Operations forces from all the American armed services began regularly calling on Navy Combat Camera units between 2004 and 2006. Since sailors receive little ground-combat training, Lt. Bryan Logan, the Combat Camera Group Pacific officer-in-charge at the time, brought in specialists to teach his personnel how small ground units work and assess their circumstances. This enabled the Navy photographers to integrate into any type of ground unit they were assigned to, from conventional units to special operations.
The “surge” brought them to the front lines in much greater numbers. “When we started deploying intensively with Special Forces in 2007, it was this training that saved us and allowed us to go out with these operators,” says Cmdr. Tom Cotton, the executive officer of Fleet Imaging Command Pacific, the parent command of Navy Combat Camera Group Pacific. “At their level, if you are not prepared, you are a liability. We passed the test and continue to refine our training based on feedback from these detachments.”
In this case, “passing the test” means that Navy Combat Camera photographers know their place. Jones, recounting his time deployed in Iraq, tells the story of how one special-operations member asked him before a mission what he would do if the unit were ambushed. “I’m going to find cover, and then I’m going to start recording,” Jones told him.
“You’re not going to grab your weapon?” the other man asked.
“Do you need me to grab my weapon?” countered Jones.
His laughing reply: “No, I just wanted to know, because most of the guys who want to come out with us try to be us.”
Not so for Combat Camera photographers. Jones explains that his job is to shoot pictures and record video until his life is threatened. “I’m not trying to take down bad guys,” he says. “I let [others] do their job, and I do my job.”
That job continues to evolve. Even now, as regional control slowly transfers back to the Iraqi authorities, U.S. units may still accompany local units in advisory roles as they seek to apprehend suspected terrorists. Combat Camera units have helped document these missions, providing images and video for both the U.S. and Iraqi authorities.
These photographers also help shape the public's perceptions of military operations—a traditional role unchanged by new technology. “Imagery sways public opinion and can define ‘reality,’” says Cotton. “Our adversaries are extremely good at getting their imagery out on the web and into the media immediately after an event. If we don’t get our imagery out as quickly, we have lost, because it’s that initial impression that lasts the longest.”
He concludes: “It’s the combat-trained photographers on the ground in the middle of the action that ensure we have the imagery we need to tell the story.”
Contributing Editor Laurence Chen is a writer and photographer based in Seattle. Visit www.LaurenceChen.com.