NOTE: All but one of the photographs below were taken Sept. 16 and 17, 2016, at the 24-hour POW/MIA vigil in Meadville, Pennsylvania. The other was taken 18 years ago when I first met some of the folks in this story.
In 1998, I was in my first year at The Meadville Tribune. I was part-time, only working 20-24 hours a week.
That year the Moving Vietnam Memorial Wall made a stop in Meadville. I knew about the wall, but really didn’t know much about the local veterans or their commitment to veterans’ issues.
I was pretty intrigued by the wall, well let me restate that, I was pretty intrigued by people spending time at the wall. Not just during the ceremonies, but in between. I was scheduled to make photographs for the paper the first few days, but not the entire week because I was only part-time.
I went on my days off. And I made some pictures.
A few weeks earlier, I was sent to New Castle to photograph the wall while it was there for a preview story for when it was scheduled to come to Meadville. I remember I was pretty rushed getting there and needing to make a very fast picture and come back to another assignment. I didn’t have time to understand anything about it then. I didn’t make a great photograph though in the short time I tried. I remember it was a sleeping baby being held by his or her dad as he searched the wall for a name of his uncle, I believe.
A few weeks later, I was able to spend a little more time photographing people at the wall in Meadville.
I then started to feel the weight.
A line from a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song would go through my head like it never did before. “Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.” Those words were written in the lines of the faces I was seeing. The words were in the water from their eyes filling those lines and the lines were in the fingertips of the hands wiping away those tears. Those words were in the embraces between middle-aged men in biker leathers with patches showing parts of their history in the military and tour in Vietnam fighting for the USA. The words were in the American flag patches on each and everyone one of those veterans looking for names on the wall.
This is the only photo (above) I can find from that time (It was pre-digital for us so I don’t have much saved in a proper format – somewhere in a box I have the newspaper clippings I’m sure).
I remember having a conversation with my editor who had received a few phone calls after I had taken a photo, and the paper published it, showing a veteran crying at the wall.
“Those are private moments!” the callers told the editor, indicating we shouldn’t have taken or published the pictures we had.
I knew they were private moments.
Of course they were private moments, but they were in a public place. They publicly showed the vulnerable nature of enduring the life they have lived.
I told the editor (who wasn’t upset with me, just pointing out what he had been told) that if we’re to tell the story about the impact of the loss of life represented on the panels of that wall, then we have to invade the private moments that they are publicly showing us. It is the story that lingers. It is the story of these veterans now!
I also had a conversation with one of the veterans a day or two later in the week about the same thing. He pointed out how those private moments between two brothers in a cause have a meaning that no one else could understand. I said I am trying to make it so others can possibly understand through my capturing of such moments. I’m not sure how much I convinced him of my thoughts, but we had a good conversation where I explained I meant no disrespect.
Respect is only earned over time.
Over the years of covering this group as they held their annual 24-hour vigil during POW/MIA Recognition Day, they have either begun to understand me or have at least accepted the way I approach stories. It is sometimes hard for people to trust a member of the press, especially in the age of sensationalism, but hopefully people see in the approach of dedicated story tellers that we are out to give meaning to this life through our work. In doing this, we need to be able to see a story from the inside (or as close as we can come having not lived our subject’s stories).
This past Friday night, I wasn’t sent to cover a football game, a rarity. I asked if my new paper would be interested in this vigil, in this story, even though it was outside of our coverage area. I know that Veteran’s groups are always trying to get their word out so people understand, or at least learn, what many have sacrificed in the name of the United States of America.
Even though this wasn’t a Venango County story, I thought it might have an impact on our folks in Venango County. My calls around didn’t lead me to any similar such ceremonies in Venango. I knew of members who lived in Cochranton, which is part of our coverage area, and thought I’d tell the whole story using them as our focus. The POW/MIA story isn’t relegated to borders or coverage areas.
It is a national story.
Telling stories is never an easy task. As a photographer and writer, I come into every assignment with my lifetime’s worth of knowledge, but its knowledge based on my own perspective. And I ask my subjects to tell me their lifetime’s worth of knowledge in a 15 minute conversation that is through their own perspective. I then try to put into a photograph or a few lines in a story something that hopefully tells something that helps our readers understand life a little more.
When I think about people’s stories, I realize, at best, I can only tell a small portion of their story. I hope to instill in my words a little more perspective that lets people perhaps feel they understand a deeper meaning. In my photographs, I hope to capture a split second or some detail that gives more of the story that words might not be able to fully convey.
So over the years, I think, the Veterans of the Vietnam War Jack Greer Memorial Post 52 have grown to understand that I am not being disrespectful at all when I make pictures during the national anthem, instead of standing with my hand over my heart. (I tell the story of being questioned once about not putting my hand on my heart during the national anthem. I was holding my camera in my hand and I answered, I do have my hand on my heart – my heart is in my work!)
The members of the post understand that when I make a picture of friends who share a common history, a history that neither can speak of or to anyone else and, as they embrace, they know that no one else understands what they feel, that I am trying to make that understood in the picture I take.
And they understand that when I make a picture that it is in a sincere hope that I can help someone else get what this whole thing they are doing is about. How that moment impacts who we are!
I will never understand what it is like to be a Vietnam veteran or a veteran from any other conflict. I will never understand what it was like to be 18 or 20 and dropped on the other side of the world in a jungle or a dessert with the sole objective to accomplish a task that meant others would die.
I will never understand how a sound that might make me jump because it was unexpected could cause someone else to spiral out of control physically and emotionally. I will never understand completely when two old soldiers grab each others hand and pull them in for a hug exactly what that means.
I am lucky I can’t understand that because I am lucky I have never been put into a situation where I had to understand that!
So this past weekend, here I was again covering a story I had covered a dozen or more times for The Meadville Tribune, but now for my new paper The Derrick and The News-Herald. I was trying to find an understanding deeper than I had before. In 1998, I was younger and trying to learn how to tell stories. Now I am older and still trying to learn how to tell stories. So, what is it that I have learned? What is it that I can say?
I wasn’t sure.
As I was standing talking to some of the post members I know, I felt someone’s arms wrap around me from behind. I looked down to see white-gloved hands and knew it was one of the post members.
As it turned out it was Phil Davis (above), who is former post commander and current president of the Welcome Home Association, the Post’s auxiliary organization who is doing really great things for current veterans (post52.com/project-support-our-troops).
Phil was there in 1998 when I was at the moving wall making photographs. Phil was one of the people who called or talked with our editors back then and he was the man I had a conversation that week about what I was trying to do with my photographs. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t even remember this because since then we have had many conversations and he gets what I try to do with my work.
So after all these years, covering the same story over and over again, here I am standing with camera in hand and trusted by folks who have all the reason in the world not to trust anyone. And one of the men who questioned my intentions way back when puts his arms around me and welcomes me as a brother …
I can’t begin to tell you how humbling that is.