Q&A with Jeremy Lock, seven-time Military Photographer of the Year
posted Friday, April 19, 2013 at 8:15 AM EST
Recently, Air Force Master Sergeant Jeremy T. Lock accomplished something incredible -- he was awarded Military Photographer of the Year for the seventh time. In 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011 and most recently for 2012, MSgt Lock has been recognized as the finest photographer the military has to offer. MSgt Lock was kind enough to have a brief Q&A session with us to discuss his background, how photography has changed in his more than 20 years in the service, and his plans to retire from the Air Force this Fall.
Imaging Resource: I know you've been involved in photography with the Air Force for quite some time. Did you have any background or interest in the field before you joined the military? And what prompted you to join the Air Force in the first place?
Jeremy Lock: I have been in the military for over 21 years now. I first started in the AF as an Imagery Processor. I would develop, process and print film in the dark room from our satellites and U-2 planes. I would also develop and print our photographers' rolls of films after they had been traveling the world. I was stuck in a dark room and I wanted to travel the world like them. I picked up a camera, started teaching myself and had some really great mentors that helped me along. Our career fields merged together (imagery processing and photography) and that's how I started with photography.
I still didn't know much about it at that time. It wasn't until I went to my first workshop at the DoD Worldwide Military Photography Workshop that I saw what you could do with photography. I fell in love! I remember looking at a portfolio critique of one of the Navy's best photojournalists and he was showing a story on a cow slaughter house. I said we can do this? My world has never been the same since.
I joined the Military after college politely asked me to leave and after working construction. I wanted to pick up a trade I could use in the world. I wanted to join as a X-Ray technician. My father was a Lt. Col. in the AF (an aeronautical engineer) and my mom was a nurse practitioner. So I thought the X-Ray technician was the best of both worlds. That didn't happen, I was given Imagery Processor. Best lucky thing that has ever happened to me. I never had any interest in photography before I joined.
IR: We're very curious what sort of gear you use on assignment. Is it different for different jobs? What's your typical set of gear for shooting in a combat zone, or other incredibly tricky situation?
JL: As far as gear, I am not a real technical kind of guy. And I try and mentor others not to get wrapped up in the gear. Pulitzer winners have been taken from point-and-shoot cameras. I use Nikon because that is what we are issued. However, I have fallen in love with their gear and have and will rely on it. I have put their gear through hell, and it is always there ready and working for me to use.
Whenever I am on assignment, whether its in war or on a local shoot, I carry two cameras, one with a long lens and the other with a wide. And I will have usually a 50mm lens in my pocket. I pride myself with carrying as little as possible to get the job done. I usually have a very small backpack that I carry all this in with some other gear. I always have a recorder for sound, lots of extra batteries and film cards. One of the others that is a must in my backpack is a small 6-inch tripod I use for stabilizing my camera for low-light situations. If I am producing video I will also carry a tripod. I just returned from a personal shoot in India using my D800 and am blown away with the quality.
The only difference in the gear I carry in the war zone is that I also at all times have body armor and a helmet on. I also wear a shooting vest I pack with first aid supplies, maybe a snack or two, and water. I also pack my shooting vest with all my lenses, batteries and film cards. I don't carry a backpack unless it is for supplies on multiple-day trips. And I do carry a weapon. I usually only care a 9mm pistol, not a rifle. I feel the rifle gets in my way of performing my job of documenting our brave men and women over there doing their job. I feel, even though I am a combatant, my job isn't to fight unless the team I am with is in a really bad situation. In that case there will be weapons I can pick up and use. This has happened, but thankfully I have never had to fire back.
IR: Your photography is absolutely incredible, and has obviously received wide acclaim -- most notably your frequent receiving of the MPOY awards. What do you think it is that sets yourself apart from other photographers?
JL: I don't really think or see myself as set apart from other photographers. I just love what I do and I love trying to take risks and push my boundaries, to make myself a little uncomfortable to become better with every shoot. I am always talking with and collaborating with my mentors on how to best tell the story and make that difference in my subject's story.
IR: Given that you've been photographing for so long, how has the field changed since your early days? What's it like shooting digital instead of film in these incredibly difficult and dangerous situations? I can only imagine not having to swap out film rolls is a boon.
JL: I started out on a Nikon F3 and soon after that we went digital. The plus of digital is the instant gratification on the back of the camera to see if you nailed the shot, and the way we can now send a picture around the world right after taking the shot. Also, we can now shoot two platforms (photo and video) in one camera with amazing quality. The quality in these cameras now a days is in my opinion just as good as film. In some of the locations I go, the environment is not good, so switching in and out film or lenses will hurt the camera and takes time.
IR: How do you see your work as different from that of an independent photojournalist? Do you ever feel constrained in what you can or can't cover because of your position in the military?
JL: I don't see my work as different from that of an independent photojournalist. I still uphold myself and other military photojournalists to the same high standards and ethics as the civilian industry. I tell -- photograph -- the truth. I don't ever really feel constrained, I try and make my destiny and not wait around to be told. I would say about 80% of all the jobs I shoot are my stories and ideas that I make sure fall in line with the military and what they are looking for. I am much happier and do a better job if I am shooting something that I want to shoot.
We, like the civilian media, still have to shoot our pet-of-the-week kind of stories. For an example, we have to shoot change-of-command ceremonies. Well the ceremony is about an hour long. I know they are looking for one to two shots that will literally take me two minutes to shoot. I have to be there for the hour, so I just play and see what kind of neat things I can get myself into. Then I bring it back and say here are your coverage shots of the event, but look at these others as well. I try to always remember where I have come from and never am I below any shoot. Even group photos can lead to some amazing stories.
As for the war zone, you have to constantly prove yourself. I am an AF guy who's knocking on the Marines and Army's doors to go out with them. I have to prove I am an asset, not someone they have to babysit. That's where my training from Combat Camera comes in handy. We are trained in everything from first aid, vehicle driving, multiple weapons, patrols, house to house searches, etc. Usually after proving yourself, these guys are coming back to you saying "Oh you should go out with us tomorrow" or "Man, you missed it today."
IR: Once you retire from the Air Force, would you consider going into the private sector yourself?
JL: I am planning on retiring from the AF sometime this fall. It was such a hard decision for me, but the right one. My veins pump with our military, I have been so proud to be a part of our great military and have had the extreme honor of covering those brave men and women doing their job. Nobody likes war and it's a horrific thing, but I feel truly blessed to show the stories of what our military goes through to keep us all safe.
As far as what I will do after the military? That's the million dollar question. I want to be happy doing what I love, spending time with my sons and shooting pictures.
You can learn more about MSgt Jeremy Lock at his website, as well as by reading a recent profile on him at the Washington Times. We'd just like to give a huge thanks to him not just for talking to us, but also for his service to the United States. You can also take a look at a selection of his stunning photos below.