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2003 Into Iraq

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First night of Iraq Invasion 2003 making deadline early for the March 21, 2003 USA TODAY paper.

I have never really confirmed or researched it but maybe one of the first photos published from the ground of U.S. soldiers in Iraq at the start of the war just after Task Force 3-69 moved across the Kuwait border leading the U.S. Army into Iraq.

I vividly remember Capt. Dan Hibner jumping from the armored troop carrier we were riding down to the ground and into the darkness and into battle yelling at me, “Are you with me or not?”

I think this was the question he and I both were wondering. How far was this embedded photographer attached to his guys willing to go.

I remember thinking to myself for a split second that this was crazy. What was I doing in the middle of a war. But, I jumped down and tried my best to hold it all together.

A short time later back in the track, I remember Hibner asking me if I could make deadline for the paper back in the US. I said yeah, it was early in the day with the time change back in the US but jokingly added, I can’t do anything from inside this troop carrier.

iraq_firstphoto

Hibner stopped the M113, dropped the hatch just long enough for me to toss out the Bgan satellite transmitter for a few minutes for me to transmit maybe one or two pictures before things got a little too crazy before they had to pull close the hatch and get moving.

I had no idea if anything made it back to the paper on that first night.

Turns out, Hibner made deadline.

369 Armor

369 Armor 369 Armor

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Women soldiers at Army Sapper Leadership Course

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Fort Leonard Wood, MO, U.S.A — As the Army and Marine Corps prepare to open its most physically demanding specialities to women, all eyes are on the U.S. Army’s Sapper Leader Course which is operated by the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It is a physically tough school that trains combat engineers and currently allows women to attend the 28 day Sapper Leadership Course and the opportunity to earn the Sapper tab. They carry 100-pound packs, repel off cliffs and jump out of helicopters. Sapper School represents the best test to determine how women will perform when the military opens Infantry Officer Course and Ranger School to women.

Army 1st Lt. Ashley Miller, 24, center, the one female student among thirty-six students of a class at the U.S. Army’s Sapper Leadership Course, in the water of The Lake of the Ozarks being pushed by instructors before students swam 500 yards in a timed exercise floating and carrying their gear and weapons in their waterlogged packs .

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Prison Pen Pal

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I have a prison pen pal.

Well, not actually.

As it turns out, an inmate at Eastham Unit, Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison for men, thinks he and I don’t see “eye to eye” regarding the state of the NFL and quarterbacks in the league.

Because of a story in USA TODAY following the Super Bowl, he has now cancelled his subscription and has informed “Al” why he chose to stop delivery of the nation’s newspaper to his cell doorstep.

He also sent me a letter detailing his displeasure with the article.

With newspapers fighting hard to retain subscribers, I really felt that I had let my employer down. Did I do something to cause a valued USA TODAY subscriber (prison populations could possibly be circulation gold mine) to pull the plug?

By the tone of the letter, the use of all caps and quotation marks at the beginning of each sentence, this guy was “REALLY UPSET”.

The problem is that I didn’t write the article. My name is just tagged under two of the photos that ran with the article following the Super Bowl a few months ago. He just made the assumption that I was the author of the article after underlining portions he disagreed with and clipped the story from the paper.

Working at USA TODAY, I do get the odd letter or email from people at times. This letter is pretty funny at first blush and I chuckled over it before tossing it on the stack of papers on my desk.

The one rule that I live by as a journalist and as a person is that no matter how crazy something sounds or if a viewpoint differs from mine, I do not discount the words or ideas from others.

I always listen.

There are two sides to every story. We all have opinions and that is what make this whole thing work.

This is the one thing I hope I can instill in my kids when I screw up everything else.

That, along with the recent passing of the father of one of my closest friends from college who was a legend in the photojournalism community as well as devoting his life to prison ministry, I went back into the pile and found that prisoner letter and really read it this time.

Mr. Leslie Morgan, Eastham inmate #677163, took a considerable amount of time and effort to put his thoughts down on paper, find the company address for USA TODAY and buy and stamp to send the letter.

But then again, looks like time is not a problem for Mr. Morgan who is doing a big chunk of prison time under the ‘third strike” sentencing guidelines for twice attempting to commit capital murder in 1993 after being first convicted in 1987 for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and was sentenced to 25 years for that felony.

Morgan is currently serving two sixty year sentences at Eastham Unit in Texas.

The letter and Mr. Morgan, of course, did have a different opinion from what I personally took after reading the USA TODAY article.

Morgan’s words ending his letter,

“READING YOUR ENCLOSED ARTICLE IS LIKE READING A BAD RACIAL JOKE, HOPEFULLY, “THIS PIECE” CONCERNING THE HISTORY OF FOOTBALL AT THE “QB” POSITION IS HELPFUL, AS WELL AS TO YOUR “EVOLUTION PERSPECTIVE”.

What is impossible for me to understand is how could twenty-three underlined words in an innocuous fourth quarter wrap up blurb from the Super Bowl bring out this response in someone while the same words convey a completely different meaning to someone like me?

The idea that bias was somehowsecretly implied in the writing of this article just seems so far fetched.

The more I tried to understand the guy and his words, the more I realized I couldn’t.

Next, I really started over thinking.

Morgan is just a few years older than me, we are both white men and probably grew up of similar rural surroundings including people and culture.

Information googled from his online prison pen pal dating profile makes himself seem like a decent fellow but someone who had made some serious mistakes in life.

“I am honest, respectful and I attend church. I am interested in football and drag dancing. My hobbies are fishing and sun bathing. I would like to correspond with women between the ages of 18 and 40 of any race.”

When Morgan was first convicted early in his life, he went to jail in 1987. At the same time, I was in college at Ohio University seeing my world completely different for the first time heading out for photo internships in Michigan and California and experiencing life beyond my little patch of life in Ohio.

I have had a lifetime of opportunity and experiences so far. Morgan hasn’t. He has seen much of the same events in history as me from reading newspapers and maybe TV but from inside a confined space.

Not a huge leap here but I think Leslie Morgan and I probably don’t see “eye to eye” on a number of things but for someone who asks questions for a living, I would jump at the chance to have a frank and direct conversation with Mr. Morgan about his take on race and the liberal media looking out from his viewpoint of the world.

Two sides to every story.

What I am fairly sure of is that when inmate #677163 reads a newspaper, he sees the words on the page-and the world-quite a bit differently than I do.

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All Eyes on Gwyneth

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3/24/02 — Los Angeles, CA — Gwyneth Paltrow arrives at the 74th annual Academy Awards wearing a revealing Christian Lacroix gown. (Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today)

I definitely don’t make a habit of keeping up with Hollywood fashion but this story about Gwyneth Paltrow reflecting on her Oscar fashion duds brought back memories of one of my favorite photos from my early days at USA TODAY.

Two that come to mind are looks I wore to the Oscars in 2000 and 2002. The first is the Calvin Klein. It’s an okay dress but not Oscars material. I chose it because I wanted to disappear that year. Also, the goth Alexander McQueen I wore a few years later. There were a few issues; I still love the dress itself but I should have worn a bra and I should have just had simple beachy hair and less makeup. Then, it would have worked as I wanted it to – a little bit of punk at the Oscars.

Gwyneth Paltrow

It just so happened the Pixar animated movie Monsters, Inc. was nominated for a number of Academy Awards and paths crossed on the red carpet as Gwyneth got the eye from Monster, Inc character Michael “Mike” Wazowski prior to the Academy Award show.

I don’t remember if this photo ever did get published in USA TODAY but I still chuckle when I run across the photo in the files.

