For the past two years, New York-based freelance photojournalist Sebastiano Tomada has been embedding himself with the US Army and US Marine Corps in Afghanistan. Last year, Sebastiano met freelance journalist Brian Mockenhaupt. The two hit it off, Brian remarking how much he loved Sebastiano’s images, and asked if he’d be interested in collaborating on an assignment together. Sebastiano agreed and the two began working together—Brian writing and Sebastiano shooting. After working on several assignments together, Brian was asked by Reader’s Digest to write a military story for them. The editors were looking for a photographer as well, so Sebastiano came on board and soon they were both headed back to Afghanistan to capture the daily lives of military chaplains.
According to Sebastiano, the parameters of the project were typical of his normal documentary assignments. The sole direction given was to capture the chaplains and the environment they worked in. The only difference was the delicate subject matter.
it would have been impossible to give any more direction because the situation and the hospital were both very unpredictable.”– Sebastiano Tomada
Gaining access to a military hospital in Afghanistan is quite difficult, but after years of embedding with the military, Sebastiano knew what would be required to proceed,
In order to get accepted to a military base hospital in a country at war is not easy. Embedding with Coalition Forces is not easy as well and you have to go thru the US Army Media Embed Office and process your request thru a Public Affair Officer. In this case, Reader’s Digest had to write a letter of intent explaining the details of the assignment, the formatting of the story, etc. It was just like embedding and the fact that I had been thru the process before made it a bit easier. Media is controlled in war zones and the reason you have to go thru the Media Embed Office is so they can verify your background and make sure you are not entering a hospital with the specific intent of trying to find some negative news.
Once inside the hospital, Sebastiano and Brian had just one day to gather enough material to portray the chaplains’ stories accurately. This made Sebastiano’s main challenge being able to gain his subject’s trust and respect—something quite difficult in such a limited amount of time. Sebastiano explains,
I ended up using my camera only half of the time I was there. I needed to know them better and let them to know who I was. It was, and always is, important to create a two-way conversation in order to relax your subject, and to some extent, have him or her somehow forget that you’re beside them with a camera. The environment added to the challenge—it was not an easy one to shoot in. Taking pictures as well as footage of the emergency room where emotions run high was a delicate thing to capture. One wrong move, too close or too far, and I could have lost my assignment or embed. In the end I took my time, made sure everyone knew who I was and why I was there, and just shot my pictures.
The day went by quickly, with Sebastiano working hard to capture delicate moments effectively. To him, one photo from the assignment stands out from the rest,
My favorite shot is the one of Chaplain Sholtes sitting on a medical bed in the emergency room. He was very tired after a long day of work. I felt like it told his story perfectly.
Sebastiano was also able shoot some video while at the hospital, which Reader’s Digest happily used on the iPad version of their publication. Their photo editor was very happy with the outcome of the shoot and the visuals accompanied Brian’s story perfectly.