by Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips (former name)

ALI BASE, Iraq — Photographers here are proving that a picture is truly worth a thousand words in fighting the war on terrorism.

“Our images tell the military story to the American public, our children and their children, and beyond,” said Master Sgt. Maurice Hessel, base multimedia center manager and still photographer.

“Military photographers have had a tremendous impact on history and document the horrors of war,” said Sergeant Hessel, who is deployed from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. “The men and women of the U.S. military are considered heroes in the eyes of most Americans, and I believe military photographers have played a role in that view.”

Considering themselves observers to history, photographers here have captured images of Iraqi citizens and U.S. Airmen meeting each other.

“I like knowing what I see is what someone else will see, and maybe have a better understanding that not all of the locals hate us or want to bomb us,” said Airman 1st Class Jamie Shultz, a 407th Expeditionary Communications Squadron still photographer also deployed from McConnell.

“If no one saw what we were able to document, then people can assume that no one wants us here or needs our help,” she said. “We are the eyes that everyone sees through.”

The photographers have also documented the friendships formed between U.S. and Iraqi Airmen working together to refurbish the Iraqi Air Force.

“Shooting here is the truest sense of photojournalism,” Sergeant Hessel said. “We tell the story as it happens.

“It’s a target-rich environment, and I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “The (Iraqi citizens) are not acting any different because I’m around. It’s survival for them, and I get to see them in their hour of need, in their own environment and uninhibited.”

But the historic documentation does not come without the danger of working in a combat zone. That fact is not lost on their family members back home, but their imagery helps provide consolation for some.

“A picture that Sergeant Hessel took of me holding a little girl in my arms has helped to put my wife and son at ease,” said Chief Master Sgt. Charles Aliff, the 407th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron security forces manager, who along with his subordinates have had their base defense and humanitarian missions documented by the 407th ECS.

“(The base photographers’) work conveys a message to a larger community, military or civilian, of the significant contribution an individual or an organization provides in the defense of our nation and the universal fight against terrorism,” he said.

“The images they create educate, motivate and inspire confidence in the U.S. Air Force and its role in the defense of freedom,” the Ohio Air National Guard chief said.

Photographers have logged many hours accompanying Chief Aliff and security forces Airmen on convoy patrols throughout the 210 square miles surrounding the base to forge relationships with the locals and keep the more than 9,000 U.S. and coalition forces on the installation safe from terrorist attacks.

“The minute I go (off base) my situational awareness increases,” Sergeant Hessel said. “What we overlook on the roads of America might kill you out here.

“The other day there was a soda can on the street,” he said. “In America, it is just a can, but in Iraq that same can could blow your leg off. I don’t take anything for granted outside the wire.”

Before deploying, photographers are treated to a crash course in convoy operations and survival techniques. While outside the base perimeter, they carry an M-16 but their preferred weapon of choice is a camera.

“My camera is like security forces’ rifle — it’s a part of me,” Sergeant Hessel said about the camera and 30 pounds of photographic equipment he hauls around to get the perfect shot.

Base photographers know that landing the picture-perfect shot is not as easy as pointing a camera at a subject and hoping magic happens.

“Good photos incorporate all the elements: background, foreground and subject,” Sergeant Hessel said.

However, the seasoned photographer says the single-most critical component of a good photo is the emotion caught in the image.

“A good photograph gives some insight into someone’s life and personality,” he said. “You almost have to be a part of the situation — to feel what they’re feeling.

“I empathize with my subjects,” Sergeant Hessel said.

Sergeant Hessel said he finds it easy to capture emotions when photographing the local Bedouin — nomadic Arabs of the Arabian, Syrian or North African deserts — population here, who often do not have basic necessities or the money to buy diapers or shoes for their children.

He is not alone.

“It’s heartaching to see kids run, sometimes barefooted over rocks and dirt, in weather that would be unbearable (100 to 130 degrees) to most, hoping that they’ll get some water or food thrown at them,” Airman Shultz said.

The photographers have to strike a delicate balance: Remain an objective observer to history in the making, yet act as a conduit of emotion to portray humanity occurring.

“You have a split second to take a picture,” Sergeant Hessel said. “If you pause to take the photo on either end of that moment, you lost the photo.”

Their photographs are not just to adorn walls for aesthetic reasons. They can also affect the shape of Airmen’s work environment.

“The battlefield commanders and the secretary of defense use our imagery as a decision-making tool for critical operational assessment,” Sergeant Hessel said.

Safety and criminal investigators also use their photos to solve criminal cases or assess safety mishaps.

“One day you may be documenting a fatality, the next day you’re documenting an awards ceremony,” Sergeant Hessel said. “The job goes from one extreme to the next.”

It is a dynamic mission that many individuals do not realize photographers perform.

Documenting Airmen and the mission is a privilege and responsibility Sergeant Hessel said he does not take lightly.

“It’s pretty cool that my images will outlive me and my children,” he said. “Imagine what history books would be like without pictures.”


Melissa LeGates freelance writer
Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at 1-541-995-0015 or e-mail