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Johnny Bivera: The Man Behind the Pictures

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 26, 2002 – It takes more than a good eye and high-tech cameras to photograph war. It takes guts and the savvy to get to where the action is.

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Navy Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, a 16-year veteran combat camera photographer, stands near a Humvee at a rallying point in the Afghan desert. Bivera's notes: "We just concluded a cordon-and-search raid at a suspected al Qaeda village. Notice the dust, we showered in it. There was no getting around the dirt when it came to our equipment. I think every photographer in the theater experienced bad things with the gear and all that dirt. All my camera bodies had to get sent back for professional cleaning after I left Afghanistan." Photo by Chief Warrant Officer Timothy Hoffman, USMC.
  

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U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera has it all.

From the USS Theodore Roosevelt's flight deck in the Arabian Sea to U.S. Marine Corps foot patrols in Afghanistan, the chief photographer's mate has worked to capture "the moment." Over the past five months, he's transmitted more than a thousand digital images of U.S. troops engaged in the war against terrorism. In all, he's saved almost two gigabytes of images on three CDs.

"A good day of photography is like a good day of fishing," Bivera said. "When you're done for the day you're all excited about the catch, but then you realize you have to clean all that fish. Same with pictures. You get home and then spend all night editing and filing all those images. But it's all worth it."

On Christmas Eve, Bivera was in a cold perimeter foxhole in Afghanistan with the Marines. On New Year's Eve, he was in the Afghan desert with U.S. forces getting ready to raid a suspected al Qaeda compound. He's photographed countless military men and women at work and at rest, cleaning their weapons and doing their wash. He's captured their commitment and courage, their sorrow and fear.

The self-proclaimed 38-year-old Navy brat is one of the military's 375 active-duty combat camera photographers. Another 300 are in the reserve components. Currently assigned to Fleet Combat Camera Atlantic in Norfolk, Va., Bivera has wielded his cameras at sea and on shore for the past 16 and a half years.

He must be prepared to go wherever the job takes him, even into the thick of battle. Along with his cameras, he's equipped with an M-16 rifle and a 9 mm pistol. In Afghanistan's Helmand Province, U.S. Marines allowed Bivera and a Marine combat camera photographer to accompany them on a raid. No civilian press photographers were allowed.

"They weren't going to take anyone that was not able to fight back if things got really bad," Bivera recalled. Admittedly, he added, danger and fear are part of the combat photographer's job.

"You know there's always a possibility there's somebody out there that's got crosshairs on you," he said. "Whenever I was flying, there was always the fear that a surface-to-air rocket could come out of nowhere. Whenever we ventured out and walked on the road, there was always the fear you could step on something that would make it your last step.

"I would be lying to you if I told you I was not afraid," Bivera said. "I don't think you can go into a situation like that and not feel something. There are times when you just have to say, 'OK, this could be one of those moments.' But I'm here to do a job, and hopefully I'll do it courageously and with honor."

Some of the photos Bivera shot during that raid appeared in a national magazine. He heard about it from his wife, Kirsten, back home in Norfolk.

"Two images appeared in Time magazine in a two-page spread, two weeks in a row," he said. "One they credited me as a Navy chief photographer's mate, and that was a first, to get that kind of credit. The other, they (mistakenly) credited me as Johnny Bivera/AFP (Agence France-Presse)."

Bivera talked about his experiences in Operation Enduring Freedom during a March 21 telephone interview from the Roosevelt. At the time, the aircraft carrier was in the Atlantic headed for home. He said he was looking forward to seeing Kirsten and their beagle, POTUS, after being deployed for more than six months.

"I'm looking forward to a good long break," Bivera said. "My command is very good about giving us as much time as we need to recuperate and get back on our feet, but you just never know what can happen. I always just say, 'Honey I'm home. Let's enjoy what time we've got.' I'm prepared to walk back out the door if the call is made."

Bivera credits one of his teachers, Warren Thompson, with opening the world of photography to him while he was in a junior college in Pensacola, Fla. He ended up taking all the photography classes offered at the college.

When a Navy recruiter called Bivera's home, the fledgling photographer knew the Navy's photography school was also in Pensacola. "He asked what it would take for me to join the Navy and I said, 'If you can get me that photo school, we could probably do some business.'"

