By Joyce P. BrayboyJuly 24, 2011
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. - Four combat documentation and productions specialists with the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) may be among the last service members to attend a prestigious journalism program in upstate New York.
Since the mid-1970s, the Army's top enlisted military journalists have attended the Military Visual Journalism program offered at Syracuse University's S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications to become better storytellers.
Sponsored by the Department of Defense, the 10-month program currently provides 32 seats annually for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Four seats are usually reserved for Combat Camera.
But the dual-track program, which includes Military Motion Media and Military Photojournalism courses, has not been placed on the DoD budget for the next fiscal year.
"The program provides the most advanced visual communication training available to Soldiers in the Army," said 1st Sgt. Robert Hyatt of the Signal Corps Regimental NCO Academy Detachment. "Soldiers who attend the training return to the field with the knowledge and the ability to train others."
Hyatt, a program alumnus who attended the May 12 graduation at Syracuse as a guest, said graduates share a common bond: They feed off one another's passion for visual storytelling.
"Documentation photography can be a camera, held by the operator at eye level, making pictures of everything in view," Hyatt said.
But what makes these photographers and videographers different is their ability to "visually tell the story of the scene by exploring every angle and making images that ... tell the story and make the viewer want to know more," he said.
The four COMCAM graduates of the 2011-2012 class -- Sgt. Matthew Freire, Spec. Walter "Wally" Reeves, Sgt. Sean Harp and Staff Sgt. Tyrone Clakely, all combat documentation and production specialists -- basically lived and worked together, perfecting their skills.
"They have a huge academic load," said Nancy Austin, deputy director for the Military Visual Journalism program. "They take all of the toughest hands-on courses required for our traditional program at one time."
With their array of military experiences, service members add to the classroom as well.
"Our Solders offer a richness that we can be proud of," said Austin, who has worked with the program for 19 years. "The richness we are able to offer Soldiers and to the Department of Defense in return is just a small token for all they do for our country."
Freire said the knowledge he gleaned from the instructors was "priceless."
As a noncommissioned officer, Freire did not know what a dangling modifier is or how it would relate to storytelling, he recalled.
Now he feels more confident in his writing. He also appreciates the opportunity he was given to hone his skills in coordinating, multitasking, managing and selling himself to get a story.
"It's my job to tell the Army story," Freire said. "It's the best job in the military as far as I am concerned. Sometimes I am the only one documenting a piece of history. It feels pretty awesome to be a part of something so much bigger than me."
The course also taught him to think about the shot that will best articulate the story he intends to tell, he said.
One of the best aspects of the program for Reeves was learning how to tell a story on a moment's notice -- that and script-planning techniques.
Reeves found his niche in concert photography. He enjoys the challenge of the low light and limited opportunity to capture a moment, combined with the excitement of the crowd.
"Sometimes I wake up and can't believe I get paid to do what I do," Reeves said.
Harp, who considers himself a good photographer, said he went into the program knowing he had the potential to be great. But classes were intense. There was one time he had a video and multimedia package due, along with a magazine and web article, during the same week.
"I never wanted to quit, but there were definitely days I didn't want to be in my shoes," Harp said. "That's when common sense kicked in and reminded me, 'This is the most awesome thing you have done in your life.' The curriculum covers multimedia, graphic design, photography, web design -- easily two or three military occupation specialties worth of knowledge."
Harp discovered he had a knack for sports photography and enjoys the fast-pace and unpredictability of a sporting event. During the program he traveled with the Syracuse men's basketball team to photograph the team competing in the NCAA tournament.
Clakely's favorite part of the program was watching a satisfied subject review a final product.
"I look at these guys and it inspires me to compete, to get better at my craft," he said. "There was so much passion and experience to draw from during the course."