Robert Cunningham has made four trips to Afghanistan, been involved in more than 140 combat missions and met countless soldiers, but he is not a serviceman; he is a photographer.
Cunningham, who visited the Baltimore Camera Club last month, joined forces with Steve Hartov, an ex-Israeli paratrooper, novelist and military journalist, to create “Afghanistan: On The Bounce.”
The book takes the best photos from Cunningham’s time as an embedded photographer in the military to give the public an in-depth look at what soldiers in Afghanistan experience on a day-to-day basis.
“I attempted to join the military right after high school, but due to fibromyalgia (a musculoskeletal disorder), I was permanently disqualified,” said Cunningham. “I was frustrated that [the United States was] in a war and I was stuck at home.”
Cunningham, 31, was given the idea of embedding as a civilian photographer after expressing his frustrations to friends who had served in Afghanistan. But before ever setting foot there, Cunningham realized that many civilians, himself included, didn’t have a real understanding of what it is like to be a soldier serving in the Middle East. This lack of understanding became the impetus for creating a book.
Hartov, who has served in both the American and Israeli military, said the book “has become a calling card of veterans who buy it and hand it to their families. They tell them, ‘This will tell you what I went through more than I can say myself.’”
“[The book is] to show to families and friends what [a veteran’s] day-to-day life really is like, so there could be a better understanding,” said Cunningham, who believes many suicides by veterans are due, in part, to “the lack of communication
between service members and civilians.”
“People think of combat photographers as taking pictures of explosions, shooting and shells flying,” said Hartov, who also has been an embedded photographer. “What I think about mostly are not the moments of terror, but the moments in between. I’m looking for fatigue, stress and those quiet times where soldiers seek to take themselves out of the combat zone.”
Although Cunningham and Hartov made it a point not to have combat become the book’s central theme, Cunningham said he received comments from some veterans that the small amount that was included was still too much.
Then there’s the trust factor.
“It’s interesting because I have been on both sides of the camera. When a photographer shows up, the first reaction is distrust,” said Hartov. “The culture has completely changed since the days of World War II, when combat photographers were respected by soldiers and they were there to convey the message.”
As a photographer, Hartov, who is a major in the New York Guard — a state volunteer force, said his career in the military plays a huge role in building a rapport with the soldiers he is accompanying. But for those who don’t have that advantage, it is a huge challenge to build that trust.
Cunningham admitted that at the start of his time in Afghanistan, there were moments where his own lack of understanding showed.
“When I first arrived in Afghanistan, I had breakfast with my unit’s public affairs officer. He said, ‘We’re going to have a ramp service, and we want your camera there,’” said Cunningham. “When I heard ramp service, I thought soldiers would be receiving medals or awards.”
The officer explained that a ramp service is when the military send one of their fallen home.
“I was standing in the middle of a funeral with a camera, and you can hear the camera. It’s a gut-wrenching feeling and one of the most horrible things I’ve had to photograph. The last thing I did in 2011 before leaving was a dual-hero ramp service.”
One of Cunningham’s goals with the book was to not allow politics to influence it.
“Anybody, whether you’re for or against the situation, can read the book and come out with a better understanding of what’s [happening in Afghanistan] without feeling pressured to believe one way or another,” he said.