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Camouflaged Within

It’s been a while since I have sat down to put some words on paper, so I apologize for my writing being a little rough around the edges. It's an art that quickly gets rusty without constant practice. But, after completing my first independent photojournalism project it seemed warranted.

For any who have seen the recent series of black and white composite images posted to my Instagram, I hope you have enjoyed them! The experience was a far cry from wandering rocky crags to capture a sunrise picture in Ireland, but in a sense it was the ultimate wandering experience: venturing forward with only a destination in mind. I knew what I wanted to create, but I didn’t know how I would get there, what turns would be made along the way, and what changes in plan would come up. I was on an adventure.

The original inspiration for the adventure actually happened ten years ago when I arrived at Norwich University as a member of Civil Air Patrol for a week long summer encampment. If you aren’t familiar with Civil Air Patrol, think Sea Cadets, JROTC, that sort of program. Twelve to eighteen-year olds are able to sign up to partake in leadership and aerospace training opportunities while receiving a small taste of what the military environment is like. Encampment was our Boot Camp but only a week long instead of twelve, and run by senior ranking cadets instead of drill sergeants.

I’m sure if I was to step back in time to that week, it would seem humorous and borderline Lord-of-the-Flies-eque to see a number of young teenagers doing their best to impersonate Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. But at the time, as an impressionable, wide-eyed twelve year, it was as serious and intense training as I could imagine. And not to discredit the program -- I learned lessons through my six years of being a member that undoubtedly influenced who I am. But the highlight of that week-long experience came on the last night. In the very detailed packing list we were given, each cadet was allowed one set of civilian attire. Those clothes were for the last night social held to celebrate the success of completing the ordeal.

I am a firm believer that the stress and intensity of an experience can directly correlate with the resilience of the bonds formed with those who endure with you. So by the end of that week, I felt like I was walking around with 20 brand new life long friends. But the friendships had been formed through the context of the uniforms we wore 24/7. It was the only context in which I knew these people. By definition, uniforms remove individuality from all who wear them. We were introduced to one another through a very forced and sterile environment, so I didn’t have any of the initial judgments based on clothes, actions, or setting that often happen when we meet someone new.

Perhaps then you can imagine just how much my 12 year-old world was rocked that Saturday night when my cohesive group of bonded buds turned into a new conglomerate of jocks, preps, nerds, punk rockers, and average joes.

I remember it being the craziest yet coolest thing ever.

It’s like we all had the opportunity to meet each other for the first time once again, and with the added benefit of not having someone screaming down our necks as it happened. I was suddenly gifted a much more whole and individual expression of who each person was. It was a crystal clear display of the lesson “never judge a book by its cover”. I knew right away that had I met some of these people in a different setting (something like the social battlefield of middle school recess) I probably wouldn’t have interacted with them. But this way, the personality of each individual was the basis of the friendship, not social stigmas.

Fast forward ten years and I am back at Norwich as a senior appreciating that very same phenomenon. Except now instead of one week, it’s been three and half years (a very loonggg three and a half years) and instead of just a flight of cadets to get to know, it’s an entire student body.

Just like that encampment experience, it is all too easy to limit the knowledge of a friend to interactions in a uniform. It is usually not until the weekends, when civilian attire can be worn to chow, or until you get to know someone on a personal level that the intricacies of personality and varieties of hobbies get brought to the surface. Those pieces of information are missing variables that are vital in order to add up to the whole cadet.

Because often times I think one side directly influences the other. It was Ashley Del Rosario’s desire to help people -- an interest developed outside the uniform -- that lead her to put one on and join the army. And It was Jake Welker’s desire to learn martial arts -- and the skills of self-discipline, and patience, and precision that came with it -- that have served his military experience so well. These entities are not mutually exclusive and I wanted to show that so much can be camouflaged beneath the the tan and green layers of the uniforms that an outsider sees.

And so began my wandering.

From the very first step on this storytelling journey, everything was a learning experience. Having never done studio work, I was faking it with all fingers and toes crossed that I would make it. The process consisted predominantly of the following: countless hours spent bouncing ideas off of friends to develop the concept; watching a lot of late-night Youtube videos to teach myself Photoshop skills and figure out just how I was going to accomplish what I envisioned in my head; and many awkward emails to peers asking if they wanted to partake in the project, one of which went something along the lines of: Hi: I noticed you dress really nicely on the weekends at chow… can I take pictures of you??

In the end, it was an incredibly rewarding process -- and pretty cool to have brought an impressionable memory full circle at the same place where it happened. I have always been a hands-on and do-it-myself kind of learner and this project was a testament to the effectiveness of that learning style. But my real hope is that I was able to convey something to you: the viewer. Each person’s take-away might be different, and that’s the beauty of photography and storytelling as a whole! As long as I can cause people to pause for just a moment in our busy lives, look at these individuals, and reflect before moving on, I’ll call my first visual storytelling project a success.

For excerpts from each participant, go to my Instagram where you can read a small piece of each of their stories.

Thanks for reading! :)

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