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Shuttle Discovery

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Dulles, VA — The space shuttle Discovery sits atop a NASA 747 carrier aircraft landing after the final time of space shuttle Discovery at Dulles International Airport.  Discovery flew aboard a modified jumbo jet to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 where the shuttle will be put on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Discovery completed 39 missions, spent 365 days in space, orbited the Earth 5,830 times, and traveled 148,221,675 miles. NASA will transfer Discovery to the National Air and Space Museum to begin its new mission to commemorate past achievements in space and to educate and inspire future generations of explorers

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Oh Crop!

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Things don’t always show up in the paper like you thought they would.

A story I shot last month which was published recently fit a photo into a different size and shape on the front page. Seeing a very horizontal photo cropped into a vertical never really makes a photographer feel very warm and fuzzy. It happens and I understand the process.

I am not always happy about things like this but I get it.

Even with most of the content cropped out of this horizontal image into a vertical head shot, the most important thing to remember is that the photo got published and the story told.

The funny thing about the above photo, which is my favorite from the entire shoot, is that it really was an after thought and not much more than a parting grab shot as I was leaving.

The story we were trying to illustrate with Jane Horton was how most people are unaware of the meaning of a gold star banner hanging in a window of a military family.

The gold star represents a military family member was killed in action. Jane had lost her husband in Afghanistan.

Trying to show that gold star in any photo had eluded me completely so going after the portrait just after sunset was the only option.

The process was not overly complicated with a couple of SB800’s inside and out of the house but it took some time to get it just right. I was pretty happy with how the posed portrait turned out and was glad that I took the time to make it happen.

I thought this portrait would be the photo to illustrate this story.

I finished packing up all of my gear in the dark after shooting the portrait of Jane and the gold star hanging in the window of her Tulsa home. As I was standing in the driveway saying goodbye, Jane was there talking to USA Today reporter Gregg Zoroya while still holding the American flag which draped her husbands casket illuminated by an outdoor light fixture on her garage. Along with a number of small flags planted along the driveway and the moody sky, a really striking image was right there.

There was still a bit of ambient light left lingering in the sky and with the ISO cranked up on the Nikon D3, I was able to fire off a few parting frames as Jane and Gregg said goodbye in front of her garage.

No strobes, no posing. Just a really nice moment.

In hindsight with the way the story was presented on the front of the paper, the portrait with Jane and the gold star in in the window might have been a better edit and fit the space on the front better.

But when is a photographer ever happy with an edit?

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Gold Star Wife

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Arlington, VA -- The 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) Caisson platoon carry to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery Section 60 fallen soldier Army Spc. Christopher D. Horton, 26, of Collinsville, Oklahoma, assigned to 1st Battalion, 279 Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Oklahoma National Guard, Tulsa, Okla, who was killed in action on Sept. 9, 2011 in Paktya, Afghanistan of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with small-arms fire.

Military leaders worry that after 10 years of war, there is a growing disconnect between the tiny minority of Americans on the battle lines and the vast majority who lives their lives in peace. Surveys have confirmed this disconnect. And Jane Horton is living right in the middle of it. The young war widow is a member of a venerable group that no one recognizes any more — Gold Star war widows.

In previous wars, they were known, appreciated and venerated for their sacrifices. Today, when Jane walks through events with her Gold Star pin on her blouse, no one recognizes it. No one asks her about it. No one can see that she gave up her husband to a war winding down in Afghanistan.

The USA TODAY story published can be found here.

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Former NFL Player Ben Utecht

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Former NFL player Ben Utecht won a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts and retired from professional football in 2009 after suffering four known concussions in the NFL plus two in college.

Utecht is lead male vocalist performing in the Jim Brickman 2011 national Christmas tour. I caught up with Ben prior to a performance at The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland.

The USA TODAY story can be found here and the video I shot along with the story is below.

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Bridge over River Euphrates

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Alpha Company/11th Engineer Battalion SFC Brian Raines at Objective Peach, Iraq, April 3, 2003/USA TODAY/Jack Gruber

There was a really big surprise waiting for me this morning when I checked my email.

A note from an Army public affairs office at Fort Leonard Wood, home of the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Support Center of Excellence in Missouri, was asking permission to use a photo I shot in Iraq in 2003 for publication.

About a year ago, the U.S. Army Engineer Museum, also located on Fort Leonard Wood, reached out to me knowing I had been with Alpha Company, 11th Engineering Battalion attached to the 3rd Battalion, 69th Regiment which crossed the Euphrates River in zodiac boats and successfully cleared a vital bridge of explosives during the initial few weeks of the Iraq War in 2003.

I had always just assumed that any exhibit would have one or two photographs on display.

I had no idea that the Army Engineer Museum would recreate one of the photographs into a large museum exhibit. The exhibit depicts the image of A Company/11th Engineer Battalion SFC Brian Raines dangling over the Euphrates River trying to cut the lines leading to explosives in the bridge columns.

Early phase of the US Army Engineer Museum recreation of 2003 photograph

As time closes in on the ten year mark since the U.S. rolled into Iraq,  I wonder how the history of things that happened will be remembered.  I have this uneasy feeling that some of that history might be forgotten all together in the future.

I am not talking about the politics of why the U.S invaded Iraq. I am thinking more about what happened on the ground. The stories of soldiers and marines who fought the fights. These events didn’t make the big headlines.  They happened if a photographer was there to capture the moment or not.

If I hadn’t been there to witness firsthand some of those things, I might have thought it all just Hollywood fantasy myself.

That is why it is very humbling to me to be part of something that is dedicated to telling the true story and keeping history on the right path.

This bridge mission the U.S. Army Engineer Museum was interested in was known in the U.S. Army plan of attack as Objective Peach.

Little things that add to the big picture of the Iraq War like Object Peach really weren’t that little that day.

This was no movie set. This was real.

Objective Peach was just southwest of Baghdad about 20 miles. On April 2 and 3, 2003, the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 69th Regiment Armor led by Lieutenant Colonel Ernest “Rock” Marcone began a river assault to capture this vital bridge which was rigged with explosives.

At Objective Peach, Marcone’s battalion fought off the largest Iraqi counterattack of the war. Three Iraqi brigades made up of between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi soldiers, backed by tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and artillery, converged and tried to retake the bridge from the Americans from three directions.

Alpha Company/11th Engineer Battalion soldiers crossed the river in small zodiac boats under fire from Iraqi fighters on the other side. Their mission was to make sure that bridge which was rigged with explosives did not blow. A river assault of this scale hadn’t been attempted since World War II.

Marcone explained just why Objective Peach was so important in an interview to PBS.

We didn’t cross the bridge at [Musaib], because we thought that’s what [the enemy] expected us to do. When we looked at the bridges — the bridge at Objective Peach, not only is it not far from Karbala, but it was close to our ultimate objective, which was Objective Lions, the Saddam International Airport. By crossing there, we were very close in striking distance, 20, 25 kilometers or so to the airport. …

Plus, it was much closer to Objective Saints, which was in the south, which was the secondary brigade’s objective. … It just proved to be not only the most unlikely bridge, if you were looking at it from the enemy’s point of view, but for us, it facilitated our follow-on missions, which was to start to encircle Baghdad from the east and the south.

Next to the fall of Baghdad, that bridge was the most important piece of terrain in the theater.

Jack Gruber (Apache 5 Megpixel) with A Company, 11th Engineers below "Peach Bridge" on the Euphrates River

Jack Gruber (Apache 5 Megpixel) with A Company, 11th Engineers below “Peach Bridge” on the Euphrates River

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Day One at Camp Victory Iraq

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Nearly nine years ago on April 7, 2003, I tagged along with soldiers from the US Army’s 3rd Battalion, 69th Regiment Armor Task Force “Speed And Power” who were serving as the “Point of the Spear” for the 3rd Infantry Division during the Iraq invasion. Entering Baghdad, the 3-69 Task Force fought their way into the Baghdad airport and then took the sprawling Saddam Hussein Al Faw palace grounds which would later be renamed Camp Victory.

