During the tremendous upheaval of the 1960s and with the Vietnam War in full effect, the country was in desperate need of emotive displays of patriotism while still accurately recording the happenings of the war. Vital contributors, such as U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Ronald Marshall, served with the 600th and 601st Photo Squadrons, where they were deployed to the front lines to produce startling imagery that allowed those in the states to better understand the realities of the war overseas. If the exposure and culture shock to the unfamiliar country wasn’t enough, Marshall said the weight of the equipment, regular life-threatening conditions, and survivor’s guilt would bring even the strongest individuals to their knees. Carrying a flak jacket, 38 pistol, M16, his cameras and a tripod around the jungles of Vietnam, Marshall recalls the evolution of military photography, including individuals who were assigned to assess and repair cameras so that Marshall and others could concentrate strictly on their version of ‘sharpshooting.’ He also elaborates on the technology surrounding gun site cameras and how he saw advancements in technology in even just a year’s time. Marshall continues as he discusses protecting his film from the scorching sun, experiencing several near death encounters surrounding booby traps, and he becomes emotional as he remembers his close crew and how devastated he was when members were lost in the field.
No stranger to challenges, Marshall vividly recalls photographing Operation Ranch Hand, both from inside aircraft and behind during their release of the extremely toxic defoliant – Agent Orange. The use of this herbicide left many Americans with related health issues, including Marshall who suffers with diabetes.
Proud of the work he and others of the 600 and 601st accomplished, Marshall says he is certain that the photos and video were put to good use in national publications–he even saw his shots highlighted on ABC newsreels. The images put a relatable human face on the war for many Americans back home while demonstrating the youth of those in conflict and the sheer gravity of what they were experiencing. While recognizing all branches and even civilian journalists for their merits, Marshall derives particular pride in the unparalleled level of footage that the Air Force was able to produce to better evaluate strategies and deliver results. Marshall still serves as planner and organizer for the 600 and 601st reunions, where he is able to reminisce with kindred spirits about the risky journey they all took, and remind his esteemed colleagues that they don’t need to travel the road alone anymore.
The opening of the 21st century also brought the advent of the digital photograph age. Cameras were more portable, easier to use, and produced and unparalleled results. The efficiency of loading and then digitally sending one’s images made darkrooms obsolete. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was once again an urgent need to document and distribute news relating to the U.S. military’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a world of digital cameras and camera phones, capturing and delivering imagery quickly became a priority in military public affairs, as perceptions are often solidified by initial impressions.
Shawn Miller who served with the 109th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard from 2005-2012 can attest to the necessity to not only document what was going on in Iraq in relation to Operation Iraqi Freedom, but also to turn that content around as quickly as possible. When Miller was deployed with the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division to Iraq in 2010-2011 in support of Operation New Dawn, he noted the media saturation by embedded journalists and how that impacted his mission. Miller’s desire to become a photographer sprung from the iconic shots we all identify with as classic patriotic and painful war images from the likes of Joe Rosenthal and Robert Capa. With a desire to capture raw emotion, Miller acknowledged the shift in what the U.S. Army would need as the U.S. shrunk and closed bases across Iraq. Aside from dodging a few mortars or rockets on base, Miller was relatively out of the front lines, but not far from the stress of daily life in a combat zone.
Capturing the aftermath of combat both from U.S. soldiers lost and the destruction of cities shaped his overall thoughts and experience. In his oral history interview, Miller highlighted a poignant shot from his portfolio of a forlorn little boy standing in a city torn apart by war. He acknowledged that this boy’s entire life revolved around his battle-scarred home. Miller still wonders what happened to that Mosulian boy living within a vacuum of an unsettled war.
Miller’s experiences led him to join several veteran related organizations and project. It even led to his current profession as the Library of Congress’ official photographer. When asked recently his overall thoughts on military photographers his reply was:
I have the utmost respect for those who risk their lives, and those who gave their lives, to document conflict and show the victories, defeats and horrors of war, whether in uniform or the civilian journalists who embedded with us, who carry the weight of the images we shoot to save them for history.
All of these warriors captured and produced scores of images and videos for which the social value far exceeds the artistic value. They benefited strategy and intelligence, mapmaking, and public affairs. Whether taking photos from the air or ground, these photographers endured enemy action and harsh conditions to capture the perfect shot. In an ever changing world, these men and women have the ability take a single moment and make it last forever.
Are you a veteran with photos to share? Go to loc.gov/vets and find out how your original snapshots can be preserved at the Library of Congress with the Veterans History Project.