by Shannon Keogh
November 24, 2004
Shannon Keogh did this interview with a young soldier home on leave from Iraq who does photography in the desert--not combat photography, but photos of the daily scene at her base camp and elsewhere. She has a website on mnartists.org
I sat down with Shannon Bates, a 21-year-old soldier (and photographer) based in Iraq, while she was back in town on leave. While staving off boredom in the army base shack where she works as a switch operator, Shannon has gotten involved with mnartists.org. She has received some positive attention from the photographs sheís posted on her mnartists web page, including an admiring request for a print. She has also started a photo exchange with another Minnesota photographer; they give each other themes to focus on in their respective environments. What follows is an excerpt from a conversation I had with Shannon, about a week before she returned to her base, 30 miles north of Tikrit.
Did you grow up in Minnesota?
Rockin in the Desert
Rockin in the Desert
Bombed Out Palace
Bombed Out Palace
In Andover, and near Coon Lake. Only two places Iíve ever really lived.
I guess going into the military changed all that.
Yeah, got me to South Carolina, then Georgia, then GermanyÖI did traveling before I was in the army, I went to Canada and Mexico. I wish I could dig up those pictures from Mexico Ė I took some cool ones of the ruins.
How did you decide to enter the military?
I didnít have any money for college, and my parents were having a fit trying to figure out how they were going to do it. I just decided it wasnít their problem, it was mine. Decided to do it on my own.
What do you do in the army? Whatís your job?
Iím a phone switch operator; I work in a small extension. We donít get as much credit as the node centers do, theyíre the hub, and they get all the credit for being important.
How did you get interested in photography?
Itís just something that Iíve always really liked. I got this camera while I was in Germany. I mean, I travel everywhere, and Iíd never brought a camera anywhere, so half of the really awesome places Iíve been to I donít even have picture of. I would buy postcards and stuff and think, well, I can do better than that!
When we were in Kuwait, I was showing my section sergeant some of my pictures, and he was like, ĎYouíre really good, youíre really talented,í and he tried to throw me the little hitch to reenlist, like Ė ďYou should do this for the army.Ē And then somebody from our orderly room Ė they have to take pictures of the commander doing ceremonies and stuff Ė he was like, ďYou should follow the commander around, youíre much better than I am.Ē It took a little encouragement from them, and I got to thinking, ďHey, they say Iíve got a natural eye, maybe I do have something here!Ē
Do you have any formal training? Have you taken photography classes?
I havenít taken any
photography classes. I was in a photography class in high school. At my school, there was one photography teacher who was really good, who was all about the creative process, and there was another one who was all about the technical processing, and was very strict and kind of took the fun out of it. I ended up getting in his class, and it was boring and painful to sit through the first day, so I went back to my counselor and dropped it. I mean, art, it canít be stifled like that Ė you gotta have more freedom to it than, (adopting a strict voice) ďThis one has a smudge on it!Ē Yeah, well, maybe I like the smudge, leave it alone. Itís blurry Ė well, that gives it a different effect.
Why did you decide to start taking pictures in Iraq?
It was actually my section sergeant who got me really into it. He was like, ďMaybe you can sell them to newspapers, or put together a photo journal of your trip to Iraq, maybe make a book out of it.Ē He was giving me all these great ideas about it, getting me really pumped up. I was like, yeah, letís do this!
Sometimes you need the encouragement of someone else to get going on a project.
Thatís what it was! Somebody to tell you, you know, youíre good Ė what are you sitting on this for?
Do you have a process for taking your photos? Do you go out looking for great images?
Sometimes I just take snapshots of the guys, just laying around and stuff. But like, with the pigeon one (see Shannonís web page), it was right in front of my little shack that we work in. I was sitting outside, haviní a smoke, and that pigeon was sitting on the wheelbarrow, and he was silhouetted just perfectly. He was inside of this concrete shelter thing Ė itís for when we get incoming, you know, youíre supposed to go hide in them, but nobody really does Ė it had him shadowed so perfect, and the light behind himÖI just sat there and watched him. I was like, you are too cool! He was sick and dying, Iím pretty sure later he just crawled somewhere peaceful and died. He looks really rough in that picture. And he was just so docile, and didnít give a care that I was even there. I kept inching closer and closer, because I didnít want to scare him and have him fly away, but I walked around to the other side of him and took a couple pictures that way, and it had a whole different effect, because the lighting was different and he looks so different from each side, depending on where the shadows are. I took about twelve of him.
