Snapping Up the Holiday Season in Afghanistan
By Maj. Richard C. Sater, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
BAGRAM, Afghanistan, Dec. 23, 2003 "Just like senior pictures."
More than one airman or soldier made that remark on a recent weekend as each awaited his or her turn to pose for digital Christmas portraits. What better gift for family and friends in this computer age?
The picture-perfect set-up for a deployed location ended up in the "clamshell" aircraft maintenance hangar of the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group, transformed into a tactical studio. Instead of an artificial backdrop, portrait subjects stood next to a genuine Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II and a tan humvee, an American flag, and a Christmas tree decorated with lights and desert-brown Air Force insignia.
The photographer, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brian Davidson – public affairs chief for the 455th – wore a desert- camouflage battle-dress uniform as he snapped photo after photo for almost 16 hours over two days.
More than 250 airmen and soldiers posed during the two long sessions first come, first served. Toward the end of each day, some waited more than an hour for their turn. In the end Davidson shot more than 3,000 photos.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brian Davidson, public affairs chief for the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group, wore a desert-camouflage battle-dress uniform as he photographed more than 250 airmen and soldiers over two days for them to send home to families, friends and loved ones.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Part of his job involved getting the subjects to be natural before the camera. Davidson offered jokes and encouragement. "Show some teeth!" he urged. Sometimes a simple prop like a red Santa hat was enough to get a nervous airman or soldier to relax and even smile.
Doug Dotson, an Air Force Civilian Augmentee Program air traffic controller assigned here as a radar operator, served as the photography assistant. "Brian put out the word that he needed help," Dotson said, who said he was among the first to volunteer. During the photo shoot, Dotson adjusted the lighting and posed the subjects.
"Square your shoulders!" he said. "Chin up! Look at me!" With no photography experience except "years of family pictures," he said, he nonetheless proved himself a resourceful assistant.
Davidson shot a dozen or more images of his subjects and then handed them the digital flashcard containing the images.
Another volunteer Master Sgt. Darrell Mahan of the 355th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Davis- Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. served as the photo technician, calling up the images on a laptop computer so everyone could review the digital proofs and select favorite poses. Later, Davidson did a little digital retouching and then downloaded the individual shots by name to a shared drive available online.
Subjects could access the photos, send them by e-mail, or save them to a compact disc. (The people they send them to have the option of making prints themselves or taking the images to a professional photo shop for high-quality prints.)
The airmen and soldiers may have been self-conscious about posing for the camera, but all seemed enthusiastic about the results.
"It's great," said Senior Airman Missy Mantegna, personnel specialist with the 355th Component Maintenance Squadron, Davis-Monthan. "Sergeant Davidson devoted a lot of his time" to the project, she noted.
Mantegna sent her portraits home right away by e-mail, an unexpected gift just in time for the holidays. "My family loves the pictures," she said.
That's what Davidson had in mind. Even though he was more accustomed to taking action photos to accompany feature stories, he wanted to do something special for the troops far away from home for the holidays and decided to set up an improvised portrait studio.
"I got the idea from my grandfather," he said. During World War II, his grandfather, Pat Spano, served in the Army Air Corps as a combat photographer. "He used to take portraits of the troops so they could send them home for Christmas." Photography is "something we have in common," Davidson said.
Spano had shared some of his black-and-white photographs with his grandson; upon returning home, Davidson looks forward to returning the favor with his grandfather with some of his own digital images.
Spano, who'd earned the rank of staff sergeant by the time he was discharged after the war, currently resides in Tucson, Ariz., close to Davidson's regular duty assignment, the 355th Wing at Davis-Monthan.
Davidson declared himself pleased with the results of his improvised studio. "Good for morale," he said. And his images, capturing a fraction of a second in the lives of airmen and soldiers serving in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom, will provide lasting memories too.
(Air Force Maj. Richard C. Sater is assigned to Combined Joint Task Force 180. His story appeared in the Dec. 22 "Freedom Watch," task force newspaper. )