Today, that base – Camp Victory –  was handed over to the Iraqi government as part of American efforts to move all U.S. troops out of the country by the end of this year.

“The base is no longer under U.S. control and is under the full authority of the government of Iraq,” said U.S. military spokesman Co. Barry Johnson.

One of the most memorable photos I remember taking during those early months in Iraq was of a soldier from Charlie Company who had just entered the Al Faw palace. After the soldiers assaulted the main palace and took control of the structure, one soldier stepped to an upper opening and signaled all was fine. At the time, it felt as if the main objective was nearly complete. I didn’t have any idea that the war would continue on for most of a decade.

As it turned out, the battle for the grounds wasn’t as intense as that for the Saddam Hussein International Airport just hours earlier or the many other battles along the way from Kuwait through Karbala, Najaf and Al Kifl to name a few but this one was important.

It had been a tough road up to Baghdad. After I crossed the Euphrates River in a zodiac boat with soldiers assaulting Objective Peach and commanders decided almost immediately to continue the assault to the airport.  Journalist Michael Kelly somehow caught up with 3-69 after the remarkable river crossing at Objective Peach while they paused to prepare for the push. He wanted to be along for the final run into Baghdad.

I had been with 3-69 the entire way and making room for another journalist was just not available up front. There was room in the battalion train but Michael would have to travel well back in the column and he would arrive after the soldiers captured the airport.

I had met Michael back in Kuwait weeks before. I had always admired his work. Standing there in a dirty t-shirt near the Euphrates trying not to show his disappointment, he wished me the best, told me to be careful and then said he would see me at the airport.

Things were moving pretty fast and furious during those moments after Object Peach and after jumping into the vehicle I was riding, I remarked to the guys how stupid I was, “Man, I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of myself with Michael Kelly. That was Michael Kelly!”

During the assault on the airport, I rode with Capt. Todd Kelly in his Bradley as his company was the first through the walls of the Saddam Hussein Airport on the outskirts of Baghdad. The company had moved so fast in the early morning attack, that it seemed the Iraqi Army had no idea the Americans were even there on the airport grounds. With no fight, the company sat on the airport tarmac and waited for the rest of the battalion to catch up.

I sat there listening to the radio traffic during the relative calm at the airport when suddenly things instantly took a turn for the worse. As the other elements tried to catch up to those already at the airport, frantic words  started coming over the radio and made me feel for the first time in weeks utterly helpless.

Michael Kelly was traveling in a vehicle with a soldier when the vehicle was fired upon by Iraqi soldiers. The vehicle carrying Kelly and Army Staff Sergeant Wilbert Davis veered off an embankment and into a canal below. Both men died in the accident. Kelly was the first American reporter officially killed in action in Iraq.

I had just become friends with Michael Kelly and listening to the events transpire over the radio of their death has got to be one of the hardest things I have ever experienced in my life.

I was helpless to help. Michael Kelly was 46 when he died. Today, I am just a few months short of my 46th birthday.

The last story Michael Kelly filed describes the the battle for Objective Peach and was published the day he was killed heading to Baghdad.

After 3-69 and other 3rd ID elements took the airport, there was a pause in the battle for a day or so before the battalion moved and took the palace grounds of nearby Al Faw.

The sprawling complex would become the main American base through the entire war where the highest-ranking generals communicated with commanders in the field and political leaders in Washington.  This was the place a jailed Saddam Hussein tended to tomatoes and cucumbers in a small, walled-off enclosure during his trial and later execution.

I traveled through Camp Victory a number of times through the years but as it grew into an American base complete with Taco Bell and Burger King and at one point housing nearly 46,000 people, it was definitely never the same place it was in April 2003.

During the brief battle when soldiers were still under fire from the grounds on the first day of entering Al Faw, I remember calling home on a sat phone to Dale Maurer, a family member who is a master electrician in Ohio, seeking help and advice on how to get an Iraqi generator running. Al Faw was completely powerless and dark and in pretty rough shape from a few direct U.S. bombing missions. Any sort of power and lights would have been great, I jokingly told Dale any help in getting this generator up and running would be vital to the war effort.

Today, as the Americans departed. Camp Victory was a bit more substantial than the day 3-69 rolled through the gates of a powerless and destroyed palace.

By the numbers supplied by the U.S. military:

— The incinerators destroyed an average of 178,000 pounds of waste a day.

— A water purification plant produced 1.85 million gallons of water a day.

— A bottled water plant filled 500,000 one-liter bottles a day.

— Three separate plants produced 60 megawatts of power a day.

Well, back in 2003, they never did get that Iraqi generator working and Dale couldn’t understand what all the loud noises and explosions were coming from the other end of his phone.

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Hanson Talks 90’s

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Isaac, Zac and Taylor Hanson are best known for their 1997 hit song ‘MMMBop,’ which earned them three Grammy nominations.

Today, older and touring while promoting the band’s fifth album, Hanson photographed during the Falls Church, VA stop of their The Musical Ride Tour for a story in USA TODAY.

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Shafer Vineyard Night Harvest

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NAPA, Calif. – At 4 o’clock in the morning, Shafer Vineyards is alive with light and motion. The sun won’t be up for more than three hours, but lines of pickers are moving methodically down vines full of ripe cabernet sauvignon grapes. They’re lit by huge bright lights mounted on tractors trundling alongside.

The scene at this vineyard is part of a worldwide practice that’s increasingly the way all wine grapes are harvested — in the dead of night. It results in better wine, lower energy costs and happier workers.

Check out the story in USA TODAY here.

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Christopher Horton Funeral

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I had the honor this morning of walking alongside Army Spc. Christopher Horton, 26, as he was carried to his final resting place following memorial services at Fort Myer, VA to Arlington National Cemetery Section 60 by the Caisson platoon of the 3d United States Infantry “The Old Guard”.

Christopher was killed in action in Paktya, Afghanistan on September 9, 2011.

Without a doubt, the most humbling and solemn walk I have experienced in my life knowing that this young man gave his life just as many have before and many will continue to do while selflessly serving our country. We owe them more than we can ever repay for their service.

Thoughts and prayers to Christopher’s wife Jane Horton. A wonderful woman.

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Bowling Jonas

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It is not everyday I go to work and end up in a bowling alley. I have to admit it did happen once or twice when I worked in Flint, Michigan right out of college but definitely not much in the last twenty years. Last week, not only was I hanging out at Lucky Strike Lanes in Washington, DC, I was doing it with pop singing star Joe Jonas, one third of the Jonas Brothers.

USA TODAY reporter Carly Mallenbaum and myself were there to do an interview with Joe Jonas who was promoting his debut solo album FastLife while he was on the road performing shows around the country.

It turns out that Jonas actually likes to bowl and the minds behind the promotion tour and the USA TODAY Life section thought it would be fun to do the interview at a bowling alley a few hours before a solo show in Maryland. The plan was that Joe would give some bowling tips to the reporter while also doing the interview for USA TODAY print and online.

Me, I was there to shoot video and stills for the story.

Things have changed big time since I started in this business. Five years ago, if you would have told me I was going to be shooting video of a reporter/first person type thing with a celebrity, I would have laughed it off as a joke. Sure, you see segments like this all the time on Entertainment Tonight and David Letterman but no way this is a real journalistic approach that would show up in USA TODAY.

Well…….

Things definitely have changed in the world of journalism in a very short time. Sure, Joe Jonas likes to bowl but he definitely was there at Lucky Strike Lanes bowling for us. This wasn’t a night out with his friends or brothers. This was set up as an interview with a twist. Joe Jonas bowled about four or five times along with offering some funny bowling tips and suggestions for the bowling novice USA TODAY reporter. Finally, he answered few questions on camera and then it was time for lunch. We did squeeze in a few minutes to have a few portraits made and then Joe was off to the show.

