March 20, 2015

Meta of the Military Photography Awards: You’re Either Flying High or Laid Low

Stars and Stripes is America’s military newspaper. It is a “service” of the US DoD Defense Media Activity, and if you read the fine print you learn that the publication provides “objective staff-produced stories relevant to the military community in a balanced, fair, and accurate manner.” Sound familiar?

A context of fair and balanced objectivity adds a provocative twist to photographs selected by Stars and Stripes for its 2014 Military Photographer of the Year awards. Coming in at first place in the News category, this photograph by Larry E. Reid, Jr. shows Air Force Academy graduates reacting to “the return of the Thunderbirds.” Part news photograph and part civic propaganda, this laudatory scene sends a clear signal to military and non-military audiences alike. By positioning us as viewers in the middle of a mass rite of passage, the photograph ensures that we are all cadets now. And by setting our sights on things above, an ostensibly documentary photograph gets us feeling a bit of what it means to celebrate the glory of American firepower. Stars and Stripes gets to send the message that when it comes to rewarding visual narratives about life in the military, clear blue skies get the big blue ribbon.

And so, considering the sheer optimism and all the hoop and holler of winning first place, Stars and Stripes’ pick for second place works as a major reality check.

Working at the far other end of the emotional spectrum, this photograph by Eric R. Dietrich shows the isolation of a yet another military rite of passage. Where the Air Force Academy photo is mostly fun in the sun for everyone, this second image shows how the harsh reality of military service can be experienced in painful isolation.

In this way two picks for first and second place set up a squeaky clean binary between happy and sad, up and down, winners and losers, and so we might be looking at evidence of how Stars and Stripes use polar oppositions to construct its version of a balanced narrative. But the two poles leave out everything in between, of course, and while these two photographs aren’t the only ones recognized as award winners, their place at the top does offer some insight into a limited range of human experience valorized by Stars and Stripes: You’re either soaring high above the clouds with your comrades or you’re honoring the fallen who have had to put their boots on the ground. Everything else is just runner-up.

-Philip Perdue

(photo: Larry E. Reid Jr./U.S. Air Force. caption: The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly the Delta formation over Falcon Stadium during the U.S. Air Force Academy Graduation Ceremony, May 28, 2014. The flyover marks the return of the Thunderbirds to Colorado Springs since sequestration last year. photo: Eric R. Dietrich/US Navy. caption: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Tiffany Robinson, assigned to 449th Air Expeditionary Group, kneels in front of a battlefield cross following a Memorial Day ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, May 26, 2014. The cross was created with combat gear representing each of the five U.S. military branches, in commemoration of fallen service members.).

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Philip Perdue
See other posts by Philip here.

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