How do you decide what to shoot or not shoot?
Like I was saying, I was just watching him [the bird] and he just struck me as so beautiful, so interesting, and I just couldnít pass him up. Thereís a shot that I still havenít got thatís so cool Ė itís right by our node center, which is where all the bigwigs are. There are three or four tents that are there, that have probably been there since we first got in country. And the wind and the weather and everything have gotten to them, and thereís nobody in them, so theyíre just falling down and tearing and when the wind goes through them, it looks so cool! I want to get there, maybe at nighttime, because theyíre white. I want to get there as the sunís going down, see if maybe I can get reflections off the sun on themÖeven in the middle of the day they look so cool Ė raggedy and worn.
Where in Iraq are you stationed?
Iím on the Tikrit North Airfield. Itís an FOB Ė a fort operating base. Itís about thirty minutes north of Tikrit where we have Camp Danger, thatís the palace complex. Iíve got pictures of that, too. I got a cool one of Sadaamís bombed-out palace.
Can you describe a typical day for you in Iraq?
Well, I get up, and depending if I want to go run or notÖnormally itís not up to you, you gotta get up and do PT, which is, like, physical training. Get ready for work, eat breakfast, bring it all back for the guys. Then Iím on day shift, and the first thing I do is read all my emails, make sure the family knows Iím still alive, still kicking. The rest of the day you just kind of sit around until something breaks, perform maintenance on the trucks, or on the switch, go find this or that supply, and thatís kind of like a goose chase sometimes. I have fun doing it, it gives me time to socialize, get out of the shack before you drive yourself crazy. And the boring days, when thereís nothing going on, and thereís a wind storm outside and you donít even want to go outside and smoke, and itís uglyÖ
I have fun when it rains. Itís so amazing. We hadnít seen rain since we got there. Itís just starting to rain again. Iíll turn on the mnartists.org, and Iíll look through all the different artists, Iíll read all the forums. I started posting more in there, it keeps me busy. End of the day, youíve gotta chill the generator, make sure everythingís cleaned up for shift change, then go home and chill out, go to bed at nine or 10 oíclock, fall asleep to a movie. Itís pretty cush, I canít lean on thatís itís too rough. Weíre luckier than most Ė most people live in bay styles Ė you know, bed after bed after bed Ė not very much privacy. This is the biggest room Iíve ever lived in, weíve got a six person house, weíve got a double wide trailer type thing, itís all wood, itís not even a trailer. Everybody has their own room.
What do you get personally from taking your photos?
Oh, I just like hearing peopleís reactions out of them. Itís satisfying. Some people Ė like my team chief, heís a little bit of an art connoisseur Ė heís into, like, Salvador Dali, stuff like that Ė heís just like, [adopting a ďdudeĒ voice] ďIím into art, but I donít see why youíre taking a picture of a pigeon. . .Ē
What do you hope that your project will show or convey to other people?
I like to show a different side to the war. ĎCause all you really see is Ė bombs here, soldiers running around invading places there Ė and I mean, thereís a whole different aspect to it. Itís not just what the news shows. All they show is three soldiers died here, five died in a car bombing, Iraqi police station attacked, ten soldiers wounded Ė itís a lot different than that. Itís not as rough as it sounds, Ďcause all the news in interested in is body counts.
Thereís a lot more there. We had pet kittens for a little while. I just loved taking pictures of them. One of the guys got a picture of one climbing in his Kevlar helmet. We had to get rid of them because the commanders think that carry disease. I had a vet look at them who said theyíre the cleanest strays heís ever seen. I just think they needed a little love.
Do you have any specific goals in mind when youíre taking your pictures?
I just like to get things from a different perspective that other people donít see. Like with that sunset (see Shannonís web page) Ė anybody can take a picture of a sunset, but to get it lined up perfectly, with that tree silhouettedÖ I just try every different angle I can think of, Ďcause it creates such a different perspective. The lighting just changes so much from one angle to another.
