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    From Darkrooms to Digital: Military Public Affairs continues to develop an illuminating legacy

    Exercise Cougar Rage 18

    Photo By John Hughel | Canadian Army Reservist Corporal Darren Sidor assigned to the 39th Brigade Group,...... read more read more



    Story by John Hughel 

    Washington Air National Guard

    CAMP MURRAY, Wash. - The bloodiest day in American history took place on September 17, 1862, outside the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Battle of Antietam left more than 22,700 Union and Confederate soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or presumed missing in action. Paradoxically, this was the first war in U.S. history recorded by photographic imagery, as Mathew Brady and his staff photographers -- Timothy O’ Sullivan and Alexander Gardner -- documented the death and destruction on large glass plate negatives. For the public who visited Brady’s studio the following month in New York City, they witnessed the shocking brutality of the war in these unforgettable images. Photography, and how wars have been chronicled and reported by pictorial specialists, had forever changed the public’s perception of war.

    On a technical level, photography has evolved profoundly for nearly two centuries. Yet, the impression of the reflective image remains relativity unchanged on both a methodical and theoretical level. A photograph is equal parts mathematics and emotion, where a narrow balance of time and temperament can alter the perception of what’s formed in the frame. From the Civil War battlefield at Antietam to the current operations aboard the USS Antietam, the necessity for precise documentation, translated to a narrative form in both imagery and written accounts, has only grown in prominence by military correspondents.

    The use of still and moving imagery, along with written documentation, by the U.S. military has advanced from large view cameras and communication carried via telegraph. What took days to transpose now happens instantly with mobile devices and satellite communication. As a career field in the military, public affairs has benefited from this impact of technology, yet wrestles with balancing the sensitively of mission-critical documents, to publicizing the mission for worldwide dissemination.

    In 1980, when I began my career as a still photographic specialist, the photo school at Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado, was a joint training center for the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps students. For the U.S. Navy, the School of Photography was then at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Conventional joint public affairs courses were taught at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.

    The advancement of military schools for photographic records began in the mid-1920s, placing an emphasis on every aspect that military photography needed to address. The use of photography for aerial purposes functioned as an observational and strategic instrument that had become vital to locating and documenting operating bases, enemy personnel, field positions, weaponry, and logistical support. It also served a second objective.

    Examining this concept prior to World War II, U.S. Army Captain R.R. Arnold assessed in 1941 that intelligence aspects were equally important in aerial photography.

    “Pictures taken from the air over enemy lines are studied for signs of activity to aid us in making our plans and to disclose those of the enemy,” Arnold said. “By taking similar pictures of friendly territory, breaches of camouflage discipline are detected and the extent that our own plans are revealed to the enemy can be deduced. This latter activity is referred to as counter-intelligence.”

    Assigned to my first duty station at Stuttgart Army Airfield (in then) West Germany, in January of 1981, the mission of the 73rd Combat Intelligence Company was precisely this task. Using OV-1 Mohawks with multiple cameras and data-collecting sensors, the still imagery required extensive darkroom time and labor. Since none of the optical, infrared, and radar imagery was processed in flight, the ground photo technicians processed the aerial film. Every aspect that was taught at the military photo school became suddenly apparent: proper mixing and storage of photographic chemicals, testing, and densitometry measurement of film, using printers and enlargers, and working in home stations or transportable photographic darkrooms.

    Our unit had one functioning ES-38, a portable darkroom that was built to fit in the bed of a 2-1/2-ton truck. In tactical field conditions, the electrical power came from the generator assigned to each mobile darkroom. Our six-member staff in the ‘Repro section,’ processed all the airborne imagery in this mobile darkroom set-up at the home station, but was always ready to move. From the time the aircraft landed, we quickly processed all the negatives to be reviewed by the Image Interpreters and flight crew. Reviewing the negatives over a large lightbox, our team also included the pilot and the right-seat technical observers, who ran the aerial cameras.

    The annotated film was rushed to a fully plumbed darkroom, which was literally a converted WWII Luftwaffe shower room, to be printed rapidly, and then marked and noted. As soon as the ink could dry, the prints were packaged and delivered by hand via the designed ‘Duty Driver’ to VII Corp Headquarters at Kelley Barracks.

    Not only did most of our physical buildings at the airfield, located in the town of Echterdingen, date back to the end of WWII, but the film processors were first developed during this time and my ‘Duce and a half' were just as old. The mobile darkrooms were first designed in the mid-1960s and used in Vietnam by other OV-1 aerial reconnaissance units. Using antiquated equipment to perform the undertaking in such a time-sensitive mission was a significant factor in producing quality negatives and final prints. The photographic chemistry had to be kept between 68 to 72 degrees, which meant for a photoreconnaissance mission, the machines had to be fully stocked and ‘running’ well in advance of the plane landing. It was a constant concern to keep everything fully mission capable, an elaborate dance move to send the film from the flightline through intelligence operations, to a final printed and annotated form.

