Picture Story: A Risky Project Drags On, But Finally Pays Off
January 04, 2010
Long projects about personal quests are risky because the narrative�or subject�can easily fizzle. But subject and circumstances can exceed expectations, too, and make for a transfixing story.
Such was the case with "Ian Fisher: American Soldier," a documentary by the Denver Post that took more than two years to complete. The paper set out to document the experience of a grunt from enlistment to deployment to homecoming, in order to show readers what average military men and women experience.
"As the story unfolded, it became more and more interesting," says Denver Post staff photographer Craig Walker. "It wasn't just about becoming a soldier. It was about growing up."
The project crystallized at a Denver watering hole in early 2007. AME/photography Tim Rasmussen, DOP John Sunderland, and ME/Presentation & Design Damon Cain were talking about a planned troop surge in Iraq. The war wasn't going well at the time, and casualties were high. The obvious question was, Why would anybody join the army at a time like that?
"We hatched a plan to see if we could follow a kid from high school to Iraq," says Rasmussen. "The original title for it was, 'The Colorado Patriot.'"
They pitched the idea to Denver Post editor Greg Moore. They estimated the project would take at least a year, requiring several trips to document the subject at different stages of his training and deployment. And they acknowledged the risks.
"Our biggest worry was that the subject wouldn't be interesting, or that he would wash out of the army," Rasmussen says. "We knew we could spend a year and get nothing."
Moore decided to take that chance. Rasmussen and Sunderland already had Walker in mind for the project. "Craig was by far the best essayist we had at the time. He had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan before, and he's very tenacious," Rasmussen says.
Walker's assignment included shooting video interviews for the story, but Rasmussen told him that still photography was the priority. "I don't think you can do both [documentary video and documentary stills], and have even one at the level I wanted," he says.
To get the story started, an Army recruiter in Denver directed Walker to a public affairs officer at the Pentagon. Walker pitched the story, explaining that he wanted to show readers what every soldier goes through. To do that, he said, he needed to be embedded with the soldier's unit everywhere, including boot camp. According to Walker, it wasn't a hard sell. The Pentagon officer "just got it," he says.
With that, the Denver recruiter was ready to connect Walker with potential recruits. Walker told the recruiter he wanted someone signing up for combat duty, who was doing it out of conviction (as opposed to someone signing up because they had no other good options), and who was likely to make it through basic training. And, Walker says, "We didn't want anyone special," such as child son of a Senator or Congressman.
The recruiter provided the names of two high school students. Walker contacted them to feel them out about their commitment to the Army�and their commitment to the Denver Post's project. With Ian Fisher, he says, "I made a connection right off the bat, and he had an interesting background." Fisher was patriotic, and enthusiastic about the idea of the project. His father was a Vietnam veteran, and his family was typical enough: although his parents were divorced, both were involved in his life.
Walker emphasized that Fisher wouldn't be able to quit the project once it started. "Ian said he wanted to do it, and that he would be open and honest. And he said, 'If things are bad, I'll tell you they're bad.' That was the key thing. He was willing to share the ups and downs," Walker says. His parents agreed to participate once their son did. "All three of them understood the commitment they were making."
From there, Walker began following Fisher, starting with his induction and first three days of basic training. At every transition Fisher made, the Pentagon public affairs liaison opened doors for the Denver Post, but Walker and the reporters he worked with had to win the genuine support of Fisher's commanders to get the access they needed. Some commanders we more enthusiastic than others.
"I wanted to be embedded whenever I was with him�not just in Iraq, but in basic training. We were in the same barracks. We basically lived with [Fisher and his unit]. We were trusted to stick with the story, and as long as we didn't stray, [the commanders] were OK with it," Walker explains.
Walker spent a total of four weeks living with Fisher during basic training, timing separate week-long visits to coincide with particular training exercises such as urban combat that soldiers encounter in Iraq. The photographer endured all the privations that Fisher and his fellow recruits suffered, and he went through the trouble of getting into physical shape so he could keep up when they eventually went to Iraq.
"You want to live [the subject's] life, not only for the story itself, but because that's really important in relationship building. You have to show you're willing to do what they do," Walker says. "When they were marching, I'm sure I could have hitched a ride on a vehicle if I'd wanted to, but I don't think that's a very good way to tell a story."
It was after boot camp that the story took unexpected turns. Fisher was assigned to a unit that had just returned from Iraq, which meant it would be a year or more before Fisher was deployed. Walker and his editors worried that the story might wither on the vine. By chance, though, Fisher was stationed at Fort Carson, a short drive from Denver. He was able to come home on weekends, which he did frequently in order to party with his high school friends.
It made for unexpected drama and turmoil, and Walker was close enough to document it. Fisher got injured, and hooked on painkillers. He drank a lot. He went through a series of girlfriends. He went AWOL. With a chip on his shoulder, and infractions accumulating, he nearly got thrown out of the Army.
Walker kept tabs on Fisher through social networks and e-mail, and hung out with him frequently in Denver. Whenever a crisis erupted, such as the AWOL incident, Walker would just pick up his camera and go. "It was a lot of nights and weekends," he says.
At his lowest point, Fisher owned up to a drug problem, went into re-hab, and got re-assigned to a new unit. Sensing his last chance to shape up, Fisher took his punishment, and quit the self-pity. Walker captured the transformation, and later spent a month embedded with Fisher's unit in Iraq. There, Fisher was a Humvee driver. It was hardly glamorous work, but he took it seriously. The story ends with Fisher moving into an apartment with his fianc�, right after his return from Iraq.
As time passed, though, the story wore on Rasmussen's patience. "After two years, a kind of fatigue sets in," he says, adding, "At the time, we were in a war for survival with the Rocky Mountain News. Not having Craig [for other assignments] was frustrating some days."
But Walker was delivering images, and editors realized the story was shaping up to be more than they'd hoped for, so they stuck with it. In the end, they winnowed Walker's take down to 290 images for an eight-chapter Web presentation, which also included selections from more than 136 hours of video interviews A three-part print version featuring nearly 60 images ran from September 11 to 13. Since then, versions of the story have appeared in major dailies throughout Europe.
Photos can be seen here and on Denverpost.com at http:// bit.ly/6Y9pS.
© Courtesy Joan B. Miller / Magnum PhotosWayne Miller, LIFE Photojournalist Dies
© Gerald Mabee/Brent Foster Photography & CinemaFrames Per Second: Pitching Video Storytelling
©Ali EnginFaces Portrait Photography Competition
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