Tammy Hineline is a Sergeant in the US Marine Corps serving as a Combat Photographer / Videographer. And … Tammy follows the Tangents blog! She graciously responded to my request asking if she’d be interested in writing a guest article about the life as a military photographer in the Marines. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a photography career outside of what most of us would ever experience.
Since enlisting in 2008 Tammy has done two deployments and has provided photographic support to multiple training evolutions, humanitarian operations, and other military events. She recently returned from Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In her spare time she enjoys taking pictures of people that aren’t Marines and assisting on weddings.
Life as a military photographer in the U.S. Marines
a guest post by Tammy Hineline
In January of 2008, I enlisted into the United States Marine Corps. I was taking photography classes at my community college and shooting baby portraits at a Wal-Mart Portrait Studio. I wasn’t doing so hot in school and barely putting enough effort into my work to pass. I was beyond bored with everything I was doing.
One day, a Marine Corps recruiter set up shop at my school. I went home thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t it be crazy if I joined the Marine Corps?” So I did it. A break up with my loser boyfriend and some good timing on the recruiter’s part brought me to the famous yellow footprints at Parris Island.
I enlisted into the Combat Camera MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and since then I’ve done two deployments, traveled to seven different countries, blown up a lot of stuff, eaten a lot of Meals Ready-to-Eat, sailed on a Navy ship, trained alongside foreign soldiers of various countries, once stood in line for two hours just to eat corn dogs, flown in more aircraft than I have ever wished to, and have taken a ton of photos.
The military is a beast of its own kind and a lot of people don’t really understand what we do; let alone what a photographer does in and for the military. I’m hoping today we can answer some of those questions.
The one thing to remember: We are Marines first, photographers second. We do all the things regular Marines do. We go to bootcamp, we shoot on the range once a year, get paid the same, have to meet the same physical fitness requirements, and everything else the entire Corps has to do. It’s the nature of the job.
What does a “Combat Photographer” actually do?
The name given to our MOS can sometimes be a bit misleading, as our job description can vary a lot from shooting photos of combat. While this is ideally the goal of every one of us, to be a great war photographer, there is a lot more to our job than the title gives away. The Combat Camera field is split into three separate MOS’S:
- Photographer (4641): Photographers are responsible for the capturing of still photographic imagery, captioning it, and providing it to the customer or releasing authority for public distribution.
- Videographer (4671): Videographers do pretty much the same thing, except with video. We create video products and productions, conduct interviews, and videotape ceremonies or important briefings.
- Graphics/Reproduction (4612): Graphics specialists handle design, layout, or printing that meets the needs of the unit. This could involve logos, posters, programs, or printing publications and flight manuals.
The easiest way to remember what we do is this: As Combat Camera, our mission is to support the commander’s intent with photographic imagery, video support, and graphics/reproduction.
This mission can cover a wide variety of jobs from the most boring to the most exciting, all depending on the kind of unit you’re assigned to. If you’re with a Headquarters Squadron you’ll mostly be doing promotion photos, administrative things, and ceremonies. Not exactly the most glamorous of work, but it’s necessary to the unit.
However, the peak of our career for us is getting to support deployed units on operations. In 2010 I deployed with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and supported 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. I flew in helicopters with the grunts, ran around in Africa with them for a while, blew some stuff up with the Combat Engineers, and did a ton of training exercises. Imagine a giant game of adult-pretend with guns and that’s kind of what it’s like: and I get to take photos of it all!
When I was on the MEU I also provided humanitarian assistance for Operation Odyssey Dawn. We were evacuating civilians from Tunisia back into Egypt. It was a lot of long hours and long flights. The best part was when one guy wanted a sick bag and when he got it EVERYONE wanted one. They weren’t sick, just wanted them. So we ended up with dozens of people all holding useless sick bags. We also had a big reporter from CNN come out – I was on TV taking photos behind him!
On the other side, we also deploy to combat zones such as Afghanistan, where the work may be glamorous in terms of photography but it’s not as fun and can sometimes be very difficult physically and emotionally.
All of these assets of Combat Camera – photo, video, graphics/reproduction – we do in support of whatever unit we’re with. What we DON’T do is write stories. That is Public Affairs, a completely separate MOS field. Different job, different mission.
So what happens to my photos?
