Combat Camera Teams Document Military at War
By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 9, 2009 From the use of newspapers and pamphlets to stoke the American Revolution to embedded journalists in the War in Iraq, the media has played a major role in every American conflict.
A story often lost in the mix is that of military journalists -- men and women in uniform whose weapon of choice isn’t an M4 carbine with a laser sight, but a D3 with a 17-to-200mm lens.
Members of the Air Force’s Combat Camera team spoke in a July 7 “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable about their role in documenting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By shooting photographs, recording video and writing news articles, Combat Camera airmen provide a unique view inside the military during wartime.
Air Force Capt. Phil Ventura, officer in charge of an Air Force Combat Camera team; Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller, a photojournalist; Staff Sgt. Stacia Zachary, the team’s print journalist; and Senior Airman Brian Economides, the team’s videographer, spoke about their work and training.
“Our job is to document, but our job is also to tell a story and to tell a compelling story,” Weismiller said. “And throughout my career in the military, I've been taught, as well as rest of the photographers in the military, that our job is to tell a story and to tell it with emotion and to tell it in the best light possible -- not to just strictly look through the viewfinder and click the shutter. Every time we take a picture, there's a purpose and there's a direction.”
A Combat Camera team can be attached to one of many kinds of units, from combat engineers in the mountains of Afghanistan to infantrymen in Baghdad, so the members have to be ready to act as wartime airmen to defend themselves at any time.
“As far as what kind of equipment we take for protection, you need your helmet. You need your body armor. You need to be able to carry a combat load, which [consists of] seven M4 magazines and two M9s,” Zachary said. “And then you also carry your sidearm. So at any given point -- I weigh 110 pounds -- I'm carrying 150 pounds on me. So we travel with a lot of gear.”
Ventura said his team’s look and training when they go into a mission help them to be accepted by the unit they’re covering.
“We focus very much on being an asset and not a liability to those that we work with, and our gear lends ourselves to that, as does the training we show up with,” he said. “So that is a huge enabler to our mission.”
Zachary said his team’s recent missions include a humanitarian airlift to Pakistan's Swat Valley, operational missions with the search and rescue teams embedded with provincial reconstruction teams and patrolling a Baghdad neighborhood with security forces airmen.
Sometimes, those missions hamper what they can do with their equipment, so the team members have to improvise to get the shot they need. Weismiller said he’s come to prefer using natural light, due in no small part to the fact that using a flash during night missions can affect night-vision equipment users and give away a group’s position.
Economides said until he got a special lens called an Astroscope to get night video, he had to make do with what he had.
“There have been instances where I simply took night-vision lenses that you use to see, and I have rigged it to the front of my lens and taken pictures that way,” he said.
For airmen with training in reporting, photography or videography, one of the most gratifying experiences is seeing their work distributed globally alongside that of veteran journalists working for major news outlets, as well as within the military for mission-related purposes, they said.
“It's humbling to see how many outlets use our products, not just for news media,” Zachary said. “Operational commanders and leaders throughout the Department of Defense rely on it to make informed decisions. Our pictures, videos and stories can often be used for intelligence, reconnaissance, engineering, legal and other operations involving the military services.”
The team’s imagery and stories appear internally on department Web sites such as af.mil, defenselink.mil and defenseimagery.mil, and externally on blogs, international newspapers and television news programs.
(Ian Graham works for the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)