Ever wondered what goes in the head of a military photojournalist who is about to take snaps in the middle of all the action?
Then meet 40 years old, Matt Hecht of New Jersey.
He is currently assigned to the New Jersey National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters where he is a Master Sgt. Matt has an amazing Instagram account where he shares incredible photos of soldiers, drones, helicopters, fighter-planes and humanitarian works carried by the United State's military.
Who inspired you to join the US military? Did you always dream of becoming a military photojournalist?
Matt: I never really thought about joining the military while I was growing up, but I used to go to my local library to look through old issues of National Geographic, daydreaming about going all over the world taking photos and meeting people. I originally wanted to become a Paleontologist, to study dinosaurs. During my formative years, my father was an Air Force photographer, and I spent many days watching him shoot on film and process in the dark room, which I wish I took the time to appreciate. Watching how and what he shot laid the groundwork for me, and in college I wound up switching from science to a degree in fine art. I didn’t start out doing photography though, I joined the Air Force and spent my first five years in Security Forces, doing military police work. I actually did SWAT and was trained in computer crimes forensics so it gave me a lot of different tactical experiences. At six years I cross-trained into Public Affairs, where I’ve been ever since.
Can you tell us how your training as a new recruit for the US military go by?
Matt: As a new recruit, it goes by really fast. I would say it’s kind of like having kids, the baby phase is over before you know it. Honestly for me it was “grit your teeth and get through this,” and then I brain dumped a lot of those bad experiences. That said, training is never really over, whether it’s learning new procedures or learning new gear.
Are you not scared by the action you witness? If yes, how do you go on doing your job?
Matt: I’ve never really been scared, I think a lot of that has to do with training. It’s so good, that when the real thing happens, it seems more normal. I also have a policy that I’m always willing to assume the same risks as the people I’m covering. It’s something I compartmentalize and put in the background.
How did you feel when you witnessed death for the first time during combat?
Matt: I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t witnessed death in combat right in front of me, but I’ve seen the direct results, folks in body bags, and it’s sad. At the time amongst my peers we were very philosophical about it, about the tragedy and the waste of it.
Can you explain how soldiers work together for missions? What vital lessons have you learnt?
Matt: Being in the military is like being a part of a team or a family. I can’t speak for what other jobs do, but for us we do try to work in pairs when we can, so one person can be shooting photos while the other shoots video or takes notes for a story. We try to play off of people’s strengths, depending on what the day’s mission is going to be.
Why do you think military photography is necessary? Do you believe that it may promote war or glorify it in some way? Have you ever faced prejudices from anti-war activists?
Matt: What I love about military photography is that we offer a transparent view of the services to the American taxpayers, as well as showing off the amazing things that military members do. I hope that my images don’t glorify or promote war, but show the truth in the moment. Some of my favorite military images are actually of humanitarian missions, be it rescuing stranded people from a flooded town, or delivering food to earthquake victims. The military can be a great source for positivity in the world, and most service members I have talked to note humanitarian work as the most memorable.
What goes on in your head when you find a really great subject to capture on your camera? Do you have the choice to click whatever subjects you like or are there any restrictions?
Matt: When I’m shooting, I’m constantly looking at the light. Where is it coming from, where is it going? What I love about photography is that I’m constantly thinking and manoeuvring myself in this 3D environment trying to manage angles to best relay the story visually. The challenges of photography in the military is time. Some things happen so fast you have to be very prepared, so my mind is always on the move, trying to think a few steps ahead. For the things I shoot, I have never really had any restrictions.
When, why and how does the US military decide to share war photographs to the public?
Matt: The military tries to strike a balance with security and release-ability. For the Public Affairs offices documenting training and operational support is an ongoing thing.
Can you tell us about your favourite camera you have ever used? Can you share lessons you have learnt from fellow military photojournalist?
Matt: My favorite camera is actually the one I used in Afghanistan, the Canon 7D. It’s a crop sensor, but the focusing capabilities and ruggedness of that camera are amazing. Paired with the Canon 100-400mm lens I got some cool shots. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned have come from Ken Hackman (The Godfather) http://www.thecrowsneststudio.com/artists/the-works-of-ken-hackman/ken-hackman-cv/ and Chip Maury, http://www.navyfrogmen.com/CombatPhotographer.html They taught me that to tell an honest story I need to know what it is I’m shooting. To shoot with intensity and integrity.
