CAMP SMITH TRAINING SITE, N.Y. -When it comes to taking great photographs it's not the equipment, or even the training that makes the picture, says New York Army National Guard Sgt. Harley Jelis
What matters most is getting the subjects to know you, said Jelis, a photojournalist assigned to the 138th Public Affairs Detachment who has been named the Army's Photographer of the Year for 2016.
"Most of the best shots I have ever done are not the thing I took the pictures of, the helicopters flying around or the tanks," Jelis said.
"The best thing has been the times I have been able to go out for a day and plug myself into an infantry squad; to go in and get to know the people I am shooting and get them to trust me, because I am willing to walk across the field or help the crew chiefs clean up," he added.
Jelis was one of the individual winners in the Army's annual Keith L. Ware Communications Awards Competition.
Named for a Vietnam War era chief of Army Public Affairs, the awards highlight individual and team efforts among the public affairs Soldiers in the Active Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve.
Jelis and other National Guard Soldier and unit submissions were first judged at the National Guard Bureau level. The top finishers there were submitted for the Army-wide judging. Winners in the Army competition then compete for a Department of Defense level award against media contest winners from the other services.
Submissions for the Photographer of the Year category require that the photographer exhibit skill in taking a variety of photographs ranging from portraits to features.
The Pleasant Valley, N.Y. native who now lives in New Milford, C.T., joined the New York Army National Guard in 2008.
He was studying special effects and graphics at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., getting 4.0 grades fairly easily, and feeling a little bored in his freshman year, Jelis explained.
"I decided I wanted to make my life more interesting so I decided let's talk to the National Guard," he said.
He served as an artillery fire support specialist in the 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade before switching to the Public Affairs career field in 2013.
The Guard allowed him to explore a military career while continuing his education, Jelis said. And, after two years, he had changed his educational track to documentary film making at the State University of New York at Albany.
Because he needed to complete photo and video assignments for his classes, Jelis said, he brought his cameras to drill and filmed his fellow Soldiers in the field. He learned the best ways to shoot military action that way.
When the 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade deployed from Latham, N.Y. to Kuwait in 2013 Jelis was assigned to the public affairs office as a photographer. He traveled throughout the Persian Gulf area shooting everything from Army National Guard UH-60s landing on Navy ships, to air assault exercises with the Marine Corps, and live-fire training with the Royal Saudi Land Forces.
"Every single day there was the tempo of doing missions starting in the early morning and continuing after sunset," Jelis recalled. "It was hours upon hours upon days upon weeks of work."
He honed his photography skills and learned the value of embedding with a unit and getting to know his subjects, Jelis said.
All that hard work shows in his product, according to his former boss at the 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade, Capt. Jean Marie Kratzer, the brigade public affairs officer during the deployment.
"His photography is always about capturing emotions, actions and the beauties of life," Kratzer said. "Each and every shot he takes is unique."
"He has the capability to capture the essence of a person in just one frame," she added.
His photographs appeared on the Department of Defense website and were used by Army Times, Army Magazine and GX, the Army National Guard's official publication.
When he returned from Kuwait, Jelis officially changed his military occupational specialty from artillery to photojournalist and attended the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland.
In 2015 he joined the 138th Public Affairs Detachment where he focuses on covering units belonging to the New York Army National Guard's 53rd Troop Command. He turns out for training exercises, and snowstorms when the command's units are on state active duty for emergency response.
A traditional part-time Guard Soldier, Jelis also holds a Master's Degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and now works as marketing and admissions director for a mental health and addiction clinic in Danbury, C.T.
Jelis has a tremendous work ethic as well as a unique skill set, said Col. Richard Goldenberg, the New York National Guard State Public Affairs Officer.
"He puts himself alongside the troops and immerses himself in the environment, giving viewers a vantage point of soldiering that few ever see," Goldenberg said.
His background in video production helps him approach still photography differently than other photographers might, Jelis said.
Video cameras are more technically complex and "finicky" than still cameras, so learning how to handle those gave him the confidence to push the technological limits with still cameras, Jelis said.
He also thinks in terms of storyboards and telling a story in sequence with his photographs when he is on assignment, he added.
His advice to other photographers is "don't be afraid to mess up." Photographers should try new camera settings, and try new angles, and find out what works.
"Every single event, every single exercise, is another practice for the next one. Never be afraid to try something a bit different. Never let yourself get comfortable, "Jelis said.