Front Lines: Life as a US Military Photographer

Dedicated Combat Camera units photograph operation on the ground, at sea and in air--even in battle. We joined them for two days of training

Field Shooting

Field Shooting

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Derek Sanchez takes photos during Winter Quick Shot 2011 in February 2011 in Azusa, CA.U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist David Rush

“We need to beware of mountain lions,” U.S. Navy Chief Mass Communication Specialist David Rush tells me as we wait for his sailors to arrive. Up to now, on this cold, cloudless February evening deep in the Angeles National Forest, my main concern has been simply not getting shot during a live-fire exercise. But now I had another something lethal to gnaw my nerves.

So it’s a relief when the sailors finally approach in the pitch dark, footsteps crunching softly across the dirt of the high-desert canyon. From our vantage point atop a plateau near the target building, I see silhouettes rise up against the distant glow of Los Angeles: Helmet-wearing figures parade single file, M4 rifles at the ready. When the last of the dozen or so have passed, we fall in behind, preparing for what’s ahead.

Tonight’s scenario? Entering a house and apprehending an enemy combatant. The close-quarters battle requires breaching the front door, then securing the building room by room. Even though I expect an explosion to kick things off, my heart and lungs compress when it happens. Men shout what sounds like gibberish. More head-rattling pops punctuate the chaos as flash-bang grenades explode.

There’s not much to see from outside. After a time Rush encourages me to enter the building. The sounds of battle haven’t fully subsided. I poke my head in to discover that the rooms are smaller than New York apartments, so I cling to a wall trying to stay out of the way. They’re using real bullets, after all.

After maybe 20 minutes, the building is secured. I feel freer to roam about photographing the military photographers who are gathering images of maps, cell phones, and weapons. Other service members bring out the now-captured “person of interest,” represented by a wooden mannequin. The exercise over, we regroup and depart silently the way we came.

Combat Camera field training
Chen captured the U.S. Navy’s twice-yearly Combat Camera field training. In this photo, combat camera photographers watch another unit maneuver during a reconnaissance exercise.Laurence Chen

Trained Shooters

When U.S. Special Forces carry out missions around the world, they sometimes bring along Combat Camera units. These exist in all branches of the military, capturing both video and stills to document operations from beginning to end.

In recent years, U.S. Navy Combat Camera units have come to more fully embody the role their name suggests. Because sailors don’t normally receive extensive combat training, Navy Combat Camera units undergo extra training to fight alongside combat units in all branches of the U.S. military. While they mainly act as the eyes and ears for commanders on the front lines, they’re also warriors ready for action in all kinds of environments from the desert to the high seas, in all kinds of weather.

Unlike embedded photojournalists, who are independent and unarmed even when traveling with and documenting military personnel, Navy Combat Camera servicemen and women can integrate with elite special-forces units.

Their versatility has earned Navy Combat Camera a reputation as the go-to team for documenting critical missions around the globe. Yet battle is not foremost on their minds: Capturing images, both still and moving, is.

Training for Navy Combat Camera involves at least four months of classes in both video and still photography. Besides such fundamental visual concepts as composition and lighting, the classroom curriculum covers all aspects of media workflow from captioning to working with night-vision gear.

unit practices with M4 rifles on the firing range
A unit practices with M4 rifles on the firing range.Laurence Chen

In addition, some sailors are chosen to attend a year’s worth of classes at Syracuse University, where they can earn a Navy Enlisted Classification (NEC) as a photojournalist or military motion media specialist. NEC in hand, these sailors usually get assigned to Combat Camera units. Their skills and techniques are then put to the test during an intensive two-week field exercise called Quick Shot.

Quick Shot takes place twice a year in the hills above Azusa, CA—in August, when temperatures often top 100 degrees, and in February, when snow and ice are commonplace—where the environment simulates conditions in which photographers will find themselves in theater. Tactical combat training alternates with media production, so everyone develops the understanding of what is happening on both sides of the camera. The other branches of the military send personnel to Quick Shot, too.

While camping out and shooting cameras and guns might sound like a great way to spend a couple weeks in Southern California, there is a key element to the training that most people would find unwelcome: sleep deprivation. (Military rations called MREs—meals ready to eat—aren’t much fun, either.) “Nobody gets good sleep out here, including the instructors,” says Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith Jones, who was a first-class petty officer at the time of the training session I attended.

