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NEWS | July 13, 2009

Air Force combat camera team discusses role of media in military

By Ian Graham Special to Armed Forces Press Service

The media has played a major role in every American military conflict, from the use of newspapers and pamphlets, to stoke the American Revolution, to embedded journalists in the Middle East.

But a story often lost in the mix is of the military photojournalists; those men and women in uniform whose weapon of choice isn't an M4 carbine with a laser sight, but a camera with a 17 to 200 mm lens.

Members of the Air Force's combat camera team spoke with bloggers July 7 about their role in documenting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By shooting photographs, recording video and writing news articles, the Airmen of the combat camera team provide a unique view inside the world of the military during wartime.

Capt. Phil Ventura, combat camera officer in charge; Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller, a photojournalist; Staff Sgt. Stacia Zachary, the team's print journalist; and Senior Airman Brian Economides, the team's videographer; spoke about their work and training.

"Our job is to document, but our job is also to tell a story and to tell a compelling story," Sergeant Weismiller said. "Throughout my career in the military, we've, or I've been taught, as well as the rest of the photographers in the military, that our job is to tell a story and to tell it with emotion and to tell it in the best light as possible, not to just strictly look through the viewfinder and click the shutter. Every time we take a picture, there's a purpose and there's a direction."

The combat camera team can be attached to one of many units, from combat engineers in the mountains of Afghanistan to infantrymen in Baghdad, which means the members have to be ready to act as wartime Airmen to defend themselves at any time.

"As far as what kind of equipment we take for protection, you need your helmet and you need your body armor. You need to be able to carry a combat load, which [consists of] seven M4 magazines and two M9s. You also carry your sidearm," Sergeant Zachary said. "So at any given point, I weigh 110 pounds; I'm carrying 150 pounds on me. So we travel with a lot of gear."

Captain Ventura explained the look and training his team has when they go into a mission will help them be accepted by the unit they're covering.

"We focus very much on being an asset and not a liability to those we work with, and our gear lends ourselves to that, as does the training we show up with," he said. "So that is a huge enabler to our mission."

Sergeant Zachary said some of the missions the team has recently participated in are: a humanitarian airlift where relief supplies were delivered to Pakistan's Swat Valley, operational missions with the combat search and rescue teams embedded with Provincial Reconstruction Teams and patrolling a local mullah in Baghdad with security forces Airmen.

Sometimes, those missions hamper what the cameramen can do with their equipment, so they have to improvise to get the shot they need. Sergeant Weismiller said he's come to prefer using natural light, in no small part because using a flash during night missions can affect night-vision users as well as give away a group's position.

Airman Economides said he uses a special lens to get night-time video, but before getting it, he had to make due with what he had.

"There have been instances where I simply took night-vision lenses that you use to see and I have rigged it to the front of my lens and taken pictures that way," he said.

For Airmen with basic training in reporting, photography or videography, one of the most gratifying experiences is seeing their work distributed globally alongside veteran journalists working for major news outlets, as well as within the military for mission-related purposes, they said.

"It's humbling to see how many outlets use our products; not just for news media," Sergeant Zachary said. "Operational commanders and leaders throughout the Department of Defense rely on it to make informed decisions. Our pictures, videos and stories can often be used for intelligence, reconnaissance, engineering, legal and other operations involving the military services."

The team's imagery and stories have appeared internally on Department of Defense Web sites such as,, and Their work has also appeared on blogs, in international newspapers and on television news programs.

(Ian Graham works for the Emerging Media Directorate of Defense Media Activity.)