Guest Blog: Veterans Portrait Series by Mickey Strand
My name is Mickey Strand, I am a US Navy Combat Photographer Veteran. I served for 24 years, retiring in San Diego in 2009. I am a professional photographer, involved in many projects, the number is dependent on my ADD.
Currently, I am photographing members of America’s Greatest Generation, The Veterans of World War II. Collecting stories, memories, and images for future generations from these heroes who signed the dotted line on a check that could have included their life if called upon.
The project started as a suggestion from a mentor that I should work on my studio portrait lighting by shooting one portrait a month. He suggested I find a subject I was interested in, that it would grant “buy-in” of the work, find something or someone you want to photograph and you’ll work harder on it. This self-assignment started two portrait projects, the Veterans Portrait Series taking on the bulk of my attention.
I was inspired by other Veteran photographers who were shooting Veterans, collecting their images telling these stories, but saying “I want to shoot Veterans”, is like saying you want to learn about photography. I narrowed it down with a concentration on America’s Greatest Generation.
Most WW2 Veterans came home from the war and zipped their stores and experiences deep-down and went on to rebuilding America in our post-war recovery and reconstruction. They got jobs, got married, raised families, and eventually retired. The war was a lifetime away in most of their experiences.
These Vets are now at the age some, are ready to share their stories before it is too late, and some just like someone to visit with for an hour and that’s good time spent as well.
I first photographed 17, WW2 Veterans at a Senior living facility in my neighborhood (seriously it’s like 5 blocks down the street). I made appointments for 30 min, giving time for an interview and some portraits of each Veteran. Sometimes the Veteran brought a photo or album of images from their time in the service. We shared stories and sometimes included their memorabilia in their portrait.
It was very rewarding to try and recreate a pose (now and then) from a Bootcamp photo from 70+ years ago. One Air Force Major even showed up in his service dress blues. He still looked amazing, and it was a joy to capture this Hero in full dress with a smile no-one had seen in years. I was also introduced to a married couple that both served, her a nurse, him an engineer, on active duty during the war. We were able to create a couple’s photo of them with their images in the show.
I selected just the right portrait, converting them to Black & White for this project. Black & White brings some weight and seniority to the prints and the project. I printed 16×20’s for each portrait on my Epson P800, framing the 18 selected images. We installed the show at the home for Veterans Day 2017 and I was even invited to speak at the open house.
This inspired me to continue working on the Veterans Portrait Series. Within months I discovered California has Veterans Homes supported by the state and the Veterans community all over California. One of these is located in Chula Vista, California (again in my neighborhood under 10 miles away) which has a few hundred Veteran residents including some 50 WW2 vets.
I wrote a project introduction and proposal letter and delivered it to the life enrichment program coordinator. A few meetings later we worked out 3 days of shooting and send letters to the family of the vets to ask permission to include their loved one in the project. We explained my project and that each participant would receive a free 8×10 print as a thank you for spending time telling me their story and letting me take their portrait.
There were 25 that responded and I was able to complete portraits and stories for each. The home found a few dollars and bought frames so they could keep the portraits as a permanent display in the atrium of the home. Each image was accompanied by a short write-up to share their stories.
No good deed goes unpunished; the California Cal-Vet director of resident activities heard about the project and opened the project to all of the California Veterans Homes. We started in West Los Angeles, West LA is the hub and largest Cal-Vet home. Here during four days, I collected images and stories from 34 WW2 Veterans. The prints were delivered to the residents and families within months.
I next traveled to the Cal-Vet home in Ventura California photographing the 8 WW2 Veteran residents. The director found a benefactor in Ventura who paid for frames and a second permanent display was born.
We did finally secure financing for the frames and costs for Los Angeles, the show is printed, mounted, and framed but COVID-19 has shut all the doors to every Cal-Vet home to staff only. Fingers crossed, the California department of health will permit me to enter the facility (Yes I’m willing to fully suit up in the best PPE) to mount the show before this year’s Veteran’s Day.
In 2019 the Veterans Portrait Series was featured in a museum show. The entire body of work, 96 images at the time, was displayed as amazing 24×30” prints at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre Museum from Nov 11, 2019 – March 1, 2020. It was amazing to be invited, to print my work that big, to layout a whole museum with one part of my life, and to have an opening of the show.
I am grateful to all the people in my life that made this journey a reality. I was additionally blessed that two days after the opening a representative of the city came and made a Google 360 Tour available for anyone to virtually walk through the exhibit at Palm Beach Photo Centre.
I have collected images of Veterans from all services (including the Merchant Marines/ recognized as Veterans by the department of defense in 1985) and walks of life and have recently extended the program past WW2 Veterans. I have set up a portrait studio on location including individual living rooms and even a back porch to interview a veteran and collect their stories about life during their service.
COVID has put a halt on the program but I hope to pick up the baton and continue with Veterans from the Vietnam War while continuing to add any WW2 Veteran willing to give me a few minutes of their day.
You can see more of the Veterans Portrait Series at VeteransPortrait.com, and more of Mickey’s work at MickeyStrand.com. You can also keep up with Mickey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.