DOD Photographers Recall 2012 Imagery Milestones
By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 26, 2012 Three Defense Department photographers spent 2012 recording important events through their images and words.
Defense Department photographer Erin Kirk-Cuomo’s widely published photo of Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta receiving a commemorative plate from Gen. Liang Guanglie, Chinese Minister of National Defense, after an official dinner in Beijing, Sept. 18, 2012.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Whether documenting wounded warriors, the drawdown in Afghanistan or the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, the DOD photographers have been present as the nation’s defense leaders tackled world-shaping challenges.
Glenn Fawcett first became interested in photography in high school. After graduation, he enlisted in the Navy for five years as a photographer before heading to college. After completing degrees in journalism and sociology, stints at newspapers in Texas, Indiana and Illinois led to a photo editor position at the Baltimore Sun.
Several years later, as social media took on a more prominent role in communications and newspaper staffs were reduced, Fawcett became a civilian photographer for the Defense Department.
He recounted the year’s trips with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other principals as “busy and demanding,” with little down time. But the rigorous assignments, he said, have given him a broad insight into the military.
“At first, I had only experienced things from a Navy perspective,” Fawcett said. “This job has been educational and reacquainted me with the military; I’ve had an indoctrination that I’ve never seen while I was [active duty] in the military.”
Along the way, Fawcett said, he has captured emotional moments that he won’t soon forget.
“You get this great sense of reward when you’re photographing [Panetta] visiting wounded warriors,” he said. “You can tell he takes that so seriously, seeing how much he cares about them … to pay respect and thank them for their sacrifices personally is very touching to me.”
Fawcett said he hopes to travel more in his efforts to be an even better photographer.
“I want to become a better technician and still be a great visual photojournalist,” Fawcett said. “There’s no limit to improvement.”
With nearly 20 years of military service behind him, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad McNeeley, a mass communication specialist, shares Fawcett’s feelings.
“For the first six years it was just me,” McNeeley said, noting the transition from an individual to a team mindset. “Now you have an opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other and take a critical look at your work, which improves the quality of the product we’re presenting.”
A DOD photographer for seven years, McNeeley was also an avid photographer in high school. He joined the Navy in 1993 and has worked for former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and other senior military leaders.
McNeeley said learning the preferences of new defense leaders and capturing them through imagery remains a challenge.
“Trying to convey the story and get the emotion from these images can be tough,” McNeeley said. “You need to learn how [the subjects] operate, knowing you’ve invaded their personal space for a while and figure out when you’ve taken enough photos -- or maybe not taken enough.”
McNeeley said he got to see a more personal side of Panetta in January 2012 during a visit off the coast of Georgia to the U.S.S. Enterprise before its final deployment.
“Watching Secretary Panetta observe flight operations, and being in the Navy myself … I was pretty proud of the ship and the sailors,” McNeeley said. “It was a new experience for him, so like anybody marveling in the ability of an aircraft carrier underway and the pride the people take in the ship, it was pretty neat.”
With retirement on the horizon, McNeeley admits he isn’t sure what will happen next, but he’d like to keep some connection to the unique opportunities his career has afforded him. The events of 2012, McNeeley said, will more than prepare him for future endeavors.
“It’s about capturing a personality and making a moment,” McNeeley said. “We get a chance to witness history every day, so it gives you the opportunity to do bigger and better things.”
McNeeley said his ability to assess an environment and recognize the impact of an event will stay with him.
“Whether you’re in Pakistan or China, understanding the history, the people and getting a better idea of what’s going on around you is important,” he said. “The actual snapping of a photo in 250th of a second is maybe two percent of what we do -- we’re there to tell a story.”
Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo, a former Marine Corps combat photographer, said her interest in photography developed after her father gave her a camera. She went from darkrooms to photojournalism classes before trying her hand as a freelance photographer around the onset of the Iraq war.
Kirk-Cuomo spent much of her career at 1st Marine Division before deploying to Fallujah and later being assigned to work with former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway.
At DOD, Kirk-Cuomo said, the travel has been the most significant aspect of her job, providing her with opportunities to witness the evolution of certain regions and see how the U.S. military contributes to growth around the world.
“It’s been interesting to see how Afghanistan has changed and the progress made since I first started going [there] in the Marine Corps,” Kirk-Cuomo said. “It’s amazing to see how different Kabul is every time we go.”
She described her recent trip to China as “extremely difficult, physical and frustrating” but it was also the location of one of her most widely distributed photographs of the year.
The photo depicts Panetta gleefully accepting a plate featuring his likeness from Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie following an official dinner in Beijing.
“The photograph went worldwide,” she said, noting that it appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, the New York Times and several international news outlets.
Her professional aspirations, at least for the near future, are simple, Kirk-Cuomo said.
“I want to keep pushing our imagery and letting the world know what we do,” she said.
Kirk-Cuomo’s advice to budding photographers is equally simple.
“You really have to love photography. You have to work hard and love what you’re doing,” she said.