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Photographers fulfill new tasking on deployment

Afghan nationals have their photo taken by Staff Sgt. Christine Jones 4th Combat Camera Squadron, Shabila Kalan Village, Zabul Province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez )

Afghan nationals have their photo taken by Staff Sgt. Christine Jones 4th Combat Camera Squadron, Shabila Kalan Village, Zabul Province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez )

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christine Jones, a photographer with the 4th Combat Camera Squadron, shows her photographs to Afghan children in Shabila Kalan, Zabul province, Afghanistan. Afghan national army soldiers and U.S. Soldiers from 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division are conducting a joint patrol in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christine Jones, a photographer with the 4th Combat Camera Squadron, shows her photographs to Afghan children in Shabila Kalan, Zabul province, Afghanistan. Afghan national army soldiers and U.S. Soldiers from 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division are conducting a joint patrol in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez, 4th Combat Camera Squadron, takes a picture of Afghan children in Shabila Kalan, Zabul province, Afghanistan, Nov. 30, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Jones)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez, 4th Combat Camera Squadron, takes a picture of Afghan children in Shabila Kalan, Zabul province, Afghanistan, Nov. 30, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Jones)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez, 4th Combat Camera Squadron, shows digital photographs to an Afghan soldier in Shabila Kalan, Zabul province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Jones)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez, 4th Combat Camera Squadron, shows digital photographs to an Afghan soldier in Shabila Kalan, Zabul province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christine Jones)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The calls came Easter Sunday. The 4th Combat Camera Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., received a tasking to send a team to Afghanistan. Although the team received advanced notice, the phone calls removed all doubt the squadron would soon have still photographers and videographers in southern Afghanistan.

The team's mission was a first for Air Force Reserve Command's combat camera squadron.

"This was a new tasking. We were not replacing an outgoing team," said Maj. Paul Smedegaard, a Phoenix, Ariz., resident and the officer in charge of the team. "We had to establish a brand new team and build the infrastructure at the management level from the ground up."

After arriving here Oct. 20, 2009, the squadron members received several days of briefings, vehicle rollover training and a class in counter-improvised explosive device recognition.

Before their arrival, they went through the specialized training they would need to effectively support the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. For the 179-day deployment, the combat camera team had to learn infantry tactics and small unit drills and become familiar with the special equipment from which the brigade gets its name.

It didn't take long for the teams to get a taste of combat. On their first mission, Master Sgt. Juan Valdes and Tech Sgt. Francisco Govea II encountered an improvised explosive device. The Stryker in front of theirs hit a large IED, resulting in several casualties.

Relying on their training, instinct and prior combat experience, the two combat photographers immediately began to document the recovery, which lasted well into the night. The video and still pictures were promptly sent up the chain of command to the brigade. The imagery gave key leaders a visual representation of the events on the ground.

"We routinely use combat camera imagery to explain our operations to other units and agencies so they can visualize the complexities of the terrain in which our Soldiers operate," said Maj. Cory Delger, the brigade's fire support officer.

The combat camera team usually transmits images to the brigade within 4 to 12 hours after a mission. This quick turnaround provides leadership with a near-real time snapshot of the battle space.

Once the images are posted on the brigade's shared portal, the images are given a classification and forwarded to the Pentagon where they are distributed to decision makers within the Department of Defense. The pictures and videos that are cleared for release are made available to the public at www. defenseimagery.mil.

Despite the inherent danger, the teams still document much of the same types of events they would on any other deployment.

"The fundamentals of photography do not change from one mission to another," said Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez, a combat photographer deployed with the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. "The body armor and my M-16 make shooting more difficult, but the photographic opportunities make the added stressors worth it. The people and landscape of Afghanistan are amazing subjects."

Sergeant Lopez is a reservist and a full-time commercial photographer in Phoenix. When he was chosen for the mission, he saw a unique opportunity to build his military portfolio.

Although 4th Combat Camera Squadron members were activated for this deployment, the commander was able to fill the tasking with an all-volunteer force.

For Staff Sgt. Dayton Mitchell, a photographer from Las Vegas, Nev., getting on the initial team was not an option. He volunteered even before the tasking was official. He believed he could make a difference and embraced the opportunity to set the standard for future teams. The squadron has been tasked with at least one more rotation.

Sergeant Mitchell said the opportunity to work with and learn from the Army has enriched his military career. He has learned about documenting combat operations from one of the most active units in southern Afghanistan. In exchange, he has passed along several photographic tips to the Soldiers, such as how to properly pose people for group photos and the benefits of using natural light instead of a flash.

The reservists are now past the halfway point of their deployment and despite the many hardships remain focused. They overcame many of the initial challenges and are now fully integrated into operations.

This deployment is the first time their unit has been tasked with establishing initial operations, and Major Smedegaard could not be more pleased with the job his team is doing.

For him, the images his team is producing are among the best photographs that have come out of Afghanistan since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.

"Our imagery gives the American public, the international community and the people of Afghanistan the opportunity to view firsthand the counterinsurgency operations here in Afghanistan," said Major Smedegaard.

Although the major and his team have less than 60 days left on their deployment, they still face a long road ahead. The constant threat of IEDs, austere conditions and an impending troop buildup leave little doubt that the next two months will continue to bring tremendous challenges. (Air Force Reserve Command News Service)