Soldiers, Warriors, Heros
Diversity is the spice of life. It seemed suitable that that same philosophy carried over and applied to this little series of photographs make sense also. As many of these images wind up having a very masculine theme, I was wondering just what could I shoot next that would be super masculine. The possibility of creating a few images of an ARMY tank was the first and best logical choice. Wondering how a regular guy sitting in Los Angeles could possibly get a hold of modern front line main battle tank, and position it out in a real night time desert environment seemed a little daunting at first. Like they say, all journeys begin with the first step, A little research was necessary. Having some mental reservations about the appropriateness of trying to create these next images while our country is in a state of war, I decided that ultimately, what I’m trying to do is add something positive back rather than take away, (I hoped I wasn’t rationalizing), After speaking with several military bases here in Southern California, and getting absolutely no feedback or positive response, I decided to try a base further out from the dense environs of Los Angeles and San Diego. Somewhere out in the deserts proper; far enough out that they might not be constantly bombarded with photographers, reporters and a million other requests on their time. Fort Irwin seemed the logical choice. A sprawling 1000 square mile training facility half way to Vegas, tucked right up against Death Valley, and far from anywhere. Calling up and talking to the assistant Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Kenneth Drylie, I made my pitch. Describing in some detail my concept and motivations. These were not journalistic or documentary photos, but “art.” He was gracious and seemed interested. After some few minutes over the phone, he agreed to accept an e-mail from me, and will pass it on up the chain of command to Major John Clearwater Deputy PAO, FORT IRWIN.
Amazingly, in about nine hours, I did receive a direct call from Major John Clearwater that same evening. To be honest, I was so befuddled it was hard to think coherently. Answering the phone and trying to understand who this was and the reason for the call, it took me a few seconds to regain my wits. Major Clearwater had informed me that he had just now had a chance to review the e-mail passed on to him. “Yes, the ARMY would be very interested in working together. This is just the sort of thing the General in charge of the base would like to promote. You can expect 100% support from their side to make this project happen.” As we talked, he informed me that they get requests from journalists and photographers all the time, CNN, FOX, Time, News Week the list goes on indefinitely. “ This is the first time they have ever been approached from an artist requesting access.” He continued, “Our perspective is that soldiers come here as their last training stop before continuing on to Iraq. The soldiers are very proud of their equipment, and the quality of training we provide.” We talked a little further. “The general has one request to make of you, can you include a few of our soldiers into the photographs so they are not strictly still life’s of hardware?” My response was “YES SIR!” I realized then that I had been inadvertently standing at attention during the course of our entire conversation. I had never even been in the armed services. Wrapping up our conversation, I mentioned that I was now 50 years old, getting fatter, balding along with a myriad of other effects brought on by the ravages of gravity and time. This photography art series was my humble attempt to add something positive back into the world before I’m too old to do so.
Several days later I did receive authorization to come up to the base for a few days of photography. In about six week hence, there will be another training cycle of troops where my presence should not be too disruptive. I looked forward to the experience whole heartedly.
Exactly six weeks later I found myself sitting in the reception area of the public affairs offices at the Fort. Surrounded by a film crew of three from Germany, and other print and media teams, I think I stood out as the only lone actor in this pot of players waiting for permission to go about our respective businesses. Within an hour Major Clearwater arrives via a back entrance, making his way towards the front office we all can hear the heightened activity following his presence. Being bombarded with questions from several staffers, and just as quickly responding with short decisive answers. In short order the Major is standing at the head of this small crowded reception area. Quickly surveying the scene with the hand full of people and reporters standing around, he eyes me and queries, “Mr. Curry?” Jumping to my feet, I respond in the affirmative. “Your much better looking that I expected” he said. As the whole room fell silent, all eyes upon me, I thought this is a great time for a clever retort. “ Well, as my mother always tells me, I look just like her father, the handsomest man she has ever met!” Everybody laughed.
Much later, conveying that first encounter to my wife, she chides me with, “ Why do you always do that, describing your self as a pathetic old man? Stop it!” “Yes dear.”
After heartfelt greetings with the Major, and just before I set out on the days excursion to find and photograph an M1A1 battle tank with my escort Kenneth Drylie, the Major gave us this advice. “If anybody has any problems with your efforts to shoot their equipment, tell them it is with the direct approval and the blessing’s of the general. That ought to clear up any apprehension you might encounter.”
