of it on display and send it to me. Because this photo was released to the civilian media, it was published in many newspaper markets and it was also published in the monthly magazine Army Times.
I owe Lamance a lot of credit for sending me out on many assignments all over the world including covering the Olympics, the Presidential Inauguration, Joint Task Force Full Accounting in Vietnam, the signing of the Peace Accords in El Salvador, Uphold Democracy in Haiti, 50th Anniversary of D-Day in France, 50th Anniversary of VE-Day in England, Northern Watch in Turkey, and the 1994 Rwandan refugee crisis in Africa just to name a few of many.
The biggest assignment in terms of circulation and exposure Lamance sent me on was for the Parade magazine cover story co-illustrated with the late Eddie Adams, winner of the Pulitzer. That story was released on the Sunday before Christmas with a printed circulation of 32 million copies in 300 major newspaper markets. So as you can see, my roots and major publication experience comes from being a photojournalist, not just a photographer of women.
While yes I’ve photographed more women in the past decade than out pounding the beat as a photojournalist, I never knew Burrow’s decision to bring me into Victoria High School’s photojournalism program would earn me the Dept. of Defense’s top-five military photographers of the year award (1994) almost twenty years later. It also brought out one of my best photos as a photojournalist during that Best Ranger competition.
As a photojournalist you have to cover an event with your feet moving, gear ready to go, and be there before things start and stay after they end. The late Robert Capa once said, and I paraphrase as I remember reading this in one of his books while doing a research paper during my U.S. Army Advanced Photojournalism Course I took at the University of South Carolina, “the best photographs are captured by photographers who arrive early and leave last.” Again, that is not an exact quote, but it’s the gist of what he said in one of his books I read during my research that I have never forgotten and it’s sound advice to any photographer.
I treated the Best Ranger Competition no different. I arrived early before each event started and hung around after each event ended, thus the first challenge to capture that photo was exhaustion from long days that drain you physically. In these types of events you also have to coordinate with the Public Affairs Office for your shooting credentials and are at the pubic affairs officer’s beckon call to get the right access to the shots that count.
Fortunately for me, those credentials allowed me to board the Blackhawk helicopter used to shuttle the ranger teams over a lake to do what is known as a “helocast” where they jump from a helicopter into a body of water and must swim to the shore. In the feature photo the Ranger is telling the competing Rangers, “I will say execute, execute, execute and if you haven’t jumped by the third execute you will not jump, you will be disqualified.”
The helicopter crew was nice enough to provide what they call a “monkey strap.” Basically it’s a five-point harness attached to my body with a strap hooked to the aircraft and to my back so if I fell out of the helicopter they could reel me back in by hand. Fortunately I did not fall out and I was very careful to secure my camera around my neck and shoulder so it would not fall out either.
As a photojournalist you are there to cover the event and you can’t interfere with the event as it’s happening so I was also given strict instructions of the free area around the helicopter and I had to share that space with a CNN videographer trying to capture his footage. Both of us discussed before hand how we could work in harmony without getting in each others way—he preferred to stay strapped to his seat, so I was the only monkey that day.
In this type of event things happen fast so you must thoroughly check your camera before you board the aircraft, and since I was shooting film, I had to make sure my camera was loaded with a fresh roll of film and had extra rolls in my pocket—I didn’t have time to fiddle with my camera bag so I secured it underneath one of the seats on the helicopter. In this type of scenario you have to make sure you have the right lens, plus know your correct exposure ahead of time, as there is a zero chance for a reshoot. Fortunately I had a couple of Ranger teams to practice with before I captured this shot.
If there is one thing that my early photojournalist years taught me, you’ve got to make every shot count as there were only 36-exposures on each roll of film. When shooting these types of events, you also change film anytime you can change it quickly, you never wait until you get to the end of the roll and you put the exposed film in your pockets securely.
The Safety Shooting any event, as a photojournalist, requires that you’re always on alert both for safety and to ensure you get the shot that someone else might miss. In this case, there were always safety concerns when covering the warriors in the woods, climbing, ascending, running, staying out of the competitors’ way, etc.
When it came to the helocast, flying doors-open on a Blackhawk helicopter requires that you are secured and your harness is checked by the crew chief, especially if you’re on a monkey strap. I knew if I fell out of the helicopter the crew chief and the other Rangers would all help to reel me in, but that puts them in danger as only the crew chief is monkey strapped in.
In addition, anytime you’re around a helicopter it’s extremely important to approach it from the sides or the front, never the rear as the rear rotor is dangerous and if a helicopter is parked in front of a berm, or high rise of land, you have to keep your head low so it doesn’t get chopped off from the spinning four rotor blades. You must always respect and take direction from the aircrew too.
Another safety measure, never touch or try and board a helicopter until it is completely touching the ground as you risk electrocution. Helicopters build static electricity when they are in the air and the blades are rotating, it must land and “discharge” that electricity otherwise you become a lighting rod. The only thing that should display “electrifying” is your photography, not your obituary.
You must also secure your camera, any spare lenses and/or camera bodies so they don’t fall out of the aircraft and hit someone on the head. Obviously from a high altitude, falling objects can seriously hurt someone including death.
In the end, photojournalism assignments like covering the U.S. Army Best Ranger competition brings experience to any photojournalist that they can apply later in their photographic career as it did mine. Experiences that my career has brought me, whether it’s photojournalism or photographing women, are the things that I like to share on my Periscope and in my photography workshops.