Overseas deployments showcases cultural differences through a camera lens

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Courtney Witt
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Photographs offer us a brief but powerful glimpse into a moment. If photographers are somewhat adept and extremely lucky, they can communicate every emotion of the human experience through a camera lens.

The Air Force trained me and provided the tools I need to excel as a military photographer. The military has also given me opportunities to see the world in a way few others will experience.

It's an extraordinary honor to possess the skill and have the opportunity to capture these moments.

My first deployment took me to Baghdad, Iraq, for four months escorting Iraqis contracted to work on a military base. Each day, I spent countless hours watching the local nationals clean and build up the small base the deployed servicemembers called home.

While I didn't deploy as a photographer, standing guard, I often wondered about the life the locals lived. Although I never experienced how they lived first-hand, they shared stories about their lives with me. Most were too proud to discuss their adversities but you could see in their eyes the hardships they faced.

I never visited any of the villages in Iraq -- the deployment left me with one burning question, what was life really like in the heart of the Baghdad?

In October 2010, the Air Force gave me another opportunity for travel, this time in Afghanistan.

Four months after returning from Iraq, I left for a nine month deployment to Ghazni, Afghanistan, as a member of a provincial reconstruction team. PRTs are the primary civil-military relations tool that help enhance the legitimacy of the central government, improve security and facilitate reconstruction in the provinces of Afghanistan.

I was excited because it meant I'd experience first-hand a culture that's been around for thousands of years but one that's new to me. It was my opportunity to learn about their lives and I could share that experience through the lens of my camera.

When talking with friends and family about Afghanistan their thoughts often invoke images of war and violence. Public news often depicts the negative aspects of war rather than the positives such as the perseverance of the Afghan families in an environment Americans consider harsh. But as I found myself traveling the dirt roads of Ghazni, I saw children laughing and playing, men harvesting and women tending to laundry.

I wanted to take war out of my photos and make them more personal. I wanted to share the smiles, interactions, families all the things you'd expect to see in any complex culture.

Our PRT had 80 individuals from the U.S. Army, Navy and the Air Force. Even though we were from all sorts of backgrounds, we came together as a family. While traveling with the PRT, I had plenty of time to photograph the Afghan people.

While on a patrol with the PRT visiting the Mausoleum of Abdul Razzaq, a museum built in the 16th Century showcasing the Islamic art and history for Ghanzi, I noticed a group of children climbing and exploring around an abandoned, rusted steel frame alongside the unpaved street.

Most neighborhoods in the U.S. have playgrounds, however these children were playing around a trash heap coated with brown sand that the wind carries across most of the country. In among the tan and brown that dominates the Afghan landscape I spotted a flash of brilliant pink; my eyes were captivated.

I quickly realized a boy covered in dirt was wearing bright pink and white shoes.

Afghans don't share the Western perspective of colors that permeate American fashion, and even if they cared, poverty and the need for clothing far outweighs any prejudice or debate about the femininity of the color pink.

The children temporarily halted their activities to observe the soldiers on the PRT as we passed by.
I always wondered if the children believed we were really there to help their country or whether they thought we were destroying their country and way of life.

From that moment on I made it my mission to find that answer through photos.

As our presence in the province grew so did our relations with the people. Children who at first timidly peaked around corners until we departed quickly rushed up to greet the troops and share gifts. Men who once turned their back on me now shared laughs in the middle of the bazaar. Women who hid behind their husbands now were brave to stand alone and offer tea as we entered their village.

Every day was a new breakthrough to bring our two cultures closer together, and every day I captured those moments.

Dale Carnegie, a public speaker, once said, "your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw ... feel what you felt."

I hope I accomplished that.