    I oftentimes envied my other Lowry classmates who had assignments at base photo labs covering VIP events or doing official portraits in the studio. They had better resources and time to produce their work. Photographers assigned to public affairs units, helping tell the ‘Soldier Story,’ were the well-seasoned noncommissioned officers who had paid their dues in-garrison, cranking out hours of time in the darkroom before getting a chance to do more creative or work in the field.

    Harkening back to World War II, “YANK, the Army Weekly,” was written by enlisted service members focusing on enlisted ranks, with just a few officers as managers. According to writer Barrett McCurn, the magazine eventually reached a circulation 2.5 million in 41 countries. YANK created their own staff, not relying on Signal Corps cameramen, because of the specialized editorial focus. YANK would become one of the most iconic publications during WWII, and would foster the visions and aspirations for military photographers, illustrators and correspondents for decades to follow.

    “The fundamental principle of YANK is that it is an enlisted man’s paper,” said Hartzell Spence, the magazine’s founding editor. “As much of the work as possible is directed to be done by enlisted men from their point of view. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, this point of view must also be reflected in our pictures.”

    YANK also featured prevalent cartoons such as “Sad Sack,” by Sgt. George Baker and “G.I. Joe,” by Sgt. Dave Breger. Four members of YANK’s staff were killed in combat during WWII, including Staff Sgt. (technician 3rd grade) John Bushemi, one of the staff’s most published photographers -- while covering the American landing on Eniwetok Atoll in the central Pacific on February 19, 1944. In an exhibit of Bushemi's work created at Indiana University in 2004, Merle Miller, the YANK correspondents who was with Bushemi at Eniwetok, reported that, “His last words were, “Be sure to get those pictures back to the office.”” The last issue of YANK was published on December 28, 1945.

    This level of dedication has been a driving force for military cameramen and news correspondents. I was fortunate to find this level of perseverance with my next assignment at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory at Fort Rucker, Alabama, that encompassed a critical purpose with advanced equipment -- that felt light-years ahead in both technology and mission set.

    Everything was still a ‘wet process’ but we had hefty research and development budget that provided automated film processors for color film, transparencies, and paper printing. The staff was half the size of my previous unit due to these modern conveniences but the work order box was never empty. Instead of hand processing all the film, many of the machines ran the whole development sequence. Some items such as large format sheet film and medium format black and white still had to be done by hand, but the quality of film was continually improving so smaller cameras could do more and more of these jobs. Flying with aircrews and using smaller cameras made the work enjoyable while retaining quality film for military photographers working in the field.

    These advances also meant that my counterparts working on base newspapers could occasionally use colorwork in print. Official portraits that were taken just a year or two prior in black and white were now in full color. The wet process had not gone away but had significantly improved in all aspects.

    These advancements helped broaden the roles and assignments for military photographers. As the public had more access to higher-quality publications that could be produced in days instead of weeks, telling the Soldier’ stories by uniformed members started making their way into print. These publications ranged from trade magazines to newspapers and sometimes in recruiting materials. Many of the projects that I photographed were used by the government agencies such as the National Science Foundation, NASA, and medical research journals. This expanded role of military photographers still relied on the foundations of documentation and storytelling that were the heart of the trade.

    Combat camera units in the military contributed to an expanded awareness of service members operating in the field, providing media sources with images from the front lines. Documenting war and the warrior was evolving at the same pace with technological advances. The influence of powerful images shaped the involvement of the U.S. operations in Vietnam. Ted Acheson served in Vietnam as a motion picture photographer with the Army’s Special Photographic Office. According to his biography with the U.S. National Archives, the Department of Defense and the National Press Photographers Association named him “Cinematographer of the Year” in 1969. His work appeared regularly on U.S. nightly news segments throughout the war, working on the same battlefields with professional civilian counterparts such Pulitzer recipients Larry Burrows, David Hume Kennerly, and Nick Ut.

    The difference often came in the aftermath of documenting war coverage. Kennerly, also having served as an Army National Guard photographer, wrote in his book, “Shooter,” that he was never able to complete and see most of his stories to a conclusion. "The curse of the shooter is that he is always an observer, never a participant,” he wrote. For most military photographers and journalists in the field, these men and women they cover are their ‘brothers and sisters in arms.’ Trying to tell their story in an authentic manner yet still being a uniformed member of the service can be a paradoxical practice, especially when working in hostile environments.

