Army photographer describes life as a combat photographer in South Korea
When Private First Class Ethan T. Ford first thought about joining the military, he immediately had his hopes set on being a combat photographer.
"Joining the military has given me a lot of options and I've done a lot of things I would have never had the option to do before. I wouldn't have traveled to Korea, cover historical events, or be in a movie," Ford said.
As a 25V Combat documentation/production specialist, Ford is his unit's official videographer, tasked with shooting and editing footage and capturing every moment of garrison operations.
Like all soldiers, Army photographers get trained on basic combat skills and learn how to operate weapons, expertly engage in hand-to-hand combat and administer basic first-aid.
But being an Army photographer requires dedication and resilience. When the rest of the unit goes home or finishes the mission, the Army photographers get to work to upload their photos and videos and create products for the historical record.
When his friends in Oregon ask him what it's like to be in the Army, he says he gives them the honest truth.
"Being in the Army is not hard, at times it can be mentally draining, but anyone who is physically capable can do it."
This is not a typical assignment, according to his supervisor, Staff. Sgt. Pedro Santos, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Yongsan Visual Information Support Center.
His team is made up of creative types who strive on challenges.
Army photographers have to be able to quickly react to any situation in any environment. You have to make sure you're ready and that your equipment is in good shape and your batteries are charged.
Between assignments, the soldiers are back in the office learning new skills, teaching each other new tips and critiquing each other.
Other parts of the job include handshake photos and designing PowerPoint slides, which isn't the most inspiring for the truly passionate photographers like Ford, but meeting expectations is important.
One of the advantages to enlisting as a combat photographer, according to Santos, is that the experience and education you gain is unmatched.
"When it comes to someone who is passionate about something and they want to pursue that in the military as well I sometimes you get lucky and you get someone like Ford who is passionate about it," Santos said.
Santos encourages his team to speak to the customer, usually a senior leader like a first sergeant or commander and find out what their goals are, what type of video or photography they would like and then you have to be creative and find out what kind of angles you are going to take the shot from and how you are going to prepare for it.
Some assignments can take up to one month of preparation and rehearsal.
"One thing you can't really reach combat photographers is post editing, from my experience, you can take an amazing photo and be done with it, but when someone takes the time to perfect their work, it is impressive and it shows," Santos said.
"You are in a great area, one of the biggest cities in the world. There is inspiration everywhere."
On weekends, Ford goes out on his own on the weekend and practices different techniques and works on improving his craft. His favorite style of photography is capturing candid moments and doing street photography.
One of the highlights of his tour in South Korea was a special assignment last October when Ford witnessed history in the making and was the only photographer allowed in a meeting between North Koreans and South Koreans in the blue building at the Joint Security Area. The event was one of the first steps in a negotiation that is expected to result in officially ending the war between the two countries.
Outside of photography, Ford is a movie buff. He loves war movies and his favorite movies include Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Hacksaw Ridge to name a few.
Earlier this year, Ford got to skip his normal routine of morning physical training, chow and VISC photography duties and was granted a two-day pass to play a movie extra in a Korean War film set in 1950 with actors Megan Fox and George Eads.
"Playing a movie extra was a lot like being in the military," Ford said, "It was a hurry up and wait situation. It took several hours to drive there and several more to get dressed."
One of the best parts of the experience was getting one-on-one acting advice and mentorship from actor George Eads, who plays MacGyver on TV.
Although the Department of Defense does not keep track of the numbers of service members who appear in television and film projects, there are many opportunities to play extras in movies because It is it is incredibly difficult for civilian actors to realistically portray the discipline of the U.S. warfighter without having served, according to Brian Chung, a military advisor to big Korean production studios in Seoul and in Los Angeles.
In fact, 90 percent of DOD-supported projects, including documentaries and reality television programs are unscripted, according to Master Sgt. Adora Gonzalez, a U.S. Army Film and TV Entertainment Liaison in Los Angeles.
"All service members have been trained since basic training to stand, walk and talk a certain way on duty," Chung said.
Chung is a former U.S. Army Captain and was previously stationed in Yongsan as a military police company commander.
He understands how challenging it can be for Soldiers stationed in Korea to be working long hours while displaced into a new culture, which is why he reached out to leaders at United States Forces Korea to get approval for the Soldiers to be part of the movie.
"It was personally satisfying as a U.S. Army Veteran of Korean decent, to honor the warriors of the Korean War with authentic portrayals that could only have been achieved by their successors serving on the same peninsula that they sacrificed so much to protect. Seeing the look of excitement on the young troops' faces as they hustled around set from wardrobe, to the make up chair, to an authentic 1950's set was an amazing icing on the cake," Chung said.
The movie will be released around the same time that his tour ends in June, when he will report to duty at his new assignment at Fort Meade, Maryland.
"I'm going to miss going out and eating in Itaewon, especially the fried chicken and ramen," Ford said. "It's some of the best food I've ever had in my life. You won't find anything like it in the U.S."
After his time in the Army, Ford plans on taking more advanced courses and going back to Oregon and becoming a professional photographer.
"The Army is what you make of it. You can make it be miserable or make it be the best time of your life," Ford said.
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