Photographing The Saluting Marine in My Studio

Back in February 2019, I came across a story on the internet about a Marine veteran that saluted motorcyclists every year as they rode into Washington DC during Rolling Thunder.  I was surprised that I had never heard about Staff Sergeant Tim Chambers and his yearly volunteer duty that has resulted in him appropriately being known as The Saluting Marine.  After reading more about him and watching interviews on YouTube, I felt so inspired by him and what he does for veterans and their families.  I immediately knew that I had to get in touch with him about possibly photographing his portrait while he was in the DC area for this summer’s Rolling Thunder.

One thing that I’m constantly reminding myself as a photographer is that I can have all kinds of great portrait ideas, but they don’t amount to anything unless I act on them.  A month or two before Rolling Thunder, I emailed Staff Sergeant Chambers explaining my idea to photograph him in my studio if he had even the smallest amount of time available while in DC for Rolling Thunder.  A few hours later, he actually called saying he hadn’t finished reading the entire email I sent, but he was all in and loved the idea.  I just had to figure out how I wanted the portraits to look.

Thinking about photographing him on my dark painted canvas, I decided I wanted to add a flag in the portraits.  I looked at American flags on the internet and chose a vintage style flag that was made from cotton.  Vintage because it would give a little more character to the portraits and cotton because it would not reflect light like a nylon flag.  With the overall look decided, I sketched out three posing ideas that we could easily transition to during the shoot and tested lighting setups so I could easily dial things in for each look.  With his time pretty tight and valuable, I wanted to have a solid plan in place.

The day came and Staff Sergeant Chambers arrived at my studio.  We chatted briefly, and I shared my sketches and test shots with him so he had a good idea of what we would be creating.  I find that doing this always helps my subjects understand what we’re trying to create and gets us on the same page right at the start.  So with Johnny Cash playing on Spotify, we got started with the first pose I sketched out and nailed the shot in a matter of minutes.  The other two looks I sketched out were also a breeze and were photographed over a memorable conversation in which Staff Sergeant Chambers shared his experiences on 9/11 while stationed at the Pentagon.

Anyone who was old enough that day can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned about the attacks. Staff Sergeant Chambers was at a meeting just a short distance from the Pentagon when he saw the plane fly overhead. After hearing and feeling the impact, he rushed to the Pentagon where he helped search for colleagues and survivors for the next three days. It is so incredibly inspiring to meet such a selfless individual like Staff Sergeant Chambers and any veteran who has served this country. Speaking with him and seeing what he does every year at Rolling Thunder has given me a reinforced understanding of the true meaning of Memorial Day, and I hope these portraits help do that for all who see them.

A couple days after our portrait shoot, Staff Sergeant Chambers stood at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 23rd Street in DC where he saluted motorcyclists for his 18th year.  I knew I wanted to witness this display of patriotism and gratitude for those we remember on Memorial Day, so I took my camera into the city and photographed Staff Sergeant Chambers at his post.  While there, you can see and hear the impact that Staff Sergeant Chambers has on those crowded around the corner to watch him hold his salute.  A woman standing next to me turned to her friend and said, “I have never felt more proud to be an American than I do right now.”  There has been a lot of talk about this year’s Rolling Thunder being the last in DC.  I truly hope that is not the case so that the tradition continues for future generations to experience and be reminded the true meaning of Memorial Day.

I would like to thank Staff Sergeant Chambers for visiting my studio and spending his valuable time with me so I could photograph him.  It was an honor having the opportunity to meet and photograph him, and I hope our paths cross again someday.

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