Warrior Portraits – The Back Story

Warrior Portraits was a project in Iraq that ended up getting some nice international recognition. Selects from this project ended up on display in The Imperial War Museum in London, England.

The project started out as a personal one, which was born out of frustration.

SFC Clarissa E. Brown, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq

In 2008 I was working on Guam, having recently left the Island of Kwajalein after spending 3 years on this small island, a classified U.S. military base, where I was working as a contractor. I received a phone call at work from a company that had just been awarded a contract in Iraq, to supply contractors to work with the Public Affairs Office. The owner of the company, AVISAR Inc. had come across my website, found in my profile that I was a web designer, and offered me a job as the webmaster for MNC-I (Multi-National Corps – Iraq), which I accepted. AVISAR sent a team of highly qualified broadcast specialists to Iraq. The idea was to release news and information produced on site rather than in the U.S., which was faster and more efficient. Luckily for me, back in those days web design was something relatively few people knew how to do, and therefore did not realise how easy it was. I had MNCI.com up and running in less than a week.

After a couple of months the Army began to realize I was also a skilled photographer. Photography was, and is, my first love. I was a professional photographer for years before I got the opportunity to move to Kwajalein and then Iraq. So before long I became the lead photographer for the command P.A.O. covering all of the high profile events such as Presidential and VIP visits. My duties also included photographing smaller award ceremonies where a General would give an award or a coin to an individual. We called these “Grip & Grins” The General would give the award, then they both would turn towards the camera, smile and shake hands. I did literally thousands of Grip & Grins, group photos, dinners, BBQ’s, and pretty much any cheesey shot the Army wanted without regret, that was my job.

Lieutenant General Austin and Soldier

Grip & Grins were important. It was great to give the soldier an image, a memory of their special day, but the work was not feeding my creative side. I spent a lot of time the first few months in Iraq trying to figure out how to make images that would have meaning to me. I tried many times to get outside the wire where the action was. Every time I got close someone would say “What if the General wants a photo done by his favorite PAO photographer?” End of discussion. Later on I did make it outside the wire, but by that time the U.S. was in partnership mode. All troops were not allowed to leave their respective camps.
After a few months, finally an idea started to take shape. What if I portray these soldiers as they see themselves, not as I see them, but their own vision as to who, and what they are. Many times I had heard officers call their troops “Warriors” Those in charge wanted their soldiers to see themselves as warriors, different than the civilians back home, almost a separate warrior class of men and women, if you will. That idea became the project. “Warrior Portraits” on location in Iraq.

SPC Vermillion, Joshua

The project changed direction a few times. At first I was going to use available light. For a dramatic look I tried locations at night on Camp Victory, such as The Green Bean Coffee Shop, which had some stark outdoor lighting. Time and circumstance made “found images” in the light I wanted very difficult, especially with the limited amount of off duty hours we were given. Instead for many of the individual portraits, I used the makeshift broadcast studio we had set up on Camp Victory beside Al Faw Palace.
The “Warrior Portraits” became an instant hit with the soldiers, and soon I had many more requests than available time. As much as possible I had the soldiers dress in combat gear, as I wanted the images to closely match the theme. Near the end of my third tour I went to COB Speicher, in Northern Iraq, and used the camp’s mercury vapor lights to produce some very contrasty images.
As Time went on I included some of the scenics I had made on Camp Victory and Camp Liberty, as well as many “found” photographs for the showing in The Imperial War Museum.


Below is a slide show of some selects from the project.


Overall I consider the project a success. A few hundred soldiers received a memory of their tour of duty in Iraq, I was able to create some artwork I am proud of, and obviously it gained some unsolicited international attention. For the sake of full disclosure I did receive some, but not much, criticism. It was pointed out my work could have been done in any good studio in the U.S. or elsewhere. My response is yes, that is very true, and I agree with much of that statement, which was the point. My objective was to create high quality portraits in a combat zone. In the U.S. I would have had the same access to lighting, but not the access to the soldiers, or the degree of their support that I received in Iraq. The curator of the War Museum, Hilary Roberts, told me that to her knowledge this was the first time anyone had set up a professional studio in a war zone. My response was that much of that has to be credited to the age we live in. I had the ability to order any extra equipment I needed online and receive shipment in a few days. Other photographers in past wars did not have that option. My regret about that is due to packout requirements much of that equipment remained in Iraq.


More images can be seen on my art website by clicking this link.

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