What was the worst situation did you face during combat / photography missions? Have you ever faced a close-death situation?
Matt: I think I’ve had it fairly easy. There were some close hits by mortars and rockets, but I think the most dangerous thing to happen in my military career was a near miss by a surface-to-air missile that was launched at a C-130 Hercules I was in early in the war in Iraq, in 2003. When it happened, the crew told us it exploded about a mile from us, but it wasn’t until we landed and I was talking to the pilots that they informed me of the gravity of the situation, and how a mile wasn’t very far for a miss.
Do you get nightmares? What does the government offer for soldiers who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Matt: I personally have never had nightmares, but the government offers a slew of programs for military members. Veterans Affairs offers help lines, Vet2Vet, and other counseling and therapy services. The key is, military members who are suffering need to be willing to open up and talk about their issues.
Did you ever get in a situation where you broke your camera? If yes, how did it happen?
Matt: Knock on wood, the worst thing I’ve ever done is take out a camera to a shoot and forget to charge the battery!
What is your most favourite photo you have ever captured?
Matt: My most favourite photos are actually the ones I take of my children. I think my favourite ever is a black and white I took of them sleeping, they look so peaceful. There are shots I have taken for my job that I’m proud of on a technical level, some that required lots of planning or luck to pull off, but at the end of the day I know that there isn’t as much value to those images as ones that are personal.
Can you share some important advice for aspiring military photojournalists?
Matt: Be prepared. Be educated in the field. Know how to read a map. Be in shape so you can keep up with Infantry or whoever else you’re with. Shoot a lot. Study photography. Learn history. Follow the light.
How should a military / war photojournalists react to a situation like this: "Click the photo of a dying man or save him"?
Matt: I think for many professional photographers they would say document, but we’re all human beings first, and I personally would put the camera down and render aid to someone who was in trouble.
What is your favourite war movie?
Matt: I actually have two. The first is Full Metal Jacket. While the movie is known for the basic training scenes, the second part in Vietnam is interesting to me because Joker and Rafterman are a combat correspondent and photographer. The second is a more recent movie that I’m in love with, and that is Dunkirk. The music, cinematography, and acting is all top notch.
Of all the missions you have done so far, which did you enjoy the most?
Matt: Of all my experiences, the one that meant the most was the humanitarian work after Hurricane Sandy. Many of the barrier islands in New Jersey were blocked off to civilians, and I spent the day documenting damage and rescue efforts in Long Beach. After a long day, my partner and I got back to the mainland, and stopped at a pizza place. It was crowded with locals, who had been evacuated, so we got our cameras and showed them what we saw. It was a very emotional experience, but they were very grateful to see what their homes and neighborhoods looked like.
You have been to Iraq, Afghanistan. How do they react when they see a US soldier? Are they hostile or friendly?
Matt: My experiences with the locals in both countries was positive. I think each country is very unique, with interesting cultures. I really liked the food in Afghanistan, and I heard great things about the tea in Iraq. One thing that gets lost in the dust of conflict is how beautiful both countries are. I also spent a year in South Korea, and it has many beautiful spots as well.
Can you tell us about your experience when you worked overseas? Can you tell us more about the local people, the nature, the climate and about photos that has stuck deep in your heart?
Matt: Something that sticks with me is the raw beauty of Afghanistan. The mountains were majestic, and there were actually a lot of birds. In my spare time, I would look for birds of prey to take photos of as a hobby. I think people in the U.S. especially have preconceived notions about that part of the world being hot, when in fact the coldest I’ve ever been is Iraq, where I’ve even seen it snow. I’ve been in raging sandstorms that had more wind and lightning than I thought possible.
As far as photos go, I remember other folk’s images – there are some amazing photographers out there, legends in the military photojournalism world: Jeremy Lock, Matthew Callahan, Mike MacLeod, Marianique Santos, Vernon Young, Jordan Castelan, Samuel King, Larry Reid, Michel Sauret, Chris Muncy, Andrew Lee, the list goes on and on with amazing talented shooters I left a bunch of people out for space but they are all way more talented than me!
I also wanted to say that war is a tragedy for everyone. For soldiers on both sides, and for civilians especially. I look forward to the day when we’re all at peace and I can focus all of my time on taking photos of birds