Quora Question: What is it Like to be a Military Photographer?

U.S. servicemen attend an opening ceremony of U.S.-led joint military exercise "Noble Partner 2016" in Vaziani, Georgia, on Wednesday. David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

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Answer from Rolando Gomez, pro photographer, author, writer, Huffington Post, assignments in 43 countries:

You're asking three questions here, and I'll try an answer this from two perspectives I experienced as a former U.S. Army active-duty combat photographer and also as a civilian photographer who covered the military after I left the Army.

As a soldier, military photographers sometimes have great access and sometimes we don't because we're limited by our official orders. If someone holds a higher-rank than us, we have to obey all lawful orders including denial of access whereas a civilian photographer doesn't have to legally follow orders from any uniformed personnel. It's not uncommon that a civilian photographer has better access than a uniformed military photographer—sad, but true. We experienced this in Desert Storm where military photographers were extremely limited while embedded civilian photographers had the best access.

It's About Earning Respect

While military photographers are normally respected by other service members, we are sometimes frowned upon by other enlisted soldiers because of the stigma all photographers will experience at least once in their career, "You're just a photographer taking pictures, a button pusher, a desk jockey." The officer corps sometimes frowns on military photographers because they immediately think, "oh no, here comes the media." Civilian photographers normally are treated better than a military service member photographer.

The smart military officers on the other hand know the power of the visual image and will utilize a photographer to their full potential—yes, I was the personal photographer to Gen. George A. Joulwan for four years, first in Germany when he was a lieutenant general, then in Panama where he was the commander in chief, United States Southern Command. Joulwan, a West Point graduate, understood the power of photography.

As a uniformed photographer you are often limited and respected, or disrespected, by your rank, but that is the key in being a military photographer—earning the respect of your fellow soldiers. I started as a private, aka an E-1, and slightly after my fifth year I was promoted to a staff sergeant, E-6—practically unheard of for what is known in the Army as a "non-combat" MOS, or military occupational specialty. I gained respect from my fellow soldiers because I earned that rank by being a disciplined soldier doing what I needed to do to excel, which included weapons proficiency, staying physically fit, scoring high on the promotion boards and adhering to our Mission Essential Task List (METL).

Yes, while our official title is that of a combat photographer, our job is labeled as non-combat, which is a fancy term that means we have a support role vs. a direct combat role. Ironically, my first duty assignment with the military was the 8th Infantry Division, 3rd Battalion, Headquarters Company, Mainz, Germany, a front-line combat unit. The soldiers in my unit respected me because I repaired a lot of mechanical heaters in infantry M113 track vehicles and when stationed in Germany, soldiers love to stay warm. So I earned my respect with wrenches, which opened doors for my photography.

Now I'm only speaking as an army photographer, though I have worked with, and even supervised photographers from the other branches of the service. I'm sure there are similarities for photographers in other branches as Army photographers are not limited to photographing only Army soldiers any more than Air Force photographers being limited to photographing jets. A great example is the photo above taken by Staff Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo, a U.S. Air Force photographer. The photo is of soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, leaving Samarra in Iraq in their M113s after conducting an assault during Operation Baton Rouge.


As far as training goes, all photographers in all military branches will go through their appropriate basic training and become an airman, soldier, marine or sailor first because any military photographer knows that when in battle, your role is to document that battle but also to survive and help your fellow service member.

Like all soldiers, Army photographers must learn how to shoot their weapon, hand-to-hand combat, first-aid including buddy-aid, NBC, or nuclear, biological and chemical training, land navigation, survival skills, radio operations, drill and ceremony, etc. Military photographers earn more respect when they can shoot their weapon better than their camera—yes I was an expert with my M16 rifle, plus other weapons and even earned the German Armed Forces Badge for Weapons Proficiency, the German Schutzenschnur from the German Army in Koblenz, Germany.

After a military photographer has completed their basic course they will advance to their specific individual training as a photographer. Currently, all photographers are trained at the Defense Information School, known as DINFOS, at Fort Meade, Maryland. Speaking only from Army experience, there are two types of soldiers that will get photography training, photographers and journalists. Journalists fall under the Public Affairs Branch while photographers fall under the Communications Branch.

Down the road in their careers select journalists and photographers are identified by the Army and are further trained in the Intermediate Photojournalism Course. In my day 10 of those photojournalists were selected for the Advanced Photojournalism Course. While I was fortunate enough to attend both courses, I've been out of the Army for over 20 years, and at one point there was talk the advance course would be discontinued.

There also is further training like the Department of Defense Combat Camera workshop, where in my day the top 25 military photographers of all the branches plus the U.S. Coast Guard were selected to attend this prestigious course. Then the Department of Defense selected their top five photographers from this course, something I was honored with and learned much from.

Role in Active Combat

Speaking from my Army perspective, my role in combat is being a soldier first and to look out for myself plus my fellow soldiers. Once I've done and am doing what a soldier does to survive in combat, then I'll document the activities on the battlefield, not just for historical and public affairs purposes, but to possibly aid the commander with combat decisions as photography also plays a key role in intelligence gathering. Army photographers carry weapons to protect themselves too as enemy bullets don't discriminate by your role in the military.

Duty assignments for actual photographers in the Army are to a signal corps unit where they are then distributed as needed to assist in intelligence gathering, documentation, public affairs, etc. The official MOS is 25V Combat Documentation and Production Specialists who "are primarily responsible for supervising, planning and operating electronic and film-based still, video and audio acquisition equipment in order to document combat and noncombat operations."

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Quora Question: What is it Like to be a Military Photographer? | Culture