The recruiter came through, and Bivera joined the Navy in 1986. He soon found himself assigned to the Fleet Intelligence Center Atlantic. Recognizing Bivera's zeal for photography, a supervisor there later recommended he apply for a photojournalism program at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology.

During an 11-week course at Rochester in 1990, Bivera lived photography. "There was no sleeping," he said. "Those of us who took the requirements seriously would get out of class and go shoot for the evening. Then we'd come back to the school and process and print all night. We would maybe lay down on the floor until class started again."

A few years later, Bivera spent a month or so ship-hopping with the John F. Kennedy Battle Group in the Adriatic. He learned how to use his skills, how to get around, and how important it was to be one step ahead of where things were going to happen. What he learned in the Adriatic was vital to covering the war in Afghanistan, he said.

Normally, combat photographers assigned to a battle group cover routine training missions and daily life aboard ship. Deploying for Operation Enduring Freedom was different.

"When we left for this," Bivera said, "we were going into a war scenario, so nothing was routine. I had to ensure that whatever phase the Navy and Marine Corps team got involved in, that we were there to provide imaging support."

He stayed aboard the Roosevelt through the initial bombing campaign and covered the shore detachment in Bahrain that supported the ships. When a Marine Amphibious Readiness Group arrived, he went aboard the USS Bataan to photograph the Marines preparing to go ashore.

Seeing that Navy and Marine Corps involvement in the operation was going to be more than anyone had initially anticipated, Bivera said, "It was very important to make sure there was visual documentation." When the time came, he hit the beach aboard a Marine landing craft.

Once ashore, his next step was to get approval to cover the Marines as they went into Afghanistan. Clearance to enter the country, he said, was limited to a certain number of media and nonessential military personnel.

"We had some waiting to do, and even then we weren't sure if we were going to be able to go in," Bivera recalled. "About three days before Christmas, they said, 'There's a window here, so you guys can go in if you want to go in. You better get logistically set up.' So that's what we did. We made it into Kandahar on Dec. 23."

Bivera stressed the importance of briefing unit leaders on the mission of combat camera photographers and the value of having them along. He did that in Kandahar, and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit took him under its wing.

"When I showed up there, I had layout photos that were designed to be used as briefing material," he said. "I gave quite a few to the commander, who passed them on to the task force commander. When they saw the buildup that was going on aboard the ships going to the beach, I think they realized just how important it was to have that visual record."

Bivera also proved that along with transmitting photos back to Washington, he could quickly provide photos to the unit on the ground. "Being able to convey that right away helped me in being chosen to go on some of these missions," he noted.

Despite good relations with unit leaders, Bivera said there was no guarantee on how long he'd be able to stay. "We didn't know if we were going to be asked to leave the next day because of the numbers count, or because people more important mission-wise than you needed to be there," he said. So, he made the most of it, photographing all aspects of the mission he encountered Seabees working on the airstrip, explosive ordnance personnel destroying munitions.

Kandahar provided unlimited photographic opportunities, he said, "because there was just so much going on every day that you couldn't help but get a great picture sometime in that day. There was really never a dull moment when you were sitting around saying, 'I don't know what to photograph next, because all you had to do was walk around. Just surviving on a day-to-day basis was a remarkable thing to photograph, because these were things that people back home never get to see or experience."

The Marines had a media pool in Kandahar where they'd set up an open email account for the press to transmit their stuff out, he said. "We would just get in line and that's how we were getting images out."

Knowing that his pictures were getting out kept him going. He wanted people back home to see what the nation's service members go through.

"I find the commitment young sailors and Marines put into being out here amazing," he said. "I see them when they come -- and in the end, you see this big change in them. They've grown so much. And sometimes, I meet some very great and interesting people out here."

He also encountered enemy fighters, trudged through harsh terrain, suffered frigid cold and invasive dust and little sleep, and endured lots of Meals, Ready-to-Eat. Why would anyone stick with such a job?

"I don't know," Bivera replied. "I just love this job. I love the Navy and I love the military people that do this day-to-day.

