A Year of Changes

April 21, 2011

This past Tuesday I defended my thesis for the University of South Carolina Honors College.  I’ve worked on this project for over a year now and I feel both sad and incredibly accomplished to see it finally complete.  Although, as my director Denise McGill wisely said, “Photo projects are never truly complete, just abandoned upon deadline”.  That pretty much sums up how I feel about this project.  It feels complete, yet there are many things I would love to go back and re-shoot or explore further.  But, I am incredibly proud of how far I’ve come in the past year and incredibly grateful to the Cashion family for letting me into their lives.

Below is the gist of what I presented on Tuesday.  If you have any questions, feel free to email me or post a comment below.

"When Emilee ran up to me in the airport, I thought 'Wow, she has gotten bigger'. I wasn’t gone that long, it was only about six months that I was away from the house," Joe Cashion said about his homecoming from a six-month deployment in Afghanistan.

Intro to Project

I first met Joe and Lindy Cashion on April 13 of last year.  They graciously allowed me into their lives to document their experiences with military deployment.  I doubt they knew what they were getting themselves into because I proceeded to spend nearly a year photographing and videotaping their everyday lives and sitting down with them for interviews.

Joe Cashion, a Public Affairs Officer for the Army National Guard, volunteered for a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. I wanted to document the struggles a soldier’s family faces during his deployment, to share the story of the Cashion family and their experience, and to give viewers a better understanding of the life of a soldier’s family.  Throughout the course of the project, I followed Lindy and her family through their daily lives, photographing both the simple moments and the big events all families experience, ultimately producing a fifteen-minute audio slideshow to tell their story

What I Learned/How I Changed

As a result of this project my photography skills, my interview skills, and my ability to connect with a subject all improved.  This project was very challenging, yet incredibly rewarding, in many ways.  One of the first issues I ran into was Joe and Lindy’s oldest daughter, Sarah’s resistance to being photographed.  While this was extremely normal behavior for a 13-year-old girl, it made it difficult for me to get to know her and to learn about her.  I finally realized that if I put the camera down and simply sat and talked to her, she was much more open with me.  I helped her with her math homework, I talked to her about school, what it’s like to be in college, I showed her my Facebook profile, we talked about boys.  All of this interaction helped me to get to know who Sarah is without needing to formally ask.  Once I started building that rapport with her, I noticed that she was much more receptive to being photographed.  That was a huge lesson for me – learning when to put the camera down.

I also became much more comfortable in my “photographer’s skin”.  Like many beginning photographers, I always felt uncomfortable getting inside people’s “bubbles”.  This project forced me to get over that in many ways.  First, at the airport when Joe left for deployment, I knew I only had one shot to get some good photos.  Therefore, I forced my apprehensions aside in pursuit of that goal.  Also, after a couple of visits to the Cashion house, I began to get very bored taking photos from the same perspectives.  To challenge myself and to enhance the quality of the photos for this project, I forced myself to try new angles and positions. I also learned to be more patient.  Rather than bouncing around from place to place, chasing a moment, I learned to wait for one to happen where I was.

Another challenge I encountered with this project came in the form of interviewing.  I repeatedly struggled with finding the right questions to ask.  But, I was very conscious of doing everything in an ethical way – I did not want to lead them to give me the answers I wanted.  But, there were times when I understood what the Cashions were trying to say, but they said it in a way that made it either difficult to understand or gave an impression I was sure they were not intending.  I learned that there are many implicit things about human communication that cannot be portrayed through a video camera or a tape recorder.  So, it’s up to the interviewer to ask questions that draw out the most articulate and thought out answers. 

Speaking of ethics, I was very conscious of ethical standards throughout this process.  I wanted to be sure that this story was told by Joe and Lindy and their family.  I didn’t want to narrate it.  I wanted it to be their story.  To me, the politics of the situation didn’t matter, any personal feelings or beliefs, positive or negative, that I held toward the military didn’t matter.  It was about what this family experienced during a military deployment and how that experience was indicative of other American families.  Because of this decision, I was very careful during my editing to remain true to what really happened.  While the story is not told in chronological order, I believe that it is not misleading either.  Throughout the editing process, I learned that what material you leave out is just as important as what material you leave in.

I also struggled with feeling like I constantly “took” from the Cashions yet gave them nothing in return.  I came into their home, was witness to intimate moments of their lives and made pictures of them.  I could not understand why they were so willing to let me in while receiving little in return.  I began to understand that they wanted their story told and they wanted this important moment in their lives documented.  I also realized that the best gift I could give them was to tell their story honestly and fairly.

Finally, I learned a lot about U.S. military.  I have little experience with the military and other than a few distant cousins, I know no one currently serving.  Honestly, I could go days without feeling like the current war even effects me.  I think that is partly what drove me to this project.  I wanted to know more about the current war and who it was affecting.  I knew there were people making huge, daily sacrifices for my safety and I wanted to learn about them.  I think the American public is very distanced from this war.   This story gave me a way to feel more connected to it.

In many ways, the Cashions were not at all what I expected.  First, I thought they would live on the base.  Second, I expected I would be paired with a young 20-something, newly married couple.  Instead, I met Joe and Lindy, married for more than a decade with two kids who lived in rural Ridgeway, SC on land formerly owned by Lindy’s parents.  In retrospect, it was the perfect family for this project.  I got to witness and document how a 13-year-old and a three-year-old reacted to their father’s absence – fascinating in both the similarities and differences.  I got to speak with Joe’s parents about their disagreements with his decision.  I got to witness life in rural South Carolina – something I was missing out on while I lived in Columbia.

I look back at the photos I was making a year ago and am shocked at the progress I’ve made.  This story gave me both the time and motivation to make mistakes and learn from them, to try new techniques and take new risks – all of which greatly benefited my photography. 

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