Robert Cunningham has photographed the five living United States presidents and nine heads of state, 12 prime ministers, numerous astronauts, celebrities, and Fortune 500 CEOs. But his proudest moment in a 10-year photography career came when he photographed U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan. He took 55,000 photographs and had a selection of the best published in his recently released book, Afghanistan: On the Bounce (Insight Editions).
Photos by Robert Cunningham:
Cunningham, whose work hangs on the walls of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, spent four months as an embedded photo journalist with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (spanning two trips a year apart). He documents what he witnessed during 132 missions, brilliantly capturing and conveying the full spectrum of the troops’ experiences – on patrol, in combat, in the chow line, at night, and in religious services – through photographs, stories, diagrams, and stunning images.
With Memorial Day fast approaching I do hope that people give more thought to honoring the soldiers of today’s war just as much as we have honored those of prior wars.
Cunningham’s work has taken him aboard US Navy submarines, into zero-gravity in low Earth orbit, and to more than 450 cities in 25 countries, but his most unique experience was to be joined with the service members that he desperately wanted to serve with. Due to a medical issue, he wasn’t deemed qualified to serve in the Army and to join a long-held family tradition of military service. His family has been in the defense industry for decades. His grandfather invented a life-saving fuel system that the Army says has saved thousands of lives. He was devastated he couldn’t honor those who lay down their lives for our country, by serving, so he sought the next best way to support the troops: he brought a camera to a gunfight.
But his photographs serve to inform and enlighten what American servicemembers experience today in the war zone. We learn – as he did – through the lens of a searching camera.
When asked about his experiences, he had this to share with us:
MEDIA CONNECT: Robert, why did you risk your life to photograph our uniformed troops serving in Afghanistan?
Robert Cunningham: To find out why they would risk their lives for a people that, in many cases, they have never met, and to find out what the service members’ lives are like while there. These men and women, from every faith, creed, conviction, economic background, political party, and even many from other countries or citizenships, signed a line on a contract, risking all for others. This goes against what many would call sane. But to many of these service members, to not do this, to not take up the mantle of service, would be insanity. They risk their lives every day, and some lose their lives there. If with my camera and pen, I can share what they do, I felt I should.
MC: Were you devastated when you learned you couldn’t enlist to serve in the military as your family had served?
RC: At first, I found it hard for some time to be around uniformed service members. But service in the military is not a right, it is a privilege, it is also a calling, one that I felt deeply. So I was saddened by it, certainly. Regardless of personal views, I felt it was wrong that I was trapped at home while I watched many of my friends go. It was disheartening.
MC: Were you surprised at what you saw in Afghanistan?
RC: It would be foolish to not say that in many ways, I was. Afghanistan is unlike any other place. Sure, there are similarities to other war zones, but taken as a whole, Afghanistan is a very unique place. I used to often ask my friends who had served there what it was like. The most common answer was “you would not understand.” They were right. I do hope that through this book we can help people better understand. If nobody shows them what life is like there, they cannot hope to understand it. But if through this book, we can help break down the misconceptions that abound, understanding can follow.
MC: In your first trip, you were embedded for three months. What made you go back again for another trip ?
RC: Afghanistan is not the kind of place you go and then leave behind. It stays with you, for better or worse. I did not feel that my job there was done. When the opportunity arose to go back, I jumped on it. I’d go back again today, if I could. I left such a large part of myself there. Afghanistan is with me every day, whether I like it or not.
MC: What do Americans not know or need to understand about our soldiers serving overseas?
RC: Many things. Mostly, that their preconceived notions are probably wrong. From the scenery to the people, to the reasons we are there. Many of the people who have seen my pictures, from the deserts to the forests, are struck by Afghanistan’s beauty. Many just thought that it’s full of caves or dirt. It has those too, but Afghanistan’s landscape is diverse and striking. You wouldn’t walk into the lab of a rocket scientist and presume to be able to fix their mathematical equations. You wouldn’t just walk into a hospital and try and tell a doctor how to do his job, because you wouldn’t know what to do. You cannot understand someone’s job until you have done it, or closely observed it. Why is service in Afghanistan any different?
MC: You’ve photographed five US presidents, and have been to 450 cities across 25 nations. How did those experiences rank with what you experienced in Afghanistan?
RC: Every day is an adventure. I tell as many people who will listen, that ‘I am the luckiest guy alive.’ What I have done, I have done with the great help of countless people far better than I. Each trip, each time that I have had the opportunity to point my camera at something, it is a privilege. Afghanistan was unlike anything I had done before. You certainly learn to take a fast and good photo when the subject of your image shoots back. Afghanistan had its own unique challenges, and its own rewards.
MC: You took 55,000 images but published just a few hundred for your new book, Afghanistan: On the Bounce. How hard was it to choose which photographs made the cut?
RC: Very hard. I am very emotionally attached to each shot. When I look through my lens I get focused. I don’t mean this in the photographic sense; I mean this in the fact that by restricting my view to that which is in the lens, I have to focus on what is in that shot, I have to internalize it. My shutter tattoos those images in my mind, regardless of what it is. It took countless hours with the help of friends and co-workers to narrow it down to this. I do hope that many of the images that didn’t get included will work their way into future projects.
MC: What do these soldiers fear more than death itself?
RC: Being forgotten.
MC: Why is adjusting to civilian life so challenging for these soldiers?
RC: Ah, another tricky question to answer as a civilian. But, from my limited experience on the matter, I have to say that it is because of perspective. Each service member’s experience is unique. Some people have had to spend days, weeks, or months outside the wire, without the ability to bathe properly, with limited food and water, while some were assigned to more civilized locations. When you experience something like a deployment to Afghanistan, you gain perspective on what is truly important, and what is not. When they come home and they listen to people complain about a low test score, or how lonely they are when their significant other is gone for a week, or talk about how bad that recent movie was, it is frustrating. It seems so petty.
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