"To me, they're the heroes. It's not an easy job doing what we do -- to deploy, go away from your family for so long, and be expected to do some of the world's most dangerous jobs."

There was another reason, a personal reason, why he worked so hard to ensure people saw his images. Unwilling to talk about it on the phone, Bivera sent an e-mail following the interview.

"A good friend of mine was killed in the Pentagon on 9-11," he wrote. "His name was Jerry Moran. He worked as a civilian contractor for the Office of Naval Intelligence and was a former Navy combat cameraman. He survived the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, but unfortunately, fate managed to catch up with him again at the Pentagon.

"Although he was not regular military at the time of his death, Jerry was still serving his country," Bivera wrote. "He was a good friend, a great person and a lot of people will miss him. I've dedicated my work on this deployment in memory of my friend Jerry Moran. When my spirit waned and my thoughts clouded to doubt, I thought of Jerry and his family."

 

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) raid a suspected al Qaeda hideout in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Bivera's notes: "Combat Camera is all about action. When you train and document this sort of thing as much as we do, knowing when or where the action is going to occur can only come from experience. I like to explain to people, and definitely our young photographers, that once you hone your skill as a shooter, the actual picture taking part of the job is what's easy. Getting from point A to B with all your gear, shoot the job and return unharmed, that's what's hard." Photo by Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, USN.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAt a forward operating base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) stand by for a routine aerial patrol aboard a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 "Blue Knights." Bivera's notes: "For a photographer, when subject matter and composition fall into place, what you get is 'gold.'" Photo by Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, USN.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA light armored vehicle of Battalion Landing Team 3/6, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), is lit by the moon as it sits in a desert valley in Afghanistan. Bivera's notes: "I am really proud of this photo. It was after 2 a.m. and it was extremely cold. This was a 15-second exposure during a night patrol out in the middle of the desert, so getting certain people to sit still without them knowing about it was a challenge. I laid the camera on the ground and used the automatic shutter release. The bright moonlight and location make this a rare photo." Photo by Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, USN.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA coalition soldier stands watch on a mountain ridge in Afghanistan while working with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). Bivera's notes: "This photo will always remind me of the loneliness that I felt while in-country. But I also felt a strong sense of resolve about why I was there, and that, too, comes from looking at the photo." Photo by Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, USN.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imagePrepared for war, U.S. Marines inspect and clean their weapons while others jog by on a ramp to the flight deck of the USS Bataan. The Bataan Amphibious Ready Group operated in the Arabian Sea in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Bivera's notes: "Young, serious men were preparing for battle in the days ahead. I like that the teamwork concept shows so much, even during the regular routine of the sailors' and Marines' day." Photo by Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, USN.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDeployed from USS Bataan and arriving in Afghanistan with a heavy backpack, a Marine with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), dons his backpack by laying his back on it -- the next steps are to roll to one side and rise up from all fours. Bivera's notes: "I feel this guy's pain. For some of us, this is the only way to get this pack on when there's no one around to help. It's a strange photo, but for those that work with heavy packs, we understand." Photo by Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, USN.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion-133 of Gulfport, Miss., keep an eye on a cement mixer as they work through the night repairing runway damage at Kandahar International Airport, Afghanistan. Bivera's notes: "Another great reason to be a Navy photographer is the documentation of unsung heroes. The Navy Seabees are one of those rare types that go above and beyond normal conditions. In the beginning, they repaired the runway at Kandahar every day because all the ingredients to make good concrete had not yet arrived. When they had everything they needed, the day shift was so excited about the repair project that they refused to quit for the day. … So the day and night shift worked throughout the night, with planes coming and going, until the job was complete. I have never been around such an industrious group, and I feel great being able to record them for history." Photo by Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, USN.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAt the U.S. Marine Corps base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Marine Lance Cpl. Jim Cox of Alexandria, Minn., talks about home, friends and plans for the future while inside his fighting position on a base perimeter near Kandahar, Afghanistan. Cox is assigned to India Company, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). Bivera's notes: "He flagged me down and invited me into his den. … He asked me questions about my job and told me of the creative ventures he and his friends were working on. He made me feel like I was visiting his home. In reality, I was." Photo by Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera, USN.  
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