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Military Photography

photographer photographers support digital

JOHN SIDORIAK
Independent Photography and Multimedia Contractor

Military photography began in 1855 with the English photographer Roger Fenton, who made over 300 photographs of the Crimean War under trying circumstances. However, the true nature of armed conflict was first exposed by Mathew Brady, an Irish immigrant, who, with others, photographed the American Civil War in the early 1860s. He used wet collodion plates that were prepared, exposed, and processed on the battlefield. Other conflicts followed, and by the turn of the 19th century aerial and reconnaissance photography were possible. They came of age in World War I. This, and other technical advances enabled military photography to become an important arm of military intelligence as well as a historian and publicist of military activity. Although many new technologies have emerged and the nature of warfare has changed, this varied and challenging role remains basically the same today.

With increasing specialization no one person can be expert in all aspects of the craft. However, the military photographer must have skills in advertising, photojournalism, forensic, and location photography, as well as still life and portrait photography. In addition, a military photographer may face rapid overseas deployment, combat and survival training, and must have an understanding of policies and protocol that allow the military photographer to be fully engaged in the military atmosphere.

Many people, operating at various levels, engage in military photography. Combat camera personnel are obliged to maintain mobility status, and are deployed at short notice to document domestic and overseas operations. They are trained
to survive and photograph in hostile conditions, while visual information and multimedia services photographers provide base-level local support for military operations and functions. In most cases the military photographer’s role is to document historical events and provide support for military contingencies. True combat camera members are military personnel trained by the military and at photography institutions. Their training mirrors that of photographers in the private sector. One might expect that all military photographers are active duty or reserve members of the military, but this is not so. Increasingly, at least in the United States, contract photographers provide some services to the military, releasing more specialized photographers for combat duty.

Many duties in support of the military activities include location, studio, alert and emergency services photography, and photography in support of graphics. Location photography consists of recording historical ceremonies, public relation events, documentation of military inspections, and military exercises, few of which are organized with a photographer’s needs in mind, all of which have to be photographed. Conditions can range from an extremely dark radar room or a nighttime “blacked out,” red-light only special-operations mission to a welder’s torch or an outdoor ceremony with sunny backlight, so a photographers ability to authenticate a once-in-a-lifetime event or large-scale exercise is routinely challenged. The photographer must be able to quickly assess the problem and devise a strategy to capture all the important elements and details without interrupting the event. The most common compliment received was “I didn’t even know a photographer was there.”

This is important in other contexts, where being unobtrusive but effective while recognizing military protocols and procedures earns respect from military leaders and supervisors, sometimes allowing access to privileged areas to document the inner workings of the military. Additional location photography in support of the military includes providing alert and emergency photography services for the Office of Special Investigations and Security Forces. Image documentation includes forensic/crime scene investigations, military mishaps, and autopsy documentation in a military environment.

Military photography can involve some remarkable extremes and can be a test of persistence, endurance, and courage, sometimes all at once; often, it just tests patience. It is not uncommon to provide photography support during special operations and finding oneself weightless inside an aircraft doing maneuvers, or using night-vision optics during a live-fire night training mission. Although these instances occur, many days are spent producing passport images, head and shoulder or full-length studio photography, and traditional grip and grin ceremonial photography. During those monotonous days, the memory of exciting assignments sustains the military photographer until another motivating opportunity arises.

In the last decade, photographers everywhere have been obliged to be cleaner and greener, by minimizing hazardous waste. Fortunately, this coincided with, and has encouraged the transition to digital photography. The traditional wet-process facility has evolved to a state of the art digital and multimedia department. Today’s photographers have adapted to this change and increased their versatility by expanding their knowledge-base to include multimedia design and graphic design. Under these new conditions, photographers must educate themselves to efficiently operate and maintain a host of computer hardware and software that is common in today’s environment. New technologies involved in digital photography lead to a dramatic decrease in the time from image capture to final output. The overall download, edit, caption, transmit, and view of the final image can take place within minutes rather than days. Image capture is instantaneous and editing is done on the camera monitor. The evolution of the World Wide Web has created the ability for photographers to post current imagery and be viewed by a broader audience quickly and efficiently. The viewer is additionally capable of providing input and requesting imagery to the photographer via a simple e-mail. Additionally, photographers are able to transmit full resolution, captioned images to publishers for immediate printing.

Along with the many advantages of digital photography, some give cause for concern. A film camera was sturdy and required no batteries. This is less true in the digital age, especially with regard to peripherals such as a computer. The military environment is always demanding on equipment and often there’s only one chance. It is essential that the military photographer understands the capabilities and limitations of the equipment in hand under the conditions experienced. Conditions such as air turbulence, dust, heat, vibration, noise, and the ingress of water can cause mechanical failure.

The ease with which digital images can be altered, even unintentionally, has created a negative view of its use for reconnaissance. At times publications have manipulated images in order to enhance a viewer’s perspective. The removal of power lines or addition of personnel to an image has created inaccurate evaluations for military exercises, therefore creating the possibility of operation failure. Overall, controversy will always be forthcoming, but advantages of digital photography in a military environment outweigh the disadvantages.

A military photographer maintains the ability to provide a vast array of services. They must have the expertise in all the photographic venues to support all the functions that are placed before them. As technologies evolve, duties remain the same, but adjustments to support military contingencies also develop as the military photographer advances their capabilities.

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