Pretty painless and the whole process didn’t take much more than an hour total. A portrait shoot without a lot of time making portraits with most of the time was gobbled up shooting interview and “B” roll video.

Doing more and more of these types of videos for the paper, I guess I equate something like this as being more of a video portrait. Ethically, some would argue that it is not truthful and looks like I just happened to be around when Joe Jonas showed up at the Lucky Strike Lanes to bowl. By having the reporter explain exactly what is going on at the start of the video, I hope that viewers will know this situation is more promotion and set up than is hands off journalism.

The lines keep getting blurrier and blurrier these days.

Joe Jonas couldn’t have been more pleasant. Me just wondering, I asked Joe how he felt about promoting and if doing this bowling interview request was any different than doing a normal interview and he said he thought it was great and he was having fun. At one point, I was standing in the lane as he was about to bowl and instead of going all Hollywood on me, Mr. Jonas simply asked, “Excuse me sir.”  Turns out that not all celebrities have attitudes and Joe Jonas is really a great kid.

All the best Joe and I really have a feeling that this little singing career thing you are working on is going to be a huge success!

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Novelist Charles Frazier

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Every assignment in my career has always followed a path which constantly reminders me just how fortunate I am to be a photojournalist. Doors open for me that would forever remain closed if not for the cameras dangling from my shoulders.

Do I sometimes take this for granted? Definitely. Mostly. But sometimes, it dawns on me just how lucky I am.

Quite often, I may only get a glimpse of a person I am to photograph or just a few seconds to say hello before making a few photos. Usually, this is just enough to make everyone happy. I would have liked a few more minutes to shoot and possibly a bit more conversation. The subject would rather have less conversation and much less time taking pictures.

The door was opened but it usually closes pretty quickly on the other side.

As much as I have grown over my career in photojournalism watching and learning from other photographers I work with and admire, I can’t help but wonder how much I have grown as a person from being exposed to the interesting and remarkable people I have covered.

My world has definitely become a bigger and better place from it.

Over the years, a handful of people who were subjects of assignments or PR folks representing these people have gone from just names and phone numbers on an assignment sheet to becoming friends.

A recent assignment photographing Charles Frazier, an American author who wrote Cold Mountain, Thirteen Moons and his latest novel Nightwoods, along with his wife Katherine in Asheville, NC was a time when I realized success can happen to normal people and just how lucky I am to make these acquaintances.

Without a doubt, the Fraziers are among the nicest people I have ever met on assignment. Sure, people always want to put their best face on when dealing with the media in general. I get it. When I show up with cameras and gear, it is usually all business. The Fraziers were no different. Charles Frazier had written his third novel and was knee deep in the process of promoting the book Nightwoods. There is a formula to these things and dealing with the media is all part of book publishing as well as promoting movies. In the middle of all of this and dealing with me, both Charles and Katherine were able to take a step out of the publishing promotion circus taking the time to be normal people.

Taken back by the genuine hospitality, I even commented to Mr. Frazier that I could imagine he had a few more pressing matters needing his attention at the moment other than having dinner with an out of town photographer the night before their scheduled meeting. He did have a number of pressing deadlines but he and his wife took a moment from their hectic schedule for a normal dinner out on the town in Asheville.

I could honestly tell that even with all the success, Charles and Katherine were still very much the same people they probably were back in the days when both were teaching and starting to raise a family before Cold Mountain changed their lives forever. Their world suddenly got a lot bigger with that novel with more pressure than I could ever imagine. I really got the feeling that promoting this new book was not just a job for the couple but a deep and personal part of their lives much like watching a child leaving home for the first time.

One of those fun moments that I will always happily recall was standing on the street in Asheville with Mr. Frazier when a truck pulled up to the curb seeking directions. Charles proceeded to give very detailed and courteous directions. The people in that vehicle probably will never know that they were just directed through town to the downtown post office from the 1997 National Book Award-winner who wrote one of the great works of our time Cold Mountain.

I know now why so many people have become so fond of the words written by Charles Frazier. They are genuine and honest just like Charles and Katherine.

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Shanksville Flight 93 Memorial

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President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walked alone in the open expanse of field now a sacred memorial honoring those who died when Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA on September 11, 2001.

Seeing the President holding the hand of his wife among the wildflowers and tall grass now covering what was scarred earth ten years earlier was a moving and emotional image.

However, something seemed oddly wrong.

In fact, seeing the couple walking completely in the open and by themselves was something I have never witnessed. There was not a hint of secret service agents or members of the tight press pool both of which are always just feet away when the President is in public. Even White House photographer Pete Souza only crept into view from the woods as the couple made their way back from the field.

Of course there were unseen agents and other security measures in and around the tree lines of the large open field and the park was already a very secure area as visitors passed through security to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial for earlier 9/11 anniversary ceremonies.

Nearly everyone who was walking the path leading to the memorial exit looked back over the field at the memorial marker were also quite shocked to see two people, the President and the first lady, alone standing a respectable distance from the boulder marking the exact point of impact of Flight 93. The passengers of Flight 93 are all truly American heroes and seeing the President and the first lady honoring them and their families in this way was truly an inspiring moment.

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Joplin Schools After Tornado

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Joplin’s school system has become a powerful symbol of resilience and recovery as students, teachers and administrators prepare to start on time on Aug. 17 despite a devastating tornado in May that killed 160 people.

This video was produced with video shot by me in Joplin nearly three months following the tornado along with footage from Joplin School District security cameras which recorded the tornado hitting the schools in Joplin on May 22, 2011 as well as using the audio recordings of Jasper County Emergency Services radio calls.

I spent a few days in Joplin and was amazed by the “get it done” attitude and just how positive people were just months following one of the worst tornado disasters in U.S. history.

I have been in and around quite a few natural disasters in the past 25 years and the one thing that always seems to be a constant is the extensive amount of debris present for months or years following a huge disaster.

Not so in Joplin.

I was expecting to roll into Joplin still buried under piles of debris. Not the case. Officials and the people of Joplin in just months have cleared most of the debris. Lots of empty blocks where homes and businesses once stood but the debris is mostly gone.

There is still plenty to go and lots of continued tear downs but it is definitely not what I expected to see.

USA TODAY reporter Steve Wieberg wrote a very compelling story and really captured the spirit behind this community rebuilding following the disaster.

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Twenty Hour Wedding Dash

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It is not often that I get to New York City on a job. But USA TODAY New York City staffer Robert Deutsch was out and about on vacation last weekend and I got the chance to head to the city from Washington, D.C. for the first time since moving back to the east coast.

Sunday was the first day for legal same-sex marriages in New York, making New York the largest state where gay and lesbian couples are now able to wed. My assignment was to follow Drew Glick and Alan Miles on their wedding day. They had received a lottery spot for a wedding at the New York City Clerk’s Office on the first day of legal same-sex marriages in New York.

Alan Miles and Drew Glick, both 45 years old, have been a couple for 16 years, live together in the Chelsea neighborhood of NYC with their boxer named Chip. Alan works for Nielsen Media Research and Drew is a real estate broker in New York City. Alan proposed to Drew when Massachusetts passed same-sex marriage in 2004. Drew said yes but not until they could be married in New York, his home state.

I touched base with Alan and Drew a few days before their wedding and we talked about documenting their day from the time they got up to the time they were wed. They were more than gracious and told me I could show up at their place at 5:30AM on Sunday morning.

I jumped on the 10:15PM train from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to New York City Penn Station arriving in New York City around 4AM. Getting off the train was a bit of a shock. The first thing that hit me besides the oppressive heat wave blasting the east coast was the sight and sound of hundreds of previous late night club kids all passed out on the floor of the Long Island Rail Road waiting area early on Sunday morning. All were waiting for the first trains out of New York City.