Everything I take has a classification. If it is unclassified and intended for public release I write captions and then distribute everything through the releasing authority. Everything is posted online and goes from there – news outlets can pick them up, magazines, blogs, anybody. If your imagery is good and newsworthy it will be popular. If it’s good and not so newsworthy? It can be hit and miss.
I took photos of a very notable surgery being performed by the Afghan National Army. Not to toot my own horn, but I felt the imagery was very good. Probably one of the best photos I’ve ever taken. Yet no one really cared about it or picked it up. It was disappointing.
A short time later I took a quick snapshot of Duck Dynasty eating with some Marines in the dining facility during a visit. It wasn’t impressive and was a very run of the mill photo.
But…everyone loved it just because it was Duck Dynasty! A ton of Facebook pages picked it up, and it was downloaded hundreds of times and went viral. The news used it, everybody loved it. Everybody except me: six years worth of photos I have and THAT is what the public wants? Eesh.
Some of my photos never see the light of day. If the boss says no, it’s a no. No release, no Facebook, no nothing. I have hundreds of great photos that no one will ever see. It goes into the vault. Sometimes we take imagery that is classified – into the vault.
An important note is that I do not own any of the copyright over my own imagery. It’s all considered Public Domain. This means anybody can use it for any reason without credit or paying me. Imagine: six years of work that I can’t monetize or sell. I’m essentially under a work-for-hire contract where nothing I shoot with military equipment or in the line of military duty is mine. It’s just how it is.
Originally I am trained as a Combat Videographer, (4671) which is a four month course at the Defense Information School at Ft. Meade, Maryland. All Combat Camera and Public Affairs MOS’s attend school here for their basic courses.
There are also chances to attend additional schooling if your unit will spare you and has the funding. I’ve also attended the Digital Multimedia Course and Intermediate Video Courses at DINFOS. It’s basically a human capital thing: the more you train your Marines, the better the MOS becomes. Knowledge is supposed to trickle downhill and ideally the Marines with better education will bring that back to the shop and teach the other Marines.
What sounds surprising to some people is that you don’t have to be talented, remotely good, or even like your job to be in our MOS. Sometimes we get people who didn’t pick this MOS, or got placed here at random. Sometimes we get bad photographers who just can’t seem to take a good picture. Sometimes we get people who don’t even like to take pictures. What do you do with them? Try and teach them, motivate them, and then just work with them. It’s not like the civilian world where you can hire and fire at well, you’re stuck with these dudes. It’s not like you can take someone to court martial because they take bad photos. Once in a while you get a Marine who has talent and loves their job – that’s great. Once in a while you get a Marine with NO talent but is willing to learn – I’d take that over a talented person who doesn’t want to work any day of the week.
I get a lot of questions about equipment and that’s probably the easy part. The Marine Corps provides us everything we need; we pay no out of pocket expense for our own items. This is great because Marines break stuff – we go through a LOT of equipment, especially in a harsh environment like Afghanistan.
The Corps switched to Canon some years before I was in, but the best thing is that we really get to pick our own equipment. We stay within the budget we’re given for the fiscal year, pick out what we want/need, and order away! Sometimes we don’t have enough budget to order the things we need – let alone toilet paper for the bathrooms – and sometimes there’s a surplus of money that we HAVE to spend and it’s all just going into the cart at lightning speed.
As long as you have a good Combat Camera chief who knows what the shop needs and the supply system to get it – we’ve got everything we could ever ask for.
Pretty much my entire career I’ve shot with the 5d MK II up until the past six months or so when we ordered MK III’s. I had variety of lenses to choose from and plenty of nice new flashes.
The biggest thing for me about equipment is that I like to travel LIGHT. Whenever I go out I have to carry whatever I take with me. There’s no putting it down and coming back later. Some of this work involves being on foot for hours on end in the summer heat and whatever I carry with me is on top of the 70+ pounds of combat equipment I wear, plus my rifle, plus my ammunition, plus whatever food and water I need. After all this it feels like I have the back of 90-year-old coal miner.
Back when I was just a little baby Marine I would travel with a backpack full of goodies. This year I downgraded my gear, to a camera, a camera holster system, and some lenses and food stuffed into my drop pouch. I want to be able to stand up when that helicopter lands and everything is already attached to my body. No bags to lug around or forget. We move fast and extra equipment is a hindrance. It’s heavy and gets caught on things.
What is it like being deployed as a Combat Photographer?
