War of Art
Jacob Smith graciously shares some of his time as a war photographer in Iraq.
I sat down this fine fall morning, listening to the rain on the windows outside and trying to figure out what to write about for my first feature. My mind started to reminisce over how far my career has come from the beginning until now.
Earlier in the day, I was editing some of my recent photography work and it occurred to me what a long strange journey my career has taken over the past 20 years.
I was a 19-year-old punk that enlisted in the Army Reserves on a whim. In 2000 there weren't really any major conflicts going on. What's the worst that could happen, right?
One weekend a month, two weeks a year. For me, this was the perfect amount of patriotism: not too much, not too little. Do my part and get out. So I joined up.
I went to the Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort Meade, Maryland working on my Basic Still Photography and Video Production and Documentation certifications to become a fully certified Combat Photographer. When 9/11 happened I was still training at DINFOS, I realized that my world was getting ready to change immensely. Fast forward a little under a year after I graduated from DINFOS in 2002. There I am sitting in a hanger in Kuwait, waiting to get the call to cross the border into Iraq during the invasion as part of the initial Operation Iraqi Freedom rotations of 2003. I was still young and learning the game. That tour was exceptionally thought-provoking in learning who I was and about brotherhood.
The team I worked with was a very tight-knit and small unit. Most of us still talk to this day almost 20 years later. I was 22, naive, immature, and all kinds of not ready for what was going on; much like the rest of the service members fighting wars to this day. These experiences change you and cause you to grow up very fast and have a different take on life. To say it changes you is an understatement.
That tour was exciting, thought-provoking, and life-changing for me. When I got home I wasn't ready for a normal life. I had a taste of what was out there. So when the opportunity to get back into the sandbox came I jumped on it. Initially, it was just a training exercise in Egypt.
When I came home from there my First Sergeant informed me that I was going back to Iraq in 2006. I was ready. But I really wasn't ready. The first tour had gotten me comfortable and used to small pockets of engagements and overall just a hangout mentality and wild west lifestyle. When I got to Iraq in 2006 and reported to Joint Combat Camera- Iraq (JCC-I) my world changed and chaos reigned.
At that time Iraq was going through "sectarian violence" or Civil War. Outside influencers were creating social unrest and causing carnage for coalition forces to help drum up their numbers in the fight against western influence.
Everything was still all fun and games for me until the first improvised explosive device (IED) rocked my world in November of that deployment. That's when my brain started processing that it's not, in fact, all fun and games. Things started getting a bit more lively and interesting after that.
Beginning in 2007 the coalition devised a plan called "The Surge" They wanted to increase combat operations to help create an environment for the insurgency found inhospitable. Every mission I ran, the danger and life expectancy chances started becoming slimmer and slimmer. We were a small detachment at JCC-I. At times, due to mission requirements and just the overall chaos going on across that country, we would go out on 2 to 3 combat missions a day with no days off in sight just to make sure that everything was documented and covered.
I was running missions in the Sunni Triangle attached to the 10th Mountain Division. It was a common day occurrence to have a mortar attack or rocket attack on whatever base you were on. This was inside the wire as well. Not to mention the normal mission dangers outside the wire. These dangers were so in your face I actually had a hard time keeping a teammate on my mission because they would request reassignment. But I was on a path. I had figured out what it was to be a combat photographer. It was a path that not many can take successfully and sometimes might actually end very badly. To be on this path you have to not think about the future, life, family, or basically anything outside of the missions in front of you. To do so could cloud your judgment and cause you to falter in your job, or worse, come face to face with your death or the death of those that depend on you. You had to accept the fact that you can't stop that bullet or IED or rocket from hitting you or detonating next to you. So you had to erase that entire thought process from your mind and keep on a strict documentation autopilot mode.
The importance of the work that my fellow Combat Photographers and I documented daily and risked our lives covering was ever more apparent that tour. There was a side war going on outside of armed conflict. It was the war of propaganda. The insurgency was filling the media and news outlets with one-sided views and imagery taken out of context to help drive their narrative. It was our job to battle that and get the actual story out before they could. We were effectively the eyes of the world. Time was of the essence to us. It didn’t matter if we were on combat operations for hours or weeks at a time. We had very little time once we got back to our bases to edit, caption, and get our documentation from the ground out to the world.
Now not all of the times during that deployment were volatile. Sometimes at night you could just sit outside and look up and simply zone out on the beauty of the night sky and sunrises and sunsets. These rare moment of tranquility helped me discover a new path.
I started becoming what would turn into the man I am today writing this article for you readers out there. This tour taught me how to be a team player. It taught me how to accept and cherish what I have. And it taught me how to master my own craft while maintaining a level of humor and lightheartedness even in the midst of a chaotic world.
When I got home from that tour I wasn't ready. I was so engrossed in the "mission" that I didn't have time for a normal life. I immediately volunteered for a follow-on mission. This time to Afghanistan. That deployment ultimately fell through and was handed over to the active-duty company. But in turn, my unit picked up an Iraq rotation. So I found myself checking back into JCC-I almost 8 months to the day that I had checked out of my second deployment. "Iraq here I am again." I thought "Let's party."
This tour taught me even more about myself than I could have ever dreamed of. My teammate was freshly back in the service after a 10-year break and new to the Combat Camera world. So it was a learning process for me as a leader as well as a photographer. On the second tour, I wasn't really much of a team player and kept going off on missions without a teammate.
This tour was a peaceful dream compared to the nightmare of 2006-2007. The insanities were minimal and overall helped me focus as a photographer and to really learn my craft. Before this tour, I always felt that I was living life in beta mode. Constantly just testing and improving my skills. 2008-2009 was where I finally started coming into my own. This was the tour where a fellow combat photographer from the navy helped break the film mentality on my shooting style telling me "Dude, you aren't shooting film. You have a digital camera. Put that thing on continuous and go to town."
Over the course of this tour, I finally figured it out. Well at the time. I thought I figured it out. I'm still feel like I am shooting in beta mode. Every shoot is a new experience and learning lesson. But one thing that I had learned from day one as a photographer was that you won't stop learning until you die. So every day is a learning lesson for me as a photographer and as a writer. I'm not Vonnegut over here. I am just a simple artist with thoughts to convey through my imagery. My articles will be more of an exploration of my opinions and psyche.
I'm considered a throwback to some. I came from an old school background grounded in pride of country and duty. Today's environment has proven to be exceptionally polarized and I believe there is more truth in the gray zone. I enlisted because I felt it was my duty to my country. I served my 3 full tours to Iraq voluntarily because it was my mission and honor to serve. In a world filled with negatives and strife, patriotism has been left by the wayside as a victim. Some view it as a negative ideology of oppression. Some view it as a standard to live by and hate those that see it differently. I see it as a powerful representation of the potential that every citizen has the opportunity to pursue. Just like putting on a uniform helped me find my art.
My goals today are the same as the day I started. I try to be the best I can and will always be there for those that need it. For those that require help along the way, I might give a bit of "tough love" but ultimately I love this job and want others to love theirs as well. Ideas and concepts that I will deliver in future pieces are just that. I want you to think and process and rewire your normal processes and objectives in your work and life.