Lucky enough, Drew and Alan were only a short walk from Penn Station. It was super hot still in the early morning hours but the walk delivered me to their apartment just as the sun was coming up. I got to start the day documenting the two as they started on their way to the City Clerk’s office with a few close friends for their special and historic day.

With nearly 700 lottery winners planning on weddings at the city clerk’s office, there was no way of knowing just how quick or long of a wait it was going to be on Sunday. As it turned out, Drew and Alan were in a very organized line in front of the City Clerk’s Office by 7AM and allowed into the building at 8:30AM. Waited for their number to be called just like waiting at the DMV for your drivers license and finally married before 10:30AM.

It was really remarkable getting to tag along with Drew and Alan and their friends while getting to document the day. Drew and Alan and their friends were great and the atmosphere downtown around the City Clerk’s office was pretty moving.

I had an early afternoon deadline to make so I hustled back to Penn Station. Lucky for me, I was able to get on the noon train back to D.C.

After settling down into my seat and plugging in, I edited and transmitted on the way back to Washington on board Amtrak 157. Even with a corrupted disk needing to have images rescued, I was finished editing and shipping somewhere between Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Pulling into Union Station, I realized I had just finished a twenty hour D.C and back marathon.

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NMG Electric Car

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Carolyn Buckley of East Stroudsburg, PA drives to work 35 miles each way four days a week. When she decided to take the job, she went online to find “the most energy-efficient, affordable, highway- speed commuter transportation available” available and come up with the futuristic-looking NMG. “I’ve driven almost 15,000 miles in my little EV” (electric vehicle) and has yet to run out of power. The NMG three-wheel electric vehicle, retails for $30,000 new and can travel 70 miles range on a single charge.

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Hard Rock Memorabilia Tour

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The Hard Rock International 40th Anniversary Memorabilia Tour starts in New York at the Times Square restaurant on May 18, 2011. It will travel to 32 other cafes around the USA in an 80-foot-long double-wide truck specially constructed to exhibit 64 memorable artifacts once owned by rock’s idols: their iconic signature guitars, brilliant costumes, handwritten lyrics, the clothes they wore on their album covers, the letters they wrote to friends and lovers.

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Mr. Schilling goes to Washington

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Bobby Schilling will be the U.S. Representative for Illinois’s 17th Congressional district when taking office on Jan. 5, 2011 after being sworn into the 112th Congress. Schilling is one of 85 incoming freshman Republicans to the House of Representatives with the Democrats adding just nine to the 94 total incoming freshman congressional class. Schilling has been married to his wife Christie for 24 years and the couple has 10 children. Schilling’s victory was a major upset in November when he overturned decades of Democratic rule in the Illinois 17th District.

I spent a few days with Congressman Schilling and his family as they worked at the family pizza restaurant in Moline, Illinois and packed for their journey to Washington, DC for Schilling’s swearing in as U.S. House of Representative from the Illinois 17th Congressional district. This is the video that I produced and ran on USATODAY.com following the Jan. 5, 2010 swearing in ceremony at The Capitol.

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Country Doctor of the Year

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Family practitioner Ken Jackson is known around Kingman, Ariz., as the “Cowboy Baby Doctor,” though he says the nickname is a bit misleading — he doesn’t always ride a horse or wear his cowboy hat, and he prefers alternative rock to country music.

But for the past three years, Jackson has traveled by horseback once a month deep into the Grand Canyon to provide prenatal care for Supai, a remote Native American village of about 400 that is inaccessible by automobile. It is the last place in the USA to which the U.S. Postal Service makes deliveries by mule.

This was a really fun story story to work on even with a few difficult things that needed to be danced around in order to make it happen. Did I mention the threat of getting arrested by tribal police?

Dr. Jackson is an incredible man. I just wish we would have been able to ride the horses to the bottom of the canyon and Supai village. That would have been a once in a life time trip.

This is how the story looked once published in the new Your Life section of USA TODAY.

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Nikon D3S Taking The Heat

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Sitting here at USA TODAY the other day talking about the D3S during a visit with Nikon’s Design Department General Manager Koichiro Kawamura and Technical and Engineering Liaison Kenji Suzuki along with Nikon’s Bill Pekala and Mark Suban, I realized the D3S has pretty much all the bells and whistles I really want and need from a still camera.

Well, maybe a better quiet mode that really is quiet would be nice.

I really am a huge fan of the new Nikon D3S. Everything from the higher ISO’s and image quality make this still camera nearly perfect.

Did I say I was a huge fan?

The funny thing about talking to both Mr. Kawamura and Suzuki was that we were not talking about the D3S as a still camera. All of the discussion focused on the D3S as a video camera and all the pieces we added to the D3S to make it into a workable video camera.

We explained our likes and dislikes. We talked about the things we would like to see added and fixed as still photographers focusing more and more on capturing video on a daily basis.

I don’t think we offered up any brilliant revelations that haven’t been discussed by other more knowledgeable professionals but I hope the next Nikon version coming off the line will address many of the issues regarding not having 1080p video, live view auto focus and viewing along with audio issues and length of video recordings among other things.

The one thing that I brought up that seemed to spark some interest was the fact the Nikon D3S shuts down in extreme heat. It has happened to me a few times but was really prominent in southern Afghanistan in August.

NIkon D3s in the heat of Kunjak, Afghanistan

No big surprise here. A well documented issue and I knew about the extreme temperature problems with the D3S going into the assignment. Working with it in the field while walking on patrols during the 100+ degree heat with marines in the Helmand Province, I never had an problem with the camera shutting down. Not once.

The heat problem only came to light when I set the camera up in a makeshift outdoor studio to interview each member of the marine platoon for a video project.

Almost immediately the stationery D3S wedged between cots and MRE boxes heated up under the intense Afghanistan sun and the camera stopped recording all but short length clips.

Uh oh.

The only thing I could think to do after having started the interviews and needing to keep things moving was to shield the camera from the sun with anything available.

Sleeping bags, overturned cots and boxes. All of this helped but it was just too hot. The camera just wouldn’t work in the extreme heat.

In a last ditch effort with plenty of bottled water around, I soaked my travel towel down and used it as a cold compress wrapped around the camera body.

Probably not in the D3S manual but the fix worked. I was able to limp through the interviews which took nearly four hours and quite a few bottles of water. Most of the marines actually appreciated my ability to adapt to the conditions. They were also taking great pleasure in passing the time watching and mocking me while I scampered about trying to keep the “Beverly Hillbilly” rig from blowing away in strong, gusty winds.

This is the published version of the video “Voices: If you could bring an American to Afghanistan, what would you show them?”

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Sounds of Afghanistan

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Combat Outpost Kunjak based 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment marines during quiet moments along with fellow Afghan National Police in the Helmand Province near Musa Qala, Afghanistan.

This was one of those moments during the long stretches of not much happening between missions. Marines looking for an escape from the heat sit with their Afghan fighting partners.

I heard this music playing from across the camp and took off running. I found the Afghan National Police commander nicknamed “Bobby” by the marines sitting and playing.

This was really one of those truly memorable moments I will keep with me. Here these guys are sitting right in the middle of war while making some really beautiful music.

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Voices Afghanistan

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If you could bring an American to Afghanistan, what would you show them?

I posed this question to the nearly twenty-five marines of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment based at the remote outpost named COP Kunjak in the Helmand Province. The marines were nearing the finish of a seven month tour of duty in Afghanistan. The 1/2 Marines lost ten men during this battle rotation.

The marines speak in their own voices about what they would show Americans if they could bring them to their Afghanistan outpost.

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War Zone TBI

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A video I edited and shot for the story of how military doctors are diagnosing and treating traumatic brain injuries (TBI) at the NATO Role 3 Treatment Facility at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. More U.S. troops are being identified as concussion victims each month under new, more aggressive medical treatment guidelines instituted by the Pentagon in July. Those rules require that any service member caught within roughly 50 yards of a blast be pulled from the battlefield for at least 24 hours and examined for evidence of concussion. The same goes for troops in a vehicle or building struck by a bomb.

