When I left active duty in 2014, I didn’t expect to miss much about the Army. While I gained many important skills and overall think five years of service had a positive impact on my life and character, I was more than happy to put that chapter of my life behind me. So I was surprised a month or two after my ETS date when my shutter finger started getting itchy.
Yeah, my shutter finger.
You see, I was a “Public Affairs Specialist.” You are probably more familiar with the much cooler moniker used by real life marines and Private Joker in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket, “Combat Correspondent.” In less up-its-own-ass military terms, that means “Photojournalist,” but if you thinking, “Andrew is too self-aware to steal a nickname from a movie,” I have an embarrassing tattoo that proves otherwise.
Unlike Joker, when I deployed to Iraq in 2011, I never fired a single round at the enemy. I did, however, taken thousands of photos.
I photographed training exercises with Iraqi forces, and building projects we’d spend millions of dollars on only to abandon months or even weeks after completion. I shot very important meetings were very important American and Iraqi generals sipped chi tea and bitched about their wives, and early morning raids looking for high value targets we almost never found. (at least when I happened to be around)
I took so many photos that for months after returning from deployment I didn’t know what to do with my hands during social situations if they weren’t rested lightly on my Nikon D300’s battered casing. To this day I’ll occasionally find myself standing right arm uncomfortably akimbo, hand over my lungs as if ready to lift an imaginary camera’s viewfinder to my eye at a moment’s notice.
A large part of my decision to join the military, was the prospect of being a journalist. My recruiter told me, if I wanted to write, the army could make me a reporter in 6 months. Truth is, I didn’t even have an interest in photography. It was just an extra thing I had to learn, like how to fire an M-16, or who’s ass I need to kiss to get batteries or printer cartridges. (Supply. It’s always supply) But slowly the craft of crystallizing a story into a single image seeped into my blood.
Then, overnight, I had nothing to take pictures of.
I’ve followed other artistic pursuits. I have a stand-up comedy album coming out soon. I’m still writing, (Currently slogging through the third edit of a novel) and I still take pictures from time to time. But if I’m being honest the work I get now just doesn’t scratch the same itch as combat photography.
The closest I get is concerts. Getting one or two great shots while competing with the bad lighting, frantic energy and kinetic performance of a punk show is a challenge akin to getting something usable during panic and confusion of a combat operation. Getting a shot capturing the intensity of a singer/songwriter on a hot night comes close to candid photo capturing the pathos of a young NCO leading his men into an uncertain situation.
Rock concerts come close. Everything else kind of pales in comparison.
Head shots are boring. I hate sports. Wild animals never show up when you want them to. Landscapes hold no interest for me. (If you want to see a mountain go look at a mountain.) Weddings are honestly more stressful than combat. And fashion… Look, I’m repressed, and it feels creepy. Besides, ladies, do you really want This Guy telling you to give him sexy eyes?
I want action. I want uncertainty. I want to get into situations that could go sideways at any moment and document the chaos when they do. Most of all I want to take photos that matter.
So I’m going to get back into conflict photography.
I hold no illusions that The Associated Press or the Washington Post are going to send me to the Sudan or Yemen, but here in America we’re currently facing the most polarizing historical period in 50 years. White supremacy, police brutality and authoritarianism are on the rise. I reckon I can find some action in my own back yard.
If you know of a protest going down in Colorado, let me know. I want to be there. I want to find the story. And with the audible click of my camera’s shutter I want to share it with the world.