Tom Bearden: Photographers Focus on Family Portraits for Troops

BY Tom Bearden  December 7, 2009 at 9:08 PM EST
Photographer Jay Dickman captures an image of a military family in Colorado Springs; Photo by Tom Bearden

When members of the Armed Forces are far from home, few things are more important than reminders of their families — particularly photographs. Those pictures can be found taped to office walls, in shirt pockets, and on the dashboards of Humvees. Recognizing that, hundreds of professional photographers, under the auspices of the PhotoImaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association, an industry group, have volunteered their time and talent to take thousands of portraits of military families. They’ve partnered with “Soldiers’ Angels,” a national support group for service members, and have been working since September toward a goal of shooting and delivering at least 10,000 portraits overseas in time for the holidays. The program is called “Portraits of Love.” We profiled one particular photographer/volunteer –Jay Dickman of National Geographic — as he photographed two families in Colorado Springs, Colo. He knows about war–he won a Pulitzer Prize for his images of El Salvador–and he has a son in the Army who has been to Iraq three times. Chief Warrant Officer Gavin Dickman is now stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., and his dad joined him there recently to photograph military families. Gavin helped him take those pictures, and something he said during one of those shoots really crystallized for him why these pictures are so important. Gavin said he carries a picture of his wife close to his heart every time he goes “outside the wire,” in harm’s way. More than a few soldiers have told us the same thing.
The Colorado Springs shoot took place in the Garden of the Gods, which is a National Natural Landmark, at dawn. Soaring walls of red sandstone — almost glowing in the sunlight — formed the backdrop. It wasn’t an easy shoot for the families — temperatures were in the mid-20s and the wind was downright icy. Since the families wanted to get the best pictures possible, they doffed their heavy coats and did their best to keep their teeth from chattering. Both families included very small babies, who were amazingly cooperative. One father, Maj. George Hammar, was fortunate enough to be there for the session, having returned from Afghanistan only four days earlier, to meet his three-week old son for the first time. He won’t have much time to get to know him, however, because he only has two weeks leave at home before returning. He told us it’s usually harder to go back after a vacation than it is to leave in the first place. Our story is nearing the editing stage and the tentative plan is for it to air closer to Christmas.