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Kid Rock

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Spent a quick afternoon with Kid Rock at his home in Clarkston, Michigan talking about his country-leaning album ‘Born Free’.

First impressions, Kid Rock (aka Robert Ritchie) is a really nice guy.

Second, something I never thought I would hear coming from Kid Rock’s mouth…his fondness for “antiquing”.

Finally, a very cool album cover with the words CASH along with a personal inscription from Johnny Cash hanging in Kid Rock’s living room.

“Thanks for keeping the music going…. A fan, Johnny Cash”

Amazingly, Rock said that it just showed up in the mail one day. He had no idea Johnny Cash was a fan.

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Kunjak Saturday Night

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CLICK HERE FOR MOVIE

Spent a week in Helmand, Afghanistan with marines from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and a small number of Afghan National Police living on a small, remote outpost. This is really out in the middle of nowhere and deep in the heart of Taliban country.

Most of the marines dispatched to this outpost for nearly five months have had little means of contact to the outside world. When I pulled out the iPhone 4, it was like showing fire to cavemen for the first time. Read More »

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Run Amuck with the Nikon D3S

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The third annual Run Amuck 3.5-mile event featured 2,130 runners at the Marine Corps Base Quantico featuring race obstacles, military PT drills and pits of mud on the course.

My first assignment using the new Nikon D3S shooting both video and stills.

Pretty amazing how easy the camera is to use while shooting video.

Talk about putting the camera through a harsh environment. Both the camera and I were knee deep in mud for most of the day and came away mostly unscathed.

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DC Housewife Michaele Salahi

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After a rocky start with the Bravo PR folks thinking they were at an address in Georgetown (they were actually in Chevy Chase, MD) waiting for myself and a reporter to connect, I finally hooked up with Michaele Salahi after a long cab ride to Maryland and spent a few hours with the DC Housewife and infamous White House party crasher.

A great idea of spending the day with Salahi shopping coordinated with Bravo was dashed pretty quickly when none of the stores Salahi was planning to shop that day had been informed media would be along for the ride. Jimmy Choo and Saks and Gucci not big fans of photos inside the stores. After watching lots of nice pictures lost inside Jimmy Choo and Gucci, I actually was able to recupe and make OK images in between the down time walking with Salahi between shops.

With all of the location and access confusion and hassle, I could have just bagged the whole assignment. But who am I to throw a Hollywood style tamtrum?

Secretly, I am a big fan of the Bravo series and my wife and I DVR each episode.

Did I just say that out loud?

After the shopping spree at The Collection in Chevy Chase, MD,  our little entourage hopped into Salahi’s white limo and we cruised down to Georgetown for a hair and makeup adventure I am sure USA TODAY reporter Olivia Barker is going to be talking about for a long time.

Arriving at the Roche Salon in Georgetown, things couldn’t have been more inviting. Owner Dennis Roche was about as nice as they come and the atmosphere was great. Best, no hassle about photos while working on Salahi’s DC Housewives premier party hair.

While Michaele was having her hair done, I was able to set up and do a quick USA TODAY video feature we call “5 Questions”.  It is very entertaining.

Halfway through the appointment at the Roche Salon, Michaele decided USA TODAY reporter Olivia Barker needed to find out how applying makeup with an airbrush felt firsthand. Olivia was a trooper and kept the notepad ready and fired away with the questions while the airbrushing was underway.

I had no idea what to expect from this assignment. To be honest, Michaele Salahi was nothing short of gracious even when it might have appeared I was photographing from an angle that might reveal just a bit more than her already super short Herve Leger was attempting to conceal. Love or hate, it was a fun way of giving readers of USA TODAY a brief glimpse into the life of Michaele Salahi, perfectly cast as a reality TV star.

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Robert Duvall at Byrnley Farm

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Spent a few minutes with Academy Award winning actor Robert Duvall at his Revolutionary War-era, 362-acre farm, known as Byrnley Farm, in The Plains, Virginia. Mr. Duvall was doing press for the upcoming film “Get Low” due out in a July 2010. Meeting Robert Duvall was a hoot but I have to admit, I was beyond words walking around his farm mostly built in the mid to late 1700’s. Without a doubt some of the most beautiful scenery in Virginia.

 On the way home, I watched the trailer for his new movie and I am pretty excited about seeing it. Two of my favorite actors star in “Get Low” — Bill Murray and Robert Duvall.

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Sunday at the Masters

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Sunday’s final round at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia is hard to beat. The weather is usually beautiful and some high drama always plays out on the green at 18. I am not a golf crazy fan and insane as it seems, I have only been on a golf course as a player maybe a handful of times. No matter, getting to experience Augusta National Golf Club during Masters week is definitely a highlight for me no matter how difficult it is to cover the tournament. It really is a special place.

I think most of the professional golfers are just happy to make it through Sunday. Many would call it surviving. I know many of the photographers covering the Masters would agree. Covering the many practice rounds and the Par-3 tournament is a full week right there. Then the whole thing starts over again with the serious business of golf starting with the first round of action on Thursday ending up with Sunday’s final round and the late evening green jacket presentation.

The biggest drama for photographers is where to be on Sunday afternoon on the 18th green when the final couple of pairs usually decide the winner. For the last few years, I have always been on the wrong side of the green looking at the backside of the winner celebrating the win or blocked by an absent minded photographer. Usually, your spot is decided when you place a chair along the green’s ropes at 8AM in the morning along with hundreds of other spectators and that is where you return late in the day to shoot the eventual winner on the 18th green.

This year, I decided on making sure I got a spot in one of the three photographer pens positioned around the green. Usually full early in the day, it is a gamble finding room in one of them late in the day. The plan was for me to position in the pen opposite the photo towers where our other photographer/editor would be able to get up high over the green late in the day. After getting into my spot late in the round, I looked over the green and noticed there was still room in the most desirable photo pen. I hoofed it around the top of the green and around the thousands of patrons already in their seats and had to keep walking back down the 18 fairway in order to get past the fans in order to duck under the ropes and get back up the fairway to the green and into the photo pen. A pretty small space but room enough for maybe six or seven photographers.

Just as I got situated, the leader board threw up Phil Mickelson’s birdie on 15. Mickelson had a pretty commanding lead and probably on his way to his third green jacket. Good for him but bad for me. With the Sunday pin placement on 18,  “Lefty” Mickelson would probably be putting in for the win with his left-handed stance and his back to me now that I had switched to the opposite side of the green.

Mickelson did putt in on 18 for the win but I wasn’t completely shut out. My angle had a bit of a profile when Mickelson celebrated with both arms in the air. It wasn’t great but I wasn’t going away empty handed this year.

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2010 Masters Tournament

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I am down in Augusta, GA for a week of Masters golf coverage. The only golf I really shoot these days is shooting the first major tournament of the year here at Augusta National Golf Club.

The Masters organization really keeps a tight grip on the number of credentials issued to photographers and writers. The number of photographers here is surprising small for a major championship. USA TODAY actually has had only one photographer credential for years. This year, we are fortunate enough to have been issued another.

Everything here is deep in tradition. This tournament is the only major golf event where photographers are not allowed to work inside the ropes and in front of the thousands of gallery patrons. This makes covering an event this size with thousands of people packing the greens a tough task.

But, it all comes down to Sunday and being lucky enough to be in the right place on the 18th green for that final photo.

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Cinderella William and Mary

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I was down at the Richmond Coliseum for the Colonial Athletic Association championship game between Old Dominion and William and Mary. Hoping this cinderella story was the making of something big, I was there in case William and Mary knocked off favored and regular season conference champions Old Dominion gaining an automatic bid into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time in the school’s history.

William and Mary has never made it into the “Big Dance” and the school is one of five original Division I teams that has never made the national field.

