For the duration of his 15-month US Army tour in Afghanistan, Jeremiah Ridgeway carried a digital camera and scrap of torn paper with guidelines for submitting photos to National Geographic magazine. When he returned to American soil in 2007 with more than 8,000 images, the magazine liked what it saw.
In March 2008, National Geographic published his photo of an Afghan National Army solider crouched in front of a wall in the snow. For having no formal training as a photojournalist, that was a homerun for Ridgeway. But he wasn’t an Army photographer; he was a scout with the 3-71 Cavalry of the 10th Mountain Division.
“When we showed up in country, the rule was: no cameras outside the wire,” he says. “And then we lost four soldiers in a helicopter crash, and I took a photo of the memorial service. That photo went viral. Then nobody cared where my camera went and everybody wanted copies of the pictures.”
Ridgeway carried his digital Canon Rebel on his vest in a pouch designed for night-vision goggles. Which, for the most part, kept it safe, dust-free, and handy. Anytime an image presented itself, his camera, like his rifle, was at the ready.
Soldiering in Afghanistan was a target-rich environment for a photographer. Finding compelling images was easy. Managing and downloading those images was not easy.
Less than a gigabyte of memory on his camera’s SD card meant triage-type judgment of which images to save and which to delete, and storing the keepers in less-than-desirable, low-resolution format. A dearth of generators confined him to hooking up his laptop to power converters connected to Humvees once every two weeks. It was a pain in the ass, he says, but it worked.
The Canon Rebel is not a combat-spec camera. Although it “was a real tank,” warzone duty at a mountaintop observation post proved too much for it. More than a few trips to the mortar pit, the hurricane winds of dozens of helicopter landings, and that was the end of the Canon.
“Four months before our deployment ended, my Canon crapped out,” he says. “I borrowed two more from other people, and broke them, too.”
Like most US troops in Afghanistan, Ridgeway’s unit was ambushed countless times. But near the end of his tour, the 3-71 Cavalry was caught in a three-way ambush in Nuristan Province that nearly cost the lives of many in the unit.
“I saw two women in light blue burkas fleeing across the road with children running behind them,” he says. “I knew something was up, and, sure as day, the front of my truck exploded.”
Ridgeway’s unit pushed through the explosions and the shooting. They suffered causalities, but no one was killed. And while images of the wounded are grim, the soldiers and their families will forever have tangible evidence of the sacrifices made for their country.
Ridgeway’s images have gleaned emotion even from those not in combat with him. National Geographic, in addition to publishing his photos in the magazine and on the website, produced a three-minute documentary of his story that was nominated for an Emmy award.
Today, Ridgeway is working toward a degree in business administration from the University of California, Santa Cruz. His photos have appeared in California newspapers, and a career in photojournalism is in his sights. But compared to what he saw in the mountains of Afghanistan, life in California can be a shade domestic.
“I’m tired of taking pictures of restaurant food and of squirrels on water skis,” he says. “I need another subject. Something worth shooting.”
To see more of his photos, visit his website, jeremiahridgeway.com.