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Dodging Burning

An Army photojournalist shares lessons learned in combat By Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod BCT, 82nd ABN DIV PAO

At the schoolhouse for Army photojournalism, instructors tell new soldiers they’re in luck – they landed the best job in the Army. It’s true. After four years on the job, with tours to both Iraq and Afghanistan, that is exactly how I describe it.

Like any job, it is what one makes of it, but unlike many jobs, the daily rewards of “telling the soldier’s story” can be both immediate and profound – a photo of soldiers in combat is picked up by a national media outlet, resulting in a slew of “attaboys,” and an unexpected morale boost for troops on the ground; parents thrill to see their deployed daughter in a brigade Facebook post; the final picture of a son lost in battle is received by his grieving family, a priceless photo if there ever was one.

In a combat environment, the challenges for military photographers are many – constant and dangerous travel, gaining quick entry into tight-knit infantry units, keeping the ubiquitous, abrasive desert dust out of sensitive camera bodies and off expensive lenses, and of course, getting “the shot” without getting shot.

After a few hundred thousand frames, I have learned a few things about photographing paratroopers:

Telling a story in a photo is always about showing relationships, whether the relationship is between two soldiers or two enemies; a relationship with the landscape, with equipment or even with one’s self. A bullet striking dirt behind a running soldier’s foot says that he is fast and perhaps lucky. The brief smile of a sick Afghan baby says the medic is good at her job. A child’s handprint in the mud wall of a compound being searched by soldiers speaks of a shared humanity. If a photo requires a caption, it doesn’t tell a story. Photos either work — or not.

Capturing a soldier’s eyes is critical. We look someone in the eye, see eye-to-eye, make eye contact. The eyes are the proverbial windows to the soul, and what we look at first when we see a person. Above all, the eyes must be in focus. If they are not, whatever is in focus better be worth it.

Content is king. A picture’s aesthetic and technical qualities are important, but a mother won’t like a photo of her child unless that smile is just right.

Similarly, an amateur with an iPhone who catches a sudden rainbow above soldiers paying respects to a fallen comrade can beat a pro with an expensive Nikon and a plain sky. I once believed that great photos were few and far between, but no longer. Now I see they come at us as if through a fire hose. Life is always mortal, it’s always funny, tragic or moving in some way. It’s only our inability to recognize, isolate and record these moments that limits what shots we take away.

Paratroopers are always seeking a mission, whether it’s a patrol, prep for patrol or just a prank on a fellow paratrooper. They are photo-op gumball machines. My camera is my primary weapon system. Immediately upon completing one mission, I prepare it for the next. That said, I’m still a soldier — and I never neglect my M4.

(For the geeks: I always shoot in RAW format, only use “skylight” protective filters when I’m around helicopters, and often carry a lightweight tripod for shooting at low light, even on long foot patrols. I use all four basic camera modes – program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual – depending on the situation. I post-process in Lightroom, with the occasional foray into Photoshop.)

Learning to predict when a situation will coalesce into an interesting shot is critical. That’s done by drawing on past experience with a like circumstance, knowing a subject’s intent and watching body language as a situation unfolds. Many successful news photographers hedge their bets by placing their camera’s shutter in machine gun mode, firing up to 10 frames per second. While I do this occasionally, the calculated single shot of a sniper more often works for me.

Every fighting man knows that his slice of a firefight is just that, a slice. In combat, I have learned that watching the enemy and my fellow soldiers while trying to photograph them is difficult – and extremely dangerous. To limit my exposure to enemy fire, I focus on photographing paratroopers while using their defensive posture as a guide for my own. If they are firing to the left, I make sure to have cover in that direction even if I can’t see the enemy. When I can join the fight, I do.

It might go without saying that, as an Army photographer, soldiers are my inspiration, but I might add that, after four years behind the camera, they continue to be a wellspring. If there are 3,500 paratroopers in our brigade – 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division – then there are 3,500 compelling stories to be told, and a hundred times as many compelling photographs waiting to be made.