I’m standing in the middle of an airport surrounded by friends and family, filled with excitement for the arrival of one man. As he turns the corner, everyone starts clapping, cheering and cameras flashing. He’s dressed in his full United States Army uniform and has a smile on his face that I will never forget. Running to his side are his wife, Heather, and their children, Luke and Nevaeh. His parents, Donna and Tim, follow. Sgt. Ryan Dickinson is finally home.
There is another group of people standing alongside Ryan’s friends and family that I’ve never seen before. Most of them appear to be bikers, wearing leather vests and jackets adorned with patches. They have formed two long lines down the middle of the airport lobby that extends to the exit doors. Each of them is holding an American flag that they raised when Ryan entered. The men and women in the flag lines stand strong and salute as he triumphantly walks through. It’s a sight I had the honor to witness and photograph.
None of these men and women knew Ryan personally. They are just there to commend a soldier and give him a hero’s welcome home. These remarkable people are The Patriot Guard Riders and they honor the men and women fighting for our country.
Almost 5 years later, on September 1, 2013, another American soldier killed Ryan at Fort Hood in Texas. It was devastating. The Patriot Guard Riders were called on once again to honor Ryan, this time in a different way. A group of them were at the airport when the casket arrived and escorted it to the funeral home. On the day of the wake, The Riders stood outside of the funeral home and saluted every person that entered. Even in the background, they had a strong presence throughout the day.
As the bugle played Taps in the distance, my friends and family were in tears. The Patriot Guard Riders had surrounded us, standing proud with their flags flying in the wind against the blue sky. I thought to myself “these people don’t know Ryan yet they’re all standing here with us.” From that moment on, I wanted to give them the recognition that they deserve by showing the world their stories through strong portraits.
Five months had passed since the funeral and I was ready to begin production on my portrait project. There was a lot to figure out to make this successful, including logistics of where to photograph everyone, how to get as many PGR interested, scheduling and all other details that are involved in shooting such a large group. I was very fortunate to have L.W. Murphy, one of the Riders and a former military photographer, lend me his help during the process.
With his connections, I was able to meet with many of the PGR at a motorcycle club on Long Island to introduce the project and myself. I knew that I had to explain my true intentions and to build a trust with them and not to make the project come off as exploiting or disrespectful. After many conversations, networking and buzz, I was able to schedule 60 people to photograph. L.W. was able to secure a location for the photo shoots at the Jacob’s Light Foundation building, a charity that sent care packages to soldiers.
To create an iconic and respectful portrait, I used two 69” Elinchrom octabanks to camera right as a key light to create a soft, yet slightly dramatic lighting. The portraits were shot with a Phase One 645DF body and P40+ 40MP digital back. That was my go to camera at the time (I’ve since upgraded to a Phase One XF body and IQ350 back). The portraits were converted to black and white in Capture One and touched up in Photoshop to enhance contrast and remove blemishes.
I wanted to capture moments and show who these people are rather than worry about the technical details. Many of The Riders are veterans and wanted to pay respect to other military soldiers and their families. Others have children who are currently serving or have died in action. Some are simply American patriots and want to show their appreciation for our military.
People got very emotional telling their stories. One veteran had brought his father’s medals and the flag that was presented to him at his father’s funeral. He told me stories about his dad and began to tear up a bit. The PGR at his dad’s funeral left such an impact, he joined himself for that reason.
Conversations aren’t always necessary to bring out a strong portrait. I requested that everyone bring something(s) that show who they are and why they are a PGR member. Some brought the flags that they received at a funeral or military tags, and a few wore their old uniforms, including a 90-year-old Marine veteran.
Ryan’s son, Luke, wore his dad’s hat for his portrait. Heather, Ryan’s wife, wore his jacket while holding the flag she received for him. Donna, Ryan’s mother, wore a U.S. Army sweatshirt and held tightly on to the flag she received. As difficult as it was to see Ryan’s family getting emotional and wearing his uniform, it also made me feel so proud that I was able to give something back.
Since the end of the project working with the Long Island and New York City branches of The Patriot Guard Riders, the project has gained national attention, as I hoped for. The series won a 2015 PDN Faces award in the personal work category and was also featured in the November 2015 issue of Reader’s Digest, which has over 3 million subscribers and an overall audience of almost 19 million. Although many of you may not have heard of the Patriot Guard Riders before reading this post, now you are aware of these extraordinary, selfless people and what they stand for. Thank you Scott and Brad for allowing me to share this story.