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Training the Nation’s Military Photographers and Videographers

For nearly six decades, Syracuse University’s military visual journalism program has prepared service members to tell stories through compelling imagery and video.

Mourners release doves at Woodlawn Ceremony
Family members release doves during the funeral of Dol Oth at Woodlawn Cemetery on Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Shannon Smith.

When retired staff sergeant and aerial combat photojournalist Stacy Pearsall entered the U.S. Air Force, her only experience with a camera came from a high school photography class. She honed her craft while attending the military visual journalism program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

The Department of Defense-sponsored program welcomes active-duty service members who study military photojournalism or military motion media for 10 months, earning 30 credits and a certificate. To date, more than 1,000 military personnel have graduated and gone on to successful careers in the service, in television, at the Pentagon and with other outlets.

The program started in 1963 when Newhouse photography professor and Air Force veteran Fred Demarest received a call from the U.S. Navy about training their personnel to become better photojournalists. “This program is for enlisted service members, some on the cusp of making military service a career and some have already made that commitment,” says retired Col. Ron Novack, executive director of the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs. “We make sure that they are part of the Orange family and our office helps to create that sense of belonging.”

The University’s connection to veterans runs deep. When William Tolley was Chancellor from 1942 to 1969, he helped draft the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, and welcomed thousands of veterans to campus. “Being a member of the University’s Student Army Training Corps himself, Chancellor Tolley understood the value veterans would bring to the classroom and to the University,” says Novack. “His work made Syracuse University the institution it is today, and a number of military-connected programs were created from his vision.” Among those programs are Army ROTC, Air Force ROTC, the Defense Comptrollership Program based at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, and the military visual journalism program.

A hand holds a cup of water for a young child drinking out of it
A young Sudanese girl is helped with a drink of clean water from a bottle cap on Aug. 24, 2004, at the Abu Shouk refugee camp near El Fasher in Darfur. Photo by Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer and former U.S. Navy photojournalist Jim Watson.

The Big Picture: Military Photojournalism

Pearsall first learned the fundamentals of photography at the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Maryland, which trains thousands of military students each year in public affairs, photography, videography, graphic design and mass communications. She was an Air Force combat photographer when she heard about the Syracuse program from her mentors, including a program graduate. “I wanted to be that person—wear a flight suit, travel the globe and tell military stories,” she says. “I had a lot of boxes to check, and attending Syracuse was one of them.” She recalls taking classes that both inspired and challenged her, and ultimately made her the photographer she is today.

The program is special because of the people who make it up. From the professors and advisors who are guiding you to the people who are in the military, you get a large swath of people from all walks of life.

—U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Shannon Smith

Honorably discharged after a combat injury, Pearsall used the skills she gained at Syracuse to photograph more than 7,500 veterans across the country with the Veterans Portrait Project. Her work is a permanent exhibition at the National Veterans Resource Center, a humbling honor for Pearsall.

Students apply to the program by gaining unit endorsements and once accepted by a board of senior leaders and approved by their service headquarters in the Pentagon, they come to Syracuse for intensive study and work on many projects, including creating a magazine from concept to delivery.

River Bruce, a senior airman with the Air Force, says the program leaves him feeling accomplished. He stresses that a photo’s composition and the mood it creates is a fundamental lesson Syracuse professors teach. “You have no excuse to have any sort of thing that was uncontrolled in your image,” he says.

The professors, who have a wide range of experience in photography, including for publications such as National Geographic, are also a draw for students. “The program is special because of the people who make it up. From the professors and advisors who are guiding you to the people who are in the military, you get a large swath of people from all walks of life,” says U.S. Navy mass communication specialist Petty Officer 1st Class Shannon Smith, adding the breadth of experience brings more to the classroom lessons. “The mixture of personalities makes the program unique.”

Arlo Abrahamson stands at Department of Defense lectern
Public affairs officer and Department of Defense spokesperson U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson.

Public affairs officer and Department of Defense spokesperson U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson fully embraced how to communicate effectively to audiences through photography and writing, and believes the program transforms the way students think about those skills. “At Syracuse, I took the next step as a communicator and learned how to take the intellectual curiosity of telling stories and hone it in a thoughtful, disciplined and purposeful way. That’s kind of the signature ability these graduates have when they come out of this program,” says Abrahamson, who was a combat photographer when he came to Syracuse.

