My small attempt to spotlight the plight of combat cameramen has actually triggered the attention of one. Roger Hawkins went to Vietnam in 1968. As a photo officer with the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office [DASPO] and the 221st Signal Company (photographic), he recorded the kind of images that simply don’t fade over time. Nor has he let the wartime photog’s legacy wane since then. A member of the International Combat Camera Association, Hawkins maintains a considerable web presence and his work can be seen on The History Channel as well as Discovery. When he sent me an e-mail questioning the motive behind my post, I knew I’d found the person I was looking for: a combat veteran with impeccable credentials, a sobering portfolio and zero desire to bullshit me. Not knowing where to start, I asked a few dumb questions…
What did it feel like to be armed with just a lens? Did you suffer tunnel vision?
"It isn't just a lens. It is a lens, a shotgun, artillery and air support, some green berets and some Australian SAS types from the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and a hundred or so armed-to-the-teeth Montagnard tribesmen who thought wearing pants was an innovation that would not last. I have also gone for walks completely alone. Then suddenly a hundred kids show up to pull on the hair on my arms to see if it is real…I depended on tunnel vision to keep me sane and under control. It provides the illusion that you are in a little black room and nobody can see you. Here that would be called self delusion. In Vietnam it was called holding on to sanity."
How does one think to center up, focus and roll when armed troops are doing their best to kill each other?
"By ‘ignoring the incoming while capturing the irony.’ Dying alone is more frightening than dying with the troops. I went out with a 5-man Long Range Recon Patrol of the 173rd Airborne and we saw a large group of VC about a mile across the valley traveling with flashlights at night. I knew they could not see or hear us but my blood was pumping so hard I knew they could hear me. It was like Edgar Allen Poe's story the Tell Tale Heart. If you love this kind of work it tends to take over your mind in time of crisis. A surprising amount of the gut wrenching rear comes from the anticipation of a dangerous mission not the real thing."
How do those regular troops feel about the cameraman?
"Most have this sense that any moment can be your last and it is somehow comforting to know your presence on earth might be recorded and archived so others can now you existed and what you looked like. When you turn the camera on them you are acknowledging their humanity. On the other hand I have had some Dustoff pilots get upset when I filmed the unloading of American wounded. The flip side is that the Dustoff pilots I flew with loved the coverage. By and large the troops will do anything for you within reason."
Hawkins goes on to explain how it helps to be ‘young and stupid’, that after a certain amount of combat, ‘the range of what really scares you gets smaller and smaller.’ Perhaps, but I’m guessing a great deal of inner strength is required to carry glass into battle. Today, men and women in uniform are doing just that, crawling across the bellicose sod of Iraq and Afghanistan with little more than a mission and a lens. No matter what your politics, there’s no denying the bravery of these people who capture history long before it's distorted in our nation’s textbooks. The International Combat Camera Association works to honor the achievements and mission of these photographers, in hopes their images of war can help others understand the value of peace. I can think of no finer group I’d like to help and until I can shower them with untold riches, the admiration of an itinerant blogger will have to do.
Next Time: The Heroism of William T. Perkins, Jr.