The Tribe has some pretty impressive alumni,  guys named George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe but I guess none of them ever had much of a three-point shot.

In many ways, this conference championship game had the feeling of old time basketball. The Richmond Coliseum just feels like a true basketball barn and the fans are loud and up close to the action. The public address announcer before the start of the game “invited” the fans of the winning team to celebrate on the court following the game but please remember to be respectful and in control. The crazy thing was, the Old Dominion fans were respectful and in control following the 60-53 win over William and Mary. They celebrated their victory in style and class.

The fans of William and Mary knew their team was close to something big. A close game down to the final minutes kept the Tribe in reach. Old Dominion had just written their own ending to the cinderella story.

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Shaun White Secret Halfpipe

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Reason number 1,673 why this job is so cool. Nine months before the start of the Vancouver Olympics, I found myself just below the top of a 13,487 foot mountain in Silverton, Colorado hanging out with Olympic gold medalist snowboarder Shawn White. His sponsor Red Bull had built a super secret halfpipe for Shaun and only Shaun to develop his new tricks for the halfpipe prior to the Olympics. We were allowed out but promised and officially signed a bunch of waivers making sure we wouldn’t give up the location or show any photos of the halfpipe until just before the Vancouver Olympics.

On television, Shaun White seems like a pretty down to earth kid. To be completely honest, in person, the guy who has turned snowboarding into one of the most popular extreme sports in the world and has become a household name is really just that, a normal guy.

He is the Michael Jordan of his sport and by today’s standards of superstar athletes, you would think he would be completely out of touch like some (not all) acclaimed athletes.

Sorry to disappoint but definitely not. Just a normal kid who can do some pretty amazing things on a snowboard.

Maybe he stays grounded holding tight to his humble beginnings in the sport and the closeness to his fans both in the halfpipe and skateboarding. I don’t know but it is just surprising and refreshing to be around that caliber of athlete and feel like you are around a person who knows just how lucky he is to be living a dream.

I did learn one valuable lesson while in Silverton during the thick of winter in a pretty major snowstorm. Out at night having dinner with Shaun and the Red Bull folks, I made a serious menu selection error. When in a town that closes up shop for the season and restaurants decide among themselves who will open to serve a pretty small group of clients, NEVER order the seafood. I can count on one hand the times I have ordered fish at night usually when I am on the coast somewhere. I have no idea why but something made me order the mahi mahi hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.

I paid the price a few hours later.

It was definitely a great night listening to all of Shaun’s stories along with his buddies and the great people from Red Bull. One of those moments I will always look back on and remember how lucky I am at times.

My stomach, however, wishes I would have just gone out for a hamburger instead.

From now on, I am sticking to the meatloaf.

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Olympic Torch

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Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky runs with the Olympic torch to light the Vancouver 2010 Olympic cauldron at the conclusion of the Olympic opening ceremony.

It was a very wet night in a pouring rain as “The Great One” entered the plaza to bring the Olympic flame from the BC Place and the Olympic opening ceremonies to Coal Harbour after getting a ride on a flatbed truck.

The funny thing was that Olympic officials allowed only a very small number of people to witness the lighting. I am sure it looked much more crowded on television but in reality, there were not more than 150 people in the plaza.

At one point, people on the outside of the security fences began to rip the fabric on the fences which was blocking the view from the general public. Police initially tried to stop people but finally figured out how futile it was to keep people from attempting to witness history.

Overall, we did pretty well. My colleague Robert Deutsch had a really unique shooting angle from directly in front of the cauldron and made some remarkable pictures.

My take from the evening was pretty boring stuff. Shooting through a ton of rain with long glass is not always pretty but at least I got to see Gretzky make history one more time.

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Vancouver Oly Prep

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Getting to Vancouver a few days before the Olympic opening ceremonies is always a busy time. Spent part of the morning running over one hundred feet of ethernet line in the rafters of the Canada Place Olympic hockey venue with my coworker Bert Hanashiro. The ethernet line will connect remote camera in the overhead catwalks in order to transmit photos back to USA TODAY remotely. I really didn’t realize until after looking at the photos that the rafters in this place are really up there.

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The Rose Bowl

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I didn’t really dawn on me until I arrived in Los Angeles for the 2010 BCS Championship game between Texas and Alabama that I have not been back on the west coast working since moving to Washington, DC in late 2008. It was like being home again. Getting to see and work alongside dozens of friends from the west coast made for a fun week.

In the ten years of living in California, I covered numerous games down at the Rose Bowl. That stadium in Pasadena is one of those places I hold dear in my heart for many reasons, some other than just football.

1985 – My freshman year at Ohio State, my first ever trip west along with my college roommates for the January 1st game at the Rose Bowl against USC. Before the game, we even spent the night camped out on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena for a front row seat to the Rose Bowl Parade. It was also the first major sporting event I ever photographed getting a photo credential requested through the Greenville (Ohio) Daily Advocate. I remember shooting with my Nikon F2 and Sigma 500mm/f8 mirror lens but can’t remember any of the photos I took from that game. I do remember being unable to locate our car parked on the Rose Bowl golf course following the game. I ended up searching for three hours only finding it after I climbed a tree to get a better vantage point. All of my roommates were asleep inside the car.

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2002 – I can honestly say I remember zero about what happened in the championship game between Miami and Nebraska. It turns out Miami beat Nebraska 37-24 to win the title. I do know I was a nervous wreck before, during and after the game because I had an engagement ring stuffed away in my pocket and planned on proposing to Amy Kinsella, a picture editor at USA TODAY who was editing the game photos, following the game out on the giant rose painted on the Rose Bowl Stadium 50 yard line. Amy thought our crew was just going out in the middle of the field to take a group picture following the game. She was shocked but she did say yes.

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2006 – Texas Longhorns 41 – Southern California Trojans 38 : Many sports “know-it-alls” call this one of the greatest games ever played in any sport. USC took a 38-26 lead with 6:42 in the final minutes of the game. However, Texas wasn’t giving up, as Texas not only scored a touchdown that got the Longhorns back into the game, but Texas QB Vince Young scored the game-winner when he scrambled into the end zone with 0:19 to play. Young rushed for 200 yards and three TDs and going 30/40 for 267 yards through the air. I am not a huge football fan but this probably was one of the greatest college football games of all times and I somehow made a pretty decent photo.

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Obama in the Map Room

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I spent the better part of a morning and afternoon this week getting up well before the HOV lanes heading into DC kicked into gear at 6:30am in order to get myself to the White House before the work day traffic hit. Working at the White House is not an everyday event for me. Just getting around the area is still an adventure for a guy who has spent the past ten years working on the west coast.

USA TODAY and The Detroit Free Press had a “one on one” interview with President Obama scheduled for 11am. Myself and a crew from fellow Gannett TV outlet WUSA had to be ready to set up by 8:30am in the White House Map Room and then wait a few hours for the President. This is just another day at the office for most White House press photographers but for me, it is a treat.

By 9am, all set up, so we sat and waited.

The really cool thing about sitting in a room just off the Oval Office for close to three hours is the opportunity to get to just take it all in. The Map Room gets the name from its use during World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt used it as a situation room where maps were consulted to track the war’s progress.  One of those maps from World War II still hangs on the wall and shows what is thought to be German troop strengths in Europe. Definitely much less high tech than today’s information systems. There is actually a drawing on the wall showing Roosevelt in his wheelchair in the Map Room going over the situation in Germany during the war.

I really didn’t bone up on my history but some pretty important things have happened in this room in recent years according to a wiki search.

  • Bill Clinton gave testimony to Independent Counsel Ken Star regarding his role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal from the Map Room on August 17, 1998.
  • Recently, on January 21, 2009, the day after the inauguration of Barack Obama, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts re-administered the oath of office to President Obama in the Map Room. The oath was flubbed by misplacing one word during the ceremony the previous day.

