By: Vincent Laforet
My 27 days spent aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf as a “media embed” were unforgettable: from the bang and shudder of a 60,000-pound aircraft being shot off a catapult above my bunk every morning at 5 a.m. to how hard the 5,500-plus souls, with an average age of 21, worked in 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, for more than nine months.
One of the challenges I faced as an “embed” was to ensure that I was not “in bed” with these people I came to admire and/or the military. At times, the challenge felt insurmountable.
We were, after all, seeing only half the picture. I could photograph a JDAM bomb being assembled, follow the pilots through their briefings, show the four munitions-crew members lifting the bomb onto a Super Hornet wing and then the ballet of planes navigating to their takeoff positions on the 4.5 acre deck. I even managed to get a camera mounted inside a cockpit for a view of the pilot. What I could never do was document where that bomb would fall and the full effect of each sortie.
There were no empty seats for me to tag along. I felt very frustrated as a journalist, but I understood that I was documenting a small, but significant, part of the larger puzzle. My main concern was that I was producing images that were glorifying war too much. These machines of war are awesome and make for stunning images. I was afraid that I was being drawn into producing a public-relations essay.
Was I focusing too much on the incredible sacrifices these sailors and aviators make in their personal lives — and losing sight of the horrid effects of their efforts on the distant ground? Was I missing the bigger picture? I found solace in knowing that The New York Times had more than two dozen other journalists covering other aspects of the story. I came to understand that I was there to do the best I could in documenting the events that took place on a floating city that felt strangely removed from the war.
Ultimately, after a week and a half of photographing endless waves of aircraft soaring into the sunset skies, I decided my time would be best spent focusing on life beneath the deck. I could only photograph what I could see — and I thought that the people, not the planes, were the story I could adequately portray.
Access proved challenging, but the people I met made the effort worthwhile. My last week ended as I went to the “mess” to get a plate of food and heard singing in the dishwashing room. Half a dozen cooks were killing some downtime — by singing into their broom handles. I think it’s a very telling moment that demonstrates just how isolated you are from the real world, not to mention the horrors of war, on a nuclear aircraft carrier.
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