Sometimes it starts with a single email.
Those who know me and my photojournalism career are aware of how important my brief, yet honorable military career was in the 1980's. Becoming a Marine back then changed my life and my work ethic especially in this business - but that is a story for another time. On Sunday while finishing up the second day of shooting and crazed editing of my Section IX HS Championship basketball tournament, I received an email from someone who knew my work, but had no way of knowing me. You see, I'd posted a photo of a 2007 West Point graduate poised in prayer after the traditional hat toss during the graduation ceremony on my paper's site, and elsewhere on the web. I vaguely remembered the cadet's mother had written to me from California, and I'd replied in kind. When I opened this new email on Sunday night while yucking it up with our two sportswriters along press row in the empty college gym, what I read simply floored me; the message informed me that this same West Point graduate had been killed in Iraq on Saturday. POW! All the energy and excitement of two long & tiring days of game coverage left my body as I was literally slapped in the face. It was if someone I knew had been killed as I read the message from the Lt.'s childhood friend. Who do I tell about this, I thought...? I replied quickly and promised to get the same photo off to him on Monday for the family. I wrote to our beat reporter who covers West Point, including my email correspondences, and she in turn jumped on it as a story. When we finally received details on Lt. Daniel Hyde's death, we posted the story and the photo on our website, and in the paper. Needless to say, it was all the right thing to do without any hesitation. You can view our story by clicking here.
Jump to Tuesday. Back to work. The paper is doing an upcoming Sunday story on the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, including interviews with three local military personnel & family members with ties to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. My part was described as supplying "highly stylized" portraits. Last Fall I'd photographed West Point cadet Shuja Kazmi (below) of Long Island, NY, a soldier of Pakistani descent who previously served as a medic in Iraq, so we wanted the portraits in the piece to have a similar look. Last night I met Maddy Oremus (top image), whose son Michael was killed by a sniper's single shot in Baghdad in 2006. Maddy was nervous but agreeable to be photographed and I remember telling her to just think of a "magazine style shoot." and "let's not even think about this being for the newspaper..." I'd put up a small umbrella and wanted to photograph her outside the house with the flag that draped her son's casket, but a cold evening rain quickly chased us inside. When I asked her if Michael had a bedroom upstairs and could I see it, I knew we'd have a winner image when I saw the room. She relaxed on the bed and continued a bit of the interview with the reporter off camera. After I'd set up my single Canon strobe with a DIY snoot, and made a few tests, I remember telling her to just "do her thing" while seated on the bed with her son's ceremonial flag. The whole thing took maybe ten minutes. When I'd finished and packed up, the reporter and I joined Maddy and her new husband for a bowl of chili and quiet conversation about her 21 yr. old. son's life and his last moments after he was shot. She recalled all the details.
Next we were off to Marine Sgt. Eddie Ryan's home a few miles down a county highway in the pouring rain a few towns away. I knew I wanted to concentrate on making a "clean" portrait of Eddie with only the single light from my small strobe illuminating him. I'd gone over the set-up and finalized imagery in my head the whole day, and even brought a 4' x 4' square of black felt to drape behind Eddie. I wanted this portrait to tell who he was, and to be tack sharp with stark lighting. I knew I had to work fast and keep it simple. Everyone was great, including Eddie (left) who exercised his hands while I made a few dozen frames of him with two lenses. Again, I only worked for maybe ten minutes, because I even start to get emotional on assignments like this. I'd previously met and photographed Sgt. Eddie Ryan and his parents both at home and at ceremonies at Stewart Airport, where one of the Marines who helped save him was presented a Navy Combat "V" medal for bravery. I still can't get my mind around the struggles and roadblocks that this wonderful family has faced in dealing with what will be Ryan's lifetime of recovery. Sgt. Eddie Ryan (with his mother Angela, below) is the Marine sniper who was shot twice in the head in Iraq, and since returning home has faced continued challenges such as having his VA benefits reduced, and other bureaucratic absurdities for someone who served proudly in "My Marine Corps..."
Semper Fi. -cg.