Within the hour Ken and I had checked out a vehicle, stocked up on lots of cold water, checked in and registered with range control for permission to enter the one thousand square mile expansive open desert that is the heart of Fort Irwin. As we approach the perimeter of the desert lands just out of the small city of what most people think of as Fort IRWIN, Ken calls on the vehicle’s radio net. Range control has cleared us to transit from our present location to the- forward operating base (FOB) we have listed as our destination. Within 10 minutes I can see why they keep such close control of all personnel and vehicles out here. It is vast and easy to get lost, have mechanical failure or an accident. It’s not a given that another vehicle will pass by any given location potentially for days. A person can, and people have died out in the far flung reaches of this raw wilderness. After about an hour of what was a rough and sometimes jarring ride we approach the FOB. As I learned from Ken during our time spent together, this entire desert base is in reality a giant live training area. It is easier to think of it as a war zone, as all the soldiers and people out here are training just as though they were in Iraq. Except for our vehicle which was not equipped with the laser designators that can record “hits and damage”, all other personnel are in a constant state of vigilance. Even though the temperature was well over 100 degrees, all the soldiers out here were equipped with full field kits, wearing desert uniforms, flack jackets, extra ammo and camel packs on their backs. These guys were totally loaded. Just viewing these tough young men in this intense heat made me perspire. I under stand the only concession the Army makes towards the intense heat, is not requiring the soldiers to wear the shock plate as part of their bullet proof vests. Still, carrying over 60 pounds of equipment, weapons and water etc. in over 100 degree heat, it must be very tough.
Approaching the base, we passed through several checkpoints, all of which were heavily manned, solders armed to the teeth, we continued winding our way through a zig zagging dirt road cut out of the terrain, finally ending up inside FOB Delta. Our escort on scene gave us a quick tour while we looked for some of their M1A1’s to photograph later that evening. As we talked and slowly drove within the bass’s interior, I could see a hand full of soldiers returning from maneuvers, walking, almost dragging across the open expanse of the interior, toward their barracks. They looked so tired and haggard, though clearly more relaxed than when I had seen these same soldiers out in the field. It was explained to me that what a soldier wants to do when they return from maneuvers in the field is, “Wash their butt’s, get something to eat and go to sleep! “ I felt so delicate and pampered. Here were guys who were really living the tough life, in preparation to serve their country over seas. All I’m doing is trying to take a pretty picture. After a thorough search of the base, it was determined that no tanks will be forthcoming, as they are all out on maneuvers, not scheduled to return till after dusk, (too late to set up for a shot). Before moving on to the next FOB, we were brought to the field HQ, a large, high tech, interconnecting tent network. Approaching the structure, it appears Khaki from the outside, and bristles with antennas. Passing another very intimidating guard standing sentry duty at the entrance, we slipped through. Once inside, the environment changed dramatically. All interior walls, ceilings and floors were lined with blistering white sealed plasticized fabric, air conditioning and fluorescent lighting ran throughout the sprawling structure. Entering the central heart of the complex, I was amazed to see several dozen specialized tech personnel monitoring and working with over eighteen lap top work stations arrayed around the perimeter of the main large dome tent. Like a scene from a movie, our escort leaned over and spoke softly into the ear of the on scene full Colonel, himself leaning over a portable table. Surrounded by several aids and other soldiers vying for his attention, we created a short interruption. A brief moment later the Colonel rose, looked at me and asked, “What do you got?” Handing over the few samples of previous images I carry around for just such an occasion, and realizing that this very busy man has no time for anything other that the straight talking, condensed version of what I’m trying to do, I spoke as succinctly and precisely as I possibly could, to describe what this project is all about. After a brief moment studying the small stack of images, asking a question or two he “tasked” our project forward to the other FOB we were heading to. Ken let me know that “tasked” is a good thing. It’s like an order, when we get there, they will be prepared and make all possible efforts to help us accomplish this photo shoot.
Two hours later as we approached FOB “Detroit” there was the same routine of very heavy security to gain access onto the base, followed by our introduction to the officers in charge who were expecting us. Within short order, I was led outside to look at a line abreast of over a dozen Bradley fighting vehicles, all had their rear ramps dropped, crew relaxing about. Ken mentioned I might want to approach them, introduce myself and let them know what we have in mind for tomorrow night. Walking up to the closest open Bradley, I introduced myself to a few of the soldiers, pulling out some of the photos I use as visual aids. Within a few minutes there was a crowd of twenty young solders asking questions, passing around the pictures, and generally enthusiastic about the shots we were sharing together. Speaking to the group as a whole I would answer questions about this particular photography technique, how It’s done, my intentions for wanting to do it, (art) and so on. As the light was falling fast I did need to move on much sooner that I would have liked, it was such a heady feeling standing amongst these fine young men, they were a loose, happy and soon rowdy group of soldiers that, even at the time, for these few moments, I felt honored to be accepted amongst.
