Grinning all the way
Award ceremonies are a reality for any military photographer.
A lot of times they’re a pain, always being sprung on us at the last minute, and are more of the mundane activities we chronicle. But it’s not a huge deal.
Ironically, for all the hours we may put into stories, layouts and newsletters, it’s usually the standard and boring award photo that gets military journalists the most play from commanders and troops.
We call them “grip and grins.” You’ve seen them and probably didn’t even notice. Any time some big-wig hands out a check or award, you have that magic moment when both awardee and awarder shake hands, heads turn toward a lens, and faces let out a big cheese.
By Army regulation we are told to avoid these types of photos at all cost, as they do little to show a person’s job or personality. But fighting it is a lost cause. Most commanders want nothing but grip-and-grins.
Tonight I was tasked to head down the road a few bits and photograph an award ceremony for a group of troops receiving Combat Action Badges.
The “CAB” is given out to soldiers who experience a measure of combat. It was designed to fill the gap between infantry soldiers and other troops. You see, infantrymen have always received the Combat Infantry Badge, showing they had endured enemy fire in a combat zone. For years, scouts, tankers, and other military jobs fought alongside infantrymen, enduring the same firefights and operations; but had no award for their service. Only infantrymen could get the CIB.
Thus the CAB was born, to give those other soldiers a chance at kudos for being more than coffee whores and PowerPoint rangers.
Yet further debates have sprung up on what constitutes “combat.” Typical observers might evoke images from movies—of men diving down alleys amid volleys of rifle fire, dodging rocket-propelled grenades.
But that doesn’t happen as much in this war. We’re more of a war on the roads, in vehicles, getting blown up from IEDs. Doesn’t that deserve a CAB? And what if the explosion just causes injuries, does that deserve a CAB? What if no one is injured? What if there’s no visible damage? What if someone just notices an IED? Couldn’t they have possibly been injured? CAB?
It goes on and on, and more unscrupulous supervisors and superiors submit their troops for CABs for more outlandish reasons.
To fight that, the process for CAB approval has been purposefully mired in bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. There need to be witness statements from uninvolved parties. There must be sworn statements. There must be a diagram of a sequence of events. There must be interviews. Every story must match the sequence of events to the minute. Every witness recollection must be identical (which, if you ask police officers, is impossible).
So it takes months and months to get approved for a CAB nowadays. So the ceremony was attended by an entire artillery battery. There should be another medal for surviving the administrative process.
And there I stepped in to the makeshift auditorium, a few minutes early. It’s always a good idea to scout out the award area.
Usually if there’s a formation—that is groups of soldiers in ranks and elements, all lined up and standing a certain way, depending on commands and protocol—a photographer must map his or her paths around the formations to where the awardees are standing, and be ready to spring into action when the moment is right.
This ceremony would be easy to shoot. The formation was arranged to face a line of awardees. The commander would normally start at the left-most soldier, pin on the CAB, hand him the certificate, pause for that magic grip-and-grin moment, and move on to the next troop.
I had shot a couple hundred ceremonies (not thousands like my father, but I’m getting there), so I prepped my camera—bounce flash, 2.8 aperture, 1/60 shutter, blah blah blah.
Someone announced “brigade commander!” and we all snapped to attention. After a few seconds, I broke stance and positioned myself for the ceremony. The announcer began reading the citations.
And then they came. Out from the sidelines—unit photographers. They aren’t there in any official capacity, just guys the subordinate commanders asked to take some pictures. They start to drift around amid the goings on of the ceremony, clutching their $100 cameras, flashing the hell out of the participants.
Now I’m talking along the lines of three, not a deluge of photographically inclined. Problem is—they get in the way.
Most of my pictures turned out alright. Many didn’t. One of the “backup” photographers even came up to me afterwards.
“Did my flash get in your way? Cause yours really messed up my pictures,” he said, a little miffed.
“That’s impossible. The flashes were going off at different times. They wouldn’t have anything to do with each other,” I replied.
“Well, see? You made all of mine too bright.”
And you ruined a lot of mine, making them awkward since no one knew where to look. I thought about saying it, but I shut up. The soldier proceeded to show me his overexposed pictures, blown out from too much of his own flash.
“There, you see?” I explained. “I was bouncing my flash, so my light was coming from the ceiling. All that light is you, not me.”
A message to units who call me 15 minutes before something starts and order me to take pictures: If you’re going to make me drop everything, run to your ceremony and then make me fight with four to five people taking pictures, don’t bother calling.