Our job when deployed is very versatile. We do what the unit does. If the unit is sitting around doing nothing well then we either focus on training or try and seek out our own projects. If the unit is heavy into operations then we’re working constantly until the job is done.
I just returned from a one-year deployment to Afghanistan. We worked every day, from 0800 to around 2000, with half days on Friday and Sunday. If we needed to work past 2000 we did. If we had something to do on our half day we came in t work to do it. Halfway through I got to take my mandatory respite leave of two weeks.
Other than that, for the whole year I got two days off. One as a treat from our higher officer in the first month after arriving, and one day I spent in bed because I had shaken hands with someone I don’t think I should have and this resulted in me being very very ill. Every other day was work. I worked on Thanksgiving, I worked on Christmas, I worked on New Years.
But that’s how it is. That’s how it is for everyone. There’s no such thing as a weekend on deployment. It’s go-go-go until you’re going-going-going back home after a year. The war doesn’t stop on weekends or evenings.
One of our photographers on this last deployment actually watched his first baby being born over Skype. It seems crazy to everyone except us – it’s actually very common! The USO on Leatherneck actually has a whole wall dedicated to Skype baby photos.
It’s a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun. Every day was spent with the Marines in my shop and you eventually become a family. Some of us know each other better than we do our own families back home. That’s the best thing about being a Marine – you always have family somewhere. The camaraderie is something else and we all genuinely care for each other. When was the last time you sat down with the guy from accounting and talked over his finances with him, making sure he was on track for retirement? Did you ever take that 18-year-old fresh out of high school and working at your reception desk out to help him buy his first car?
The best thing about being a Marine is that I can go to any shop in the world and instantly relate to the people there – we share the same experiences, the same education, the same mission. It’s comforting and, in my opinion, something you need when you’re uprooted every three years or so.
Whenever we get together we remember stories. Just a few months ago in Afghanistan my Gunnery Sergeant and I were eating root beer floats in the dining facility when a huge explosion went off and we thought we were being attacked, everyone was freaking out. We were about to move to the bunkers when I decided, “If I’m getting blown up, the last thing I’m having is this root beer float.” So I took it with me to the bunker. He made fun of me for it, and in the end everything was okay, but we got a good laugh and have a story to share. Hardship tends to bring people together, from what I’ve seen.
Unfortunately, sometimes our job is also very sad. Being in a combat zone we do lose people. I’ve had to photograph gruesome situations and several memorials. I’ve seen more grown men cry than I have ever wished to in my entire life. I’ve cried myself while taking photos. It’s part of the job and something we have to be able to handle. Not all of us get to come home.
In 2010 we lost one of our own Marines, Lance Cpl. Ralph Fabbri who died just a few short weeks of going home. We have a large memorial wall in the shop on Leatherneck dedicated to him. Some of us knew him, some of us did not, but we all feel the loss of a brother. That is universal.
There is a lot of stress for us when we come home. We’re used to a certain operational tempo. We’re busy constantly all the time, never alone, never quiet – and suddenly we get home and it’s TOO quiet, we have TOO much time on our hands. The wife looks different, the kids have grown and have started talking or walking. Some of us have kids we’ve never met before. Some of our kids don’t recognize us.
After a year of amazing stories and shooting constantly, how am I supposed to be happy sitting at a desk doing nothing all day? How am I supposed to relate to my husband again?
Some of us are fine, some of us cry or do yoga, some of us drink, and some of us don’t do so well. If you are one of these people, or you know one of these people, know this: there is no shame in needing or asking for help. So ask for it.
I’ve had a great six year run, and I’ve been very lucky to do the things that I’ve gotten to do. My career is currently up in the air right now but that is the nature of the game – wherever I go next I’ll do my job to the best of my ability, as any Marine would.
What’s after that? I’m not sure. I’ve got the option to re-enlist and shoot towards being promoted and running a shop but I’m not sure that is where I want to go. Currently I’m thinking about pursuing a career in humanitarian photography and supporting Non-Government Organizations overseas.
The Marine Corps has given me much more than just a portfolio. I’ve learned to be fast and adaptable under high stress situations for long hours while following orders. I’ve never quit on the job and I can’t imagine doing it. I’m hoping that gives me an advantage later down the line.
If you or a loved one are considering a career in the military, be it photographer or not, please have them contact someone in the fleet who has experience in their job. Don’t just listen to what the recruiter has to say. Enlisting is a huge decision that is going to change your life – do your research.