Jones co-developed Quick Shot’s core curriculum to mimic actual missions. “This is a wake-up call,” he says. “The only way to simulate battle conditions is to work the students a lot so they’re tired and stressed. They know they know their stuff, but they’re tired and can’t believe it when they make a mistake. Here is where they learn.”

photographer documents simulated munitions
A photographer documents simulated munitions found during a night training exercise.Laurence Chen

After Capture

With the chaos of the battle behind us, the unit, using night-vision gear, leaves the area. As part of the mock detention, they lug the “person of interest” on their shoulders, silently making their way back to a truck parked around a bend. The team works quickly to load up for return to camp—instead of speaking, they communicate via hand-signals.

But as the driver climbs into the truck, something bumps against the steering wheel, and the horn roars and echoes off the canyon walls. The silence that follows is all the more profound as everyone considers the consequences of giving away their position (and angering their commanding officers).

Fortunately, Jones takes a positive view about learning from mistakes. “If it had been on the way in, we would’ve been a bit more upset,” he says later with a smile.

A short drive returns the unit to camp, where the photographers and videographers chow down on MREs and immediately begin downloading their memory cards to Apple MacBook Pro notebook computers. The goal for all Combat Camera units is to edit, caption, and upload their images to the computers—and from there to DVDs or secure military servers—within an hour after returning from a mission. This fast turnaround is often required by battle commanders and the units these photographers cover. Plus, their speed makes them available for another mission should the need suddenly arise.

The photographers, their cameras, and their computers are crowded three or four to a table as they compare photos from the exercise. With the seriousness of the venture behind them, laughs ring out as people relive moments of tension in the pictures. But the deadline still looms, so they quickly get back on task, writing captions for their images.

By the end of the hour, the photographers have assembled a disk’s worth of “prime cuts”—essential photos and 10-sec video highlights. If this were an actual mission, the data would be transmitted by satellite or the disk sent by courier to the proper commanders.

standard-issue Nikon D700
Navy Combat Camera’s standard-issue Nikon D700 and Nightstalker II night vision system by Tactical Solutions LLC.Laurence Chen

Lessons in the Field

The production tent, as it’s called, doubles as a classroom where Jones and his other instructors conduct postmortems of each day’s exercises, highlighting useful results and discussing improvements for the unusable ones.

For example, it’s an easy mistake to beam a flashlight directly at a notebook, map, or other object, overexposing the center of the photo to the point of illegibility. The proper technique? Angle the flashlight so the focus spot of the beam does not obscure anything important, feathering the light so it’s bright yet diffuse.

Other lessons involve proper techniques for using cameras in conjunction with night-vision gear. Simple but potentially serious errors include failing to turn off the camera’s autofocus-assist lamp, which can overwhelm night-vision users with brightness and reveal the unit’s position to the enemy. Cameras with night-vision lenses lack AF systems—they focus manually. And setting exposure for night-vision cameras can be tricky.

Besides being rigged up to shoot in the dark, the cameras and other photo gear must be rugged enough for the demands of military use. “We buy one or two of the top cameras and take them with our regular gear to an exercise to see how they stand up,” says Jones. “The life cycle of a good one might be 18 to 24 months.” Others last as little as 6 months.

The Navy has long used Nikon cameras and lenses—it owns a lot of Nikon glass. Given their rough treatment, the Nikon D90, D700, and D3S bodies lying around the production tent would fare poorly in the used-camera market.

combat camera photo
Sergeants and petty officers aren’t the only ones who can get in your face.Laurence Chen

In Theater

A variety of customers make use of the imagery that Navy Combat Camera units produce. Requests typically come from either the Pentagon, Defense Imagery Management Operations Center (a clearinghouse for all unclassified U.S. military imagery), or battle commanders in the field. Mission assignments range from civil affairs such as disaster relief, to evidentiary support (forensic photography in the field), to operations with Special Forces.

It wasn’t always this way. The U.S. Navy created its Combat Camera unit during the Korean War in 1951, and Navy photographers documented just about everything this branch of the armed services did—and kept doing so through the Vietnam War.

But things quieted down until 2002, and by then a lot of the institutional combat-photography knowledge was lost. Photographers were still employed by the military, primarily for news and public relations, but they almost never encountered hostile forces.

Then, a decade ago, as the U.S. became involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rapidly growing need for timely visual information coincided with the rise of inexpensive digital cameras. Now the military had a new means of capturing and delivering media from the front lines. And because it offered new and more ways to document events, digital war photography found more ways to be used.

Military personel editing images
Military personel editing images captured with night vision gear.Laurence Chen

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.”

Combat Camera photographers
Combat Camera photographers from all branches of the U.S. military participate in Quick Shot field exercises designed to train them in small-unit combat operations.Laurence Chen

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.”

Combat photographer
Combat photographers work on the ground, at sea, and as shown here, in the air.Laurence Chen

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