    The advancement of film-based photography with quality and speed of publication only increased after Vietnam. The lines between the observational photographer and the storyteller evolved during this period with the introduction of digital imagery, along with the quality and speed, in just barely two decades.

    By the time I returned to military service in the Air National Guard in 2005, the darkrooms had been replaced by massive computer workstations to process digital imagery. The production quality of photography, video production, and sound had made the leap from analog to digital just a few years before this point. The post-production cycle became an extensive effort in computer editing time and required training in these new photo-enhancing programs, which were advancing at a month-by-month pace.

    The public affairs career field evolved profoundly at the same speed. Ironically, by enlisting with the Oregon Air National Guard’s 142nd Fighter Wing in 2005, I had joined one of the original 29 National Guard aviation units, the 123rd Observational Squadron, which could trace their lineage back to 1941. Over the next several years our office had just begun digitally scanning aerial and historic negatives and archives from the China-Burma-India Theater of operations during WWII.

    When the Air Force started to officially merge public affairs career fields in 2007, the pushback from members was in reaction to the quality of the final product. Later, other branches of the service would start their own merger process. Prior to the contraction of military public affairs occupation skill sets, the range of jobs was multifaceted: still and video photography, broadcasting, traditional journalism style writing, and graphic design. They were nested under the multimedia and public affairs career fields. There was no road map for PA as the career field also navigated the arrival of social media, and what images, stories, and public notices would be important to viewers. We were left to figure it out on the fly, ditching printed newsletters for same-day postings as well as grappling with what could or should be released.

    The question of release authority became a new awareness for public affairs career leadership. Blogs, viral messaging, deceptive reposting, and other dilemmas had altered decades of methodical and coordinated control of released products. Individual service members became self-publishers, working on the edges of the conventional forms of old and new media.

    In writing “Navy Combat Camera, 1942-2018: A Reflection,” for the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Navy military historian M. Clayton Farrington, a retired Navy Public Affairs photojournalist, asked the question about the direction many American troops may find themselves.

    “A new wrinkle exists, however, in that we live at a time in which the average Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine carries a device capable of documenting their own daily activities, and many do, even in the thick of combat,” Farrington said. It’s a concept every military public affairs member working in the field must tackle. As Farrington states, “Footage of American troops at work will not completely disappear, yet things will certainly never be the same.”

    Yet as public affairs members navigate some of these latest challenges, it’s critical to keep in mind the competencies required as associates of the profession. Air Force Public Affairs members adhere to four core competencies in their work, which include trusted counsel to leaders, public trust and support, service member morale and readiness, and global influence and deterrence. These lines of effort for PA members producing and disseminating media marked the new and larger accountabilities that came with ‘instant broadcasting.’

    The work as communication experts carries a tremendous weight, where not only is ‘getting it out quickly’ essential but more importantly ‘getting it right.’ We have watched our civilian counterparts in the media industry struggle with the same demands and changes too. Journalists working in shrinking newsrooms and with smaller budgets now compete with bloggers and podcasters.

    Within the past two years, the Public Affairs career field has contracted into one specialty for all service members. The schoolhouses that were at various posts and moved to consolidate at Fort Meade, Maryland, in the mid-1990s, shifting to a broader Department of Defense unified approach. With more consolidation over the last twenty years, now one single qualification course, for all branches has become the standard for military members entering the public affairs field. This is at a time when a global pandemic has exposed the gaps in trustworthy information, and how we all individually use various forms of media and platforms to communicate.

    There are immeasurable possibilities that the future has yet to define. For instance, how recorded imagery will continue to be dispensed, and how viewers will react and ultimately repurpose the objects popping up on their computer monitors and mobile devices is still evolving.

    As military members behind the camera, the adventures remain and the imaginative encounters, stories, and projects will help drive and define the medium.

    Each aspect of the trade working in public affairs has given me a window into the mission; from being part of the operation, or working as a darkroom technician, to covering research and training, or finally to storytelling and projecting our service member's contributions to a larger audience. During my last mobilization for the Washington Air National Guard to support Operation Allies Welcome at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, I combined being ‘boots on the ground’ as operational support for our wearied Afghan guest, while also working as a PA specialist and expanding the broader evacuation story. The opportunity to link all aspects of this unparalleled mission from a field reporter’s perspective was a fitting capstone to my career.

    It’s the last week of 2021, and as I approach military retirement, my coverage as a photojournalist while wearing the uniform over the past four decades is still compelling and a thrill. The continuum of image-making and of reporting with ‘Truth and Vigor’ from a Darkroom Soldier to an Air Force Storyteller has been an incredible journey. So, for one last time while still on duty, I’ll close with my last “-30-.”



    Date Taken: 12.27.2021
    Date Posted: 12.29.2021 20:01
    Story ID: 412119

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