Articles

This Combat Camera vet used his skills to launch a civilian career as a photojournalist


Army vet Bill Putnam holding his 4-by-5 film camera on the streets of Cleveland while covering the RNC. (Photo: Ward Carroll)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- There was a bit of irony in Bill Putnam's first job as a civilian who'd just transitioned out of the military: He was sent back to Iraq to cover the war, the same place where he'd honed his skills as a photographer for the U.S. Army.

"I knew before I got out of the Army that I wanted to specialize in news photojournalism," Putnam says. "I happened to meet a lot of people along the way who saw my work and told me I had the drive and talent to do it in the civilian world. It was all about reaching out to people and meeting the right people at the right time."

Among "the right people" that Putnam ran into along the way was Michael Ware, Time magazine's bureau chief in Baghdad.

"When I was a soldier going home from Iraq I ran into Michael," Putnam says. "I was getting out of the military, and I told him I was willing to go back to Iraq. He wrote a letter on my behalf and that helped make it happen."

Putnam explains: "This one was made fairly early in the morning after an all-night raid. The unit, Centurion Company, 2-1 Infantry, had been sent out with an SF team and bunch of Iraqi Army to hunt down a car bomb builder. They didn't find him. This was early in the unit's deployment (they were the guys who were extended in 2006 for three months during an early and not so effective 'surge' into northwest Baghdad). To me it says a lot, not really about that war, but just war in general, especially war down at the nasty end of the spear. Hunter, the guy pictured, just looks exhausted. War is exactly that – exhausting in every sense – but this is physical exhaustion. The kid waving the gun (it was unloaded) was actually playing with a newly-installed laser pointer." (Photo: Bill Putnam)

After working in the war zone for nearly a year, he returned to the U.S. and freelanced his way from Washington, DC to Oregon, diversifying his portfolio and expanding his network. Eventually, he was picked up by Zuma Press Agency, and the assignments started coming in at a more regular clip.

To date, his photos have been published in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Newsweek, Army Times, The Oregonian, Columbia Journalism Review, The New Republic, NPR.org, and digitaljournalist.org. His work also appeared in the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience."

He opened a 40-print solo exhibition of his Afghan work titled "Abu in Bermel: Faces of Battle" in February of 2011 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. That exhibition moved to Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pa., in April 2011. His work has also been included in group shows at Glen Echo Photo Works in Glen Echo, Md., and Montgomery College in Rockville, Md. And in August 2013 Putnam opened a 60-image solo exhibition at Healthy Rhythm Gallery in Fairfield, Texas.

Putnam explains: "The bottom photo was made during my first week of a two-month embed with Abu Company, 1-187th Infantry. Unlike the first two which were shot digitally, this was shot with black-and-white film on a Leica rangefinder camera. It was early in the morning of the op's second day. The two guys on the right are Bill and Michael, the platoon's RTO and doc. The guy off in the distance is Tim, the platoon sergeant. The whole battalion was out there looking for weapon caches, doing what all grunts do in a counter-insurgency (even if we weren't calling it that back then). If I remember it was cold that morning. We'd spent that night huddled in an abandoned house. The guys were tired and you can see that in Bill and Mike's body language." (Photo: Bill Putnam)

"It's really all about hustle," he says. "You gotta hustle to make that transition. You have to constantly be on the phone with people, you have to constantly think about new projects and what you want to do next."

And that sort of proactive stance is what brought him to Cleveland to cover the Republican National Convention for Verify Media, a new agency that specializes in mobile device video. At the same time, Putnam has his classic 4-by-5 film camera, which he uses to capture the atmosphere surrounding the convention for Zuma.

Putnam is an imposing figure -- tall and bearded -- but he possesses a casual manner and calm demeanor that allow him to blend into the background -- a very desirable attribute for a photojournalist. As he takes in the scene along Fourth Street, Cleveland's famed walk lined with bars and restaurants, he's barely noticed even though he's a full head taller than the crush of delegates, pundits, TV personalities, protesters, and regular civilians around him.

Watching Putnam in action it's obvious that he loves his work. He moves through the crowd with an easy gait, taking everything in, at once in the weeds and mindful of the big picture. But for all of his apparent satisfaction with his career choice, he's quick to note that getting to where he is was a hard-fought series of rejections and missteps. He points out that -- unlike the military -- oft times pursuing an unorthodox civilian career is a non-linear proposition.

"When I got back from the war, I was dumbfounded that I had to find all of this on my own," Putnam says. "I like going out and doing stuff, but to get from Point A to Point B, I had no idea how to do that."

In the face of that reality, Putnam says, "You just do it and hope you find the right path."

Capt. Adam Lackey, Abu Company commander and a tribal sheikh at a meeting outside Bayji, Iraq, May 6, 2006. (Photo: Bill Putnam)

For more about Putnam's work, visit his website here.

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