FREEPOBAMAPIX

The actual interview was nothing spectacular. I had five minutes to make a few pictures during a twenty minute interview. I had actually been set to shoot from an angle which would have made better pictures but was told at the start of the interview I would only be able to shoot from off to one side by White House officials. No one else was inside the room taking still pictures besides the official White House photographer but there still are limitations even while being a “one on one” interview.

I did use a specially designed sound blimp enclosing a Nikon D3 to hide the sound of the camera firing while shooting in close with the Nikon 70-200mm. In situations like this, I can’t wait until I can get my hands on the Nikon D3s complete with the quiet mode function as silent as the Canon 5d’s quiet mode. Now, the sound of a D3 shutter firing in a quiet room during an interview is as loud as a cannon going off.

The best angle I could manage had to be shot with the non-soundproofed D3 and the 200-400mm lens while hanging out over the edge of the WUSA television camera.

This was going to be loud.

I looked at my watch which I had started the stopwatch at the top of the interview and waited to the very end of my time before pulling up the 200-400mm. It was quick and dirty but I fired off just three frames before getting the nod to finish. Two of the frames were completely unusable, the President’s eyes were shut. Only one frame from this angle was usable and it was the one used by the Detroit Free Press on their front page.

Obama

The most memorable thing about the Map Room besides a rare 1755 French version of a map charted by colonial surveyors Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father) hanging on the east wall is the “out of the way” lavatory which looks like it hasn’t changed too much since Roosevelt. As it turns out, this restroom is officially a women’s lavatory. After three hours of waiting, no one seemed to mind if the trio of all male photographers took turns. And, all of the paper towels are embossed with the Presidential seal.

Very classy.

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Combat Stress Therapists

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COMBATMEDS2Video from Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan in late October 2009 following the work of a USAF combat stress team deployed in remote area of Afghanistan. The story written by USA TODAY reporter Gregg Zoroya and video by USA TODAY photographer Jack Gruber was published in conjunction with the breaking news story from the rampage at Fort Hood, where Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan is alleged to have killed 13 people and wounded 29 others.

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MRAP 2-87 Medic

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Missions can be long. Specialist Don Ezera Cruz Plemons, a medic with the 2nd Regiment, 87th Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain
Division spends hours inside the confines of an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle currently deployed in Afghanistan. His role is to come to the aid of combat injured soldiers quickly via the MRAP. He may never step out of the vehicle on a mission if all goes well.

To pass the time on a mission with his platoon on the ground asking survey questions of local villagers, Plemons read Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” from his enclosed cabin seat.

Not typical soldier reading material.

Plemons, it turns out has a masters degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He along with a number of other enlisted soldiers in Comanche Company earned college degrees before joining the military. He sees more and more college educated soldiers due in part, he thinks, to the current down economy.

As well as reading classic literature, Plemons sketches and draws to pass the time while monitoring the company communications during missions some lasting an hour others an entire day.

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Afghanistan Bound

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For the second time in about two and a half months, I am heading back to Afghanistan. I am teaming up with USA TODAY reporter Gregg Zoroya to embed with the U.S. Army.

I really didn’t unpack completely from the last trip in August. I have been seriously meaning to pack for the past three days. As usual, I put off the most intense packing until the very last minute only going at it first thing this morning.

Around 8am, I worked at sorting the gear in the garage I would need for this assignment. Having a 17-month-old wanting to help is fun but a bit challenging too. I want to get things done but it is just too much fun watching her explore all the pockets and zippers.

The only real change from the August trip in preparing differently is the weather. It is going to be much colder this time of year. I had to pack more weight and take up more space with warm clothing. Surprisingly, my bags from August all weighed the same as they do now for this trip.

Stopping briefly in my day long packing only to chase Maddie down the hall after she ran off with this cord or that boot, I finally had all my bags weighed in around forty-five pounds each as well as my backpack for the camera gear. It weighed in at about thirty-five pounds. Finished packing around 5pm in plenty of time for my 10:10pm flight from Dulles to Dubai. Hopefully in two days, I should make it to Afghanistan following a layover in Dubai.

I am heading to Bagram first. There is a very large military base known as BAF there. After doing the initial check in, we probably will be heading for a base  which sits right around 8,000 feet in elevation and it is definitely not going to be summer temps.

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Deeds

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The Democratic nominee for Governor of Virginia, Creigh Deeds gave a quick speech while opening his campaign office in Falls Church, Virgina on Wednesday night. Deeds is trying to win the job of Virginia governor in the November 2009 general election.

I was sent to make photos of Deeds to soon publish with a story being written by USA TODAY reporter Kathy Kiely.

I have worked on lots of campaign and election stories with Kathy following President Obama on the campaign trail, election night in Hart Plaza in Chicago and the inauguration earlier this year. Usually, there are lots of competing media and access is controlled by the campaigns.

Wednesday night was different. Make no mistake, the race for Virginia governor is a big deal. Creigh Deeds opening of his campaign office in Falls Church in what looked to be an old beauty parlor complete with the hair washing basins was nothing of a media frenzy. There was one local television news station along with a few photographers I didn’t recognize. Deeds arrived just about on time and spoke and sweated.

It was very warm in the new office space packed with his supporters.

Watching Deeds speak to maybe 100 supporters standing on a small riser really gave sense to how tough it must be to campaign full time for the job without the huge fan fare we all see during a Presidential campaign. Nothing glamorous. Just a small riser and some campaign posters behind him taped to the walls.

On the other hand, as grueling as it must be, it looked like Deeds was actually having fun and enjoying his time there talking one on one with the people who could help him get elected.

It looked like good old fashioned campaigning.

As crowded as it was, I was trying to make interesting pictures somewhere off the path you normally see from these events. The typical image of the candidate standing and speaking in front of a big sign with his name is an easy get. Tougher is trying to find that image that is different and storytelling. I don’t think I nailed it on this assignment but there were a few close calls.

I can honestly say I worked this half hour photo op as best I could. If my pants and knees are dirty after an assignment, I need to get the spray and wash out later but I also know I worked the situation trying to find something different.

Another photographer might have seen something else I didn’t . That is always the case. Sure, I had plenty of pictures of the candidate and the story was well covered for the paper. I just came away from the night, however, knowing I didn’t really get that one definitive photo I was hoping to capture.

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Supreme Court Photo Op

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The Supreme Court sat for an official portrait today in the East Conference Room at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

When a new Supreme Court justice is seated on the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and the third woman to sit on the high court,  an official portrait is arranged to be taken. It is not an annual event. The last portrait was in 2006 when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was seated.

Myself, possibly the least experienced photographer on The Hill, along with a pool of eleven veteran DC photographers from major agencies, wire services and newspapers spent a few hours in the early morning preparing for a two minute photo opportunity with the nine justices of the Supreme Court after the official portrait was taken.

Two minutes goes by pretty quick.

The photos are not much to write home about. When I got this assignment a few days ago, I couldn’t understand why my wife was so excited about it. Yes, she is an attorney but what could be so exciting about a few minutes with a group of people  just sitting and smiling? I was looking at this as a quick, down and dirty two minute drill. She was looking at this assignment in a completely different light. She saw the history.

It finally sank in while standing in the hallway waiting as justices passed by hurrying to this early morning photo op. An engaging Judge Antonin Scalia heading back to his office remarking to us not to start without him. We all watched quietly as Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg made her way down the hall. Judge Clarence Thomas stopped to chat with Supreme Court Public Affair folks about their families.

All seemingly normal people I could imagine having as next door neighbors. Without the robes, could be any one of us. But, almost unimaginable, how much responsibility rests upon the shoulders of each of these nine individuals who go to work every day knowing they shape the very fabric of our lives.

Thinking about it now, seems like two minutes very well spent today.