But it’s not just photography that the students learn. Understanding the importance of headline news was a huge lesson that Jim Watson, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer and former U.S. Navy photojournalist, took from the program. Especially after joining AFP, Watson realized having knowledge of major news brought more strength to his work. “I understood why I needed to know what was going on in the world,” he says. “It helped me understand a photo’s influence on the audience.”

Photo of a television playing a CNN interview with Arlo Abrahamson
Public affairs officer and Department of Defense spokesperson U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Arlo Abrahamson in a CNN interview on U.S. and Indonesia defense partnership.

The Picture Show: Military Motion Media

The military motion media concentration was created in the early 1990s to address the cinematography side of stories. Students create short films and documentaries to sharpen their broadcast journalism skills—projects that U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kristen Brandes finds vital to her learning. “It’s a challenging program that will grow your skills and shape you into an invaluable professional,” she says. U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jeremy Vought adds that studying documentaries, as often they did, opened his eyes to different styles of cinematography. The program taught him and his classmates how to understand storytelling through preparation and research.

The biggest learning experiences for me were discovering how to tell a complete story and finding those hidden moments that were more important.

—U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jeremy Vought

Former U.S. Navy mass communications specialist Drew Geraci is among the graduates who have achieved professional success outside the military. Geraci is an award-winning cinematographer best known for his time-lapse work, including the opening credits for the series House of Cards, and for his collaborations with directors Steven Spielberg and Alejandro Iñárritu. Geraci considers the program’s emphasis on storytelling and script writing as priceless. “The biggest learning experiences for me were discovering how to tell a complete story and finding those hidden moments that were more important,” he says.

A black and white photo of a pile of flower bouquets
Mourners remade a memorial for Syracuse University student Trevor Pierce, 18, with flowers and candles at the intersection of Waverly and Comstock avenues after heavy rainfall the night before on Oct. 16, 2020. Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Shannon Smith.

Supportive Relationships

Program participants acknowledge that their accomplishments at Syracuse wouldn’t be possible without Nancy Austin’s support in her role as Newhouse’s deputy director of the military visual journalism program. Everyone has a story about how Austin helped them at one point or another while they were at Syracuse. Pearsall, for example, says realizing that service members with combat trauma in her care would need support, Austin took the initiative to build a relationship with the Syracuse Vet Center and directed members to their programs. 

“She is a saint,” adds Vought. “She’s the gunny—in the Marines, that is the rank that takes care of the troops and that the officers and the enlisted both look up to for help, support and discipline.”

During the program’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2014, Austin was surprised on stage and presented with the rank of honorary Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. “I have never seen anybody care more for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines than Nancy Austin,” Novack says. “She is truly a national treasure here at Syracuse University.”

For Austin, whose father served in the Navy, it was an especially touching gesture. “I just thought, ‘My dad would’ve been over the moon about this,’” she says. “I’m really proud to have this job.”

Woman in tactile gear sits behind camera in an oceanic vehicle. Click to read the story.
Petty Officer 1st Class Shannon Smith's first deployment was on an aircraft carrier where she took photos and wrote stories.

Newhouse for Life

The graduates all agree that being part of the Newhouse School is a distinction that will help them throughout their careers, and they urge enlisted service members considering the program to apply and continue the tradition. “You are in the very elite and prestigious company of people who take the communications profession seriously and strive for excellence when you attend the Newhouse School,” says Abrahamson.

It’s not only the educational experience and networking opportunities that Novack and Austin hope the graduates take from the program, but also the feeling of fitting in with the Syracuse community. “Whether they are on the cusp of making military service a career or not, we make sure that they are part of the Orange family,” Novack says. “We help create that sense of belonging, that culture of acceptance and family.”

Lisa Maresca

This story was published on .


Also of Interest

  • Newhouse School of Public Communications

    Long recognized as one of the elite schools of mass communication, Newhouse embraces virtually every known form of information dissemination. Programs are rooted in the liberal arts while you learn how to manage and produce for the mass media and other areas of public communications.

  • Office of Veteran and Military Affairs

    Syracuse University’s enduring commitment to veteran and military-connected students dates back more than 100 years. Syracuse University is dedicated to being the Best Place for Veterans™ and is rated the #1 private school for veterans.