I donít like altering my pictures at all. I just like them being how they are. I know you can touch anything up, but I think itís so much better to see the original. Like with the gladiator one that I have, I was trying to be patient and wait until all the tourists were out of the way, but that was never gonna happen at the Coliseum in Rome. After looking at it so long, I realized that I kind of liked it Ė because it looked so old with the carriage and the Coliseum and the gladiator guy Ė and then these normal people are in the background. It kind of made it a little bit surreal, kind of different.
When I looked at your photos on mnartists.org, I was struck by the beauty youíre able to convey out of sometimes bleak surroundings, by the way you use contrast in your images. What youíre doing isnít what I think some people might expect from a soldier in Iraq. I mean, itís not like your doing photojournalism, trying to present the gritty reality of your day-to-day lifeÖ
Thereís not really any gritty day-to-day reality [for me] except for like, sandstorms and stuff. Iím still afraid to take the camera out because I donít want the lens to get scratched. Iíve got a few pictures from when some insurgents blew up an oil reserve Ė it was flaming forever. It was illuminating the cloudsÖthose things burn for days. I guess that is part of the grim reality that we do see. And we get rockets and mortars and stuff like that, you usually donít see them. You feel the thud first, and then they explode a couple seconds later. Theyíre pretty loud, and sometimes they shake you up pretty good.
Usually the control blasts, like the ones they confiscate, the roadside bombs they find and bring them in and explode them in a designated safe, controlled space Ė or sometimes they arenít able to extract one, and they have to blow them up where they areÖthose are usually scarier and louder than the real ones! Most of the real ones donít even explode, nor do they hit anything. Weíre on such a big base (about 25 square kilometers) and everything is so spread out. To get from our corner to the other Ė itís a U, thereís an air strip in the middle Ė it takes like 45 minutes to get there, and another 45 to get back. Itís like your own little town. If we get a mortar or a rocket that comes in, itís pretty well guaranteed to land in the middle of a field. You donít really feel that threatened by it.
You donít feel a constant threat on your baseÖ
No, itís not like that. Itís like, what am I going to do to keep from being bored today? Thatís more what it is. Itís a struggle against boredom. Itíll drive you nuts out there. Photography is a good way to not drive myself crazy.
How has your experience in the military influenced your thoughts about photography, or what you want to do with it?
I donít want to do the military for the rest of my life, I could do communications, [Shannon has applied for a White House job working on their communications system] that part doesnít drive me nuts Ė the military part does. But Iím really satisfied by photography, I like it Ė I love it Ė it keeps me stimulated, it keeps me excited about the next good one Iím gonna get.
Have you had any defining experiences in the military?
Well, you know those sad Sally Struthers commercials, and you see all these poor, dirty little shoeless children? And you donít really think that itís real. I mean, it never feels real. You think, ĎOh, thatís on the other side of the world, some third world dirthole.í Itís different when youíre there and you see them. I mean, when you roll out the gate and you have to go through a little town area, children will cover the streets. Which is usually a good thing (for us) because it means theyíre not going to blow up their own people Ė if you go through a crowded town and thereís no one there, you can be nervous. And you see these dirty little shoeless, cute kids running through broken glass and garbage, just running after the big green trucks because theyíre so excited that they might get candy or something.
And youíre not supposed to do that, because they donít want all of these kids up by your truck, because itís seen as a threat. Before we knew about the threat, the kids would walk right up to your truck and stick their heads inside, screaming ĎPepsi, please! Pepsi, please!í Itís sad that their kids have to beg for food.
How is taking photos in Iraq different than taking photos elsewhere?
ĎCause itís things that most people will never see. I mean, anyone can take a trip to Rome, anybody can go to London, anybody can go to Germany, Washington D.CÖ.but not very many people get the opportunity to go to Iraq, to see what itís really like.
Are you going back to Iraq?
Yes, until February.
Is there anything else you want people to know about you or your photographs?
When mnartists.org sent me the idea about featuring me as ďan artist in IraqĒ Ė I mean, Iím an artist anywhere I go! Itís not just an Iraq thing. Anywhere I go, my camera goes. I mean, I thought it was an interesting theme. Itís not all of my art, though. I do other stuff. Anywhere I can go, Iíll take pictures.
You want to keep pursuing your artÖ
If I can make a career out of it, great. That would be wonderful, but I donít want to be stuck taking pictures of, like, kids school pictures. I want to be able to take pictures of stuff I like. National Geographic would be the ultimate; you have to be good for that. Even advertisements, as long as I could be creative.