Moving quickly, on to a different section of the FOB we next came upon a line of about 10 M1-A1 Abrams main battle tanks. The Major working with us asked me to “Pick one, and we’ll get this show on the road.” Within a few minutes one of the tanks was firing up it’s massive turbine engine, and proceeded to pull out of the line. Ken and I had previously scouted the best location possible within the FOB’s interior perimeter. (Rules of these war games dictate that I unfortunately cant venture off the base, especially at night, as the tank, hummer and both crews might be “killed” by hostel fire.) Settling into the North West corner of the base, as far from area flood lighting as I could find, I began the wild task of composing a tank, within 45 minutes the Major arrived with one of the companies Hummers. I really wanted one sporting tow missiles on top but it was explained that those are “busy,” I’ll take the 50 Cal. instead. In very short order I tried to create a dynamic and powerful composition, presenting as good a profile for the tank and hummer as possible in the few minutes there was left of available light. Deferring to the tank commander and crew for technical advice, I did not want to create an image with obvious strategic flaws built into the shot. Even though this is not journalism, or documentary photography, it was important to be as true as possible to the authenticity and spirit of the scene. It was very much a collaborative effort; everybody’s input is valued and utilized. Laying down field boxes of rifle rounds, weapons and placing fuel and water containers in the scene, together we arranged the composition in under 30 minutes. It’s ironic that after all this time spent talking, planning, and arranging for this series of photographs, it often, if not always, comes down to the wire, usually with just minutes to spare.
Intermittently, while preparing the camera, tripod, gaffer pole, and floodlights etc. the tank crew and I would talk about other things. Asking them how long they had been in the army so far, how is it, and what do you think about the your equipment? To a man, they were very positive about the ARMY. “Our equipment and training are first rate, we train and fight with the best tank in the world, and the training syllabus out here is very authentic.” “Besides, during live fire exercises, nothings more fun than blowing stuff up from half a mile away” I had to laugh at that observation, it must be a real hoot. My last question to the guys as a whole, “What do you guys think about the war in Iraq? They explained that this will be their second tour over there, “We have no illusions, but with this equipment well be OK. Besides It’s not about being for or against the war, we all support our country in her time of need. We’re professionals, and will perform our job with honor.” Hearing that calm response to the question which for me, and I assume most Americans was a painful and emotional issue (our solders serving overseas) filed me with pride. In some small way, as a fellow citizen, I was proud that we could give these brave men the finest hardware possible to do their job well. It was a humbling experience for me to be in the presence of these warriors.
At first, I suspect they might have been skeptical about my plans to photograph their tank. Watching me cobble together a 20-foot long extension pole, attaching a floodlight to the head seemed (I suspect) somewhat silly. After the first image came up on the monitor, the left flank of the tank’s main body, and a portion of it’s forward turret, I think they collectively understood the method to my madness, followed by comments of, “Oh Wow!” Advancing quickly to a second exposure of the tanks steeply sloping leading edge and strategically placed bundle of razor wire. Again, the collective consensus was, “Awesome!” This will after all, be a fantastic photograph of, “Their tank.” As the session progressed, the tank’s crew really got into the spirit of the event. I think that viewing the individual frames being exposed on my portable monitor, while I cranked off shot after shot, was a somewhat unusual diversion from their routine of hot, dirty, dangerous work that they have been training for during the last three weeks.
The commander and crew of Track Vehicle D-11 were super professional and maintained a positive attitude during the entire process of shooting their hardware. While setting up for the shot I commented that, ”This is really quite a rush, giant tanks, gun barrels, turrets, out here in the open desert, wow!” Their observation was, “This is nothing, business as usual. For us the rush comes form getting shot at, and shootin back.” Wow, it does help me keep things in perspective.
The final surrealistic sensation for me came towards the very end of our session. While “painting” the lone soldier leaning up against the hummer with his M-16, and especially while exposing the commander, perched in the open hatch, atop his Abrams M1-A1 Main Battle tank, I could see it all. From that vantage point, standing above and behind the commander, looking down on not only this officer with his hand resting on the trigger of the 50 caliber machine gun, I could also see the rest of our little photo set, all the soldiers waiting just out of camera view, and most of the base itself, as it sprawled out into the intensifying brightness of the main staging area, thinking to my self, Wow! Is this a great country or what?
Just prior to my arrival up at Fort IRWIN I sent Major John Clearwater one more short e-mail. Not wanting to give the Major an erroneous impression of myself as a guy who just splashed in the water and plays all day, making these pretty art shots. I did send to his attention several images that had been made for my commercial clients. Photographs of corporate jets, high tech cockpits, and advertising images overall. Major Clearwater’s response was something to the effect of: --Fantastic work, they will be honored to support me in my efforts to create more photographs. —
Now far be it from me, a lowly photographer to contradict a Major in the United States Armed Forces, but on this one issue I must correct you sir. For it is I who was honored, honored to be accepted amongst your company. Not as an equal, of course, but maybe for a short while as a fellow professional. It is I, who was honored to be accepted amongst the company of soldiers, warriors- heroes!