Military crews capture images from front line

Pictures: The Combat Camera unit based at Fort Meade chronicles the war in Iraq from the soldiers' perspective.

April 18, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

It was some of the war's most gripping footage: a grainy video clip of Marines carrying 19-year-old Pfc. Jessica Lynch on a stretcher in a daring nighttime rescue from behind enemy lines.

One little-known group of soldiers had a special reason to cheer: those who filmed it. Combat Camera had scored a blockbuster exclusive.

"In this case, Combat Camera got something the embedded media didn't," says Capt. Gustavo R. Mendiola, the commander of the 55th Signal Company, the Fort Meade-based unit responsible for the footage.

These are heady times for the military's front-line photographers.

The men and women of Combat Camera land in war zones with a 9 mm Beretta pistol and 60 pounds of camera gear. They are photographers in uniform, surveying battlefields, POW camps and humanitarian missions through the lens of a camera.

For decades, they did little more than tactical reconnaissance, forensic photography of war crimes and accident scenes, and historical documentation. Their images became public, if at all, long after they were shot.

But the war in Iraq has thrust them into a new, and at times difficult, role: real-time information warrior.

"This particular operation has had the greatest demands that Combat Camera has ever faced" in quickly producing images for public consumption, says Lt. Cmdr. Bruce Wallace, the Navy officer who leads the Joint Combat Camera Program at the Pentagon.

The center launched round-the-clock operations the day the war began. A dozen employees at computer stations sift through the 600 to 800 photographs and 25 to 50 video clips beamed in each day from the front lines. About 80 percent are made available to the news media and the public.

The images glisten from big screens at the news briefings at the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command in Qatar. A gallery on the Defense Department Web site gets 750,000 hits a day, triple the number before the war.

And for the first time, Combat Camera is e-mailing a daily batch of photographs to major news organizations.

Balance media

In the battlefield of public opinion, experts say, images are a potent weapon. And Combat Camera photographers have become the Pentagon's visual storytellers, snapping images that shape the look and feel of a war that is also being chronicled by 600 embedded news reporters.

Photos of sleek fighter jets, rescued POWs, and smiling Iraqis cheering the arrival of U.S. troops are easy to find among Combat Camera's public images. Photos of bombed-out Baghdad neighborhoods and so-called "collateral damage" are not.

"It's been a way to balance what the external media has shown," says Master Sgt. Chuck Reger, the operations chief at the Combat Camera Center. "It's been a way to keep that from getting slanted or going too far one way or another."

Some critics have a less charitable view, saying the work more closely resembles propaganda. "This further reduces the chance of seeing anything that resembles realistic warfare," says W. Lance Bennett, a University of Washington political scientist who edited the 1994 book Taken By Storm: The Media, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Gulf War. "This war is a grand narrative, and it's a grand narrative told by [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz and [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld primarily, and they have a lot at stake in making this story come out right."

Before Bush's speech

The Joint Combat Camera Center got to work assembling images of America's military might even before President Bush had wrapped up his speech to the nation on the first night of the war.

"We literally -- within about 30 seconds of the president finishing his speech -- had the images up and available on the Web," Reger recalls. "And by 11:15, we had the videotape downstairs in public affairs, where all the civilian news media were."

Combat Camera's clip of Tomahawk missiles rocketing off Navy ships -- tinted green from a night-vision lens -- was playing on network news programs within minutes.

Such quick release is a departure for Combat Camera. Its 1967 image of American soldiers leaping from a chopper in Vietnam didn't see such wide play until it was released on a U.S. postage stamp in 1999.

But the new demands on Combat Camera have come with a host of challenges. In Grenada, Panama and the first gulf war, Pentagon strictures on news coverage had assured Combat Camera a virtual monopoly on images from the front lines.

Now, the 150 Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force photographers in the Iraqi war zone have to keep up with a much larger force of fiercely competitive news organizations producing torrents of images in real time.

No sooner does an image play on the TV news than do Pentagon, Central Command and White House officials call Combat Camera to ask for similar ones for their briefings.

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