Montana State University

Spring 2012

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Mountains and Minds

Parting shots April 30, 2012 by Carol Schmidt • Published 04/30/12

MSU student Sean Foulkes' photographs provide insight into the everyday life of a battalion at war

Montana State University photography major Sean Foulkes served with the Montana National Guard in Iraq where he carried a camera with him to document life in Iraq.

When Sean Foulkes joined the Montana National Guard as a way to pay for his schooling at Montana State University, he was assigned to security duties on a supply convoy. A pretty good shot, he spent a year in the 1-163rd Battalion, 116th Brigade Combat Team with a Browning .50 caliber machine gun perched in a turret of an armored truck as it traversed the rutted roads of Iraq.

Foulkes also has proven to be very good at another kind of shot. His photographs of Iraq, which are both intimate and high-impact, provide rarely seen insights into the everyday life of a battalion at war.

The photographs are an unexpected result of Foulkes' tour of duty in Iraq. Even though the native of Manhattan, Mont., was a photography major when his guard unit was called up, he didn't think he'd be allowed to take photographs while in Iraq.

"When I first got there, I didn't even have my camera," Foulkes said. During his first months in Iraq, he took photographs with his iPhone or a simple point-and-shoot camera.

He noticed other soldiers with cameras, and he recognized that there were images that weren't being taken.

"The (professional) photographers there were either embedded to take war shots, or they were Army photographers shooting public relations shots for the Army," Foulkes said. "I didn't see anyone taking the everyday photographs."

He sent for his Canon camera body with a 70-200 F2.8 zoom lens. Foulkes was a good photographer when he left, yet in Iraq his work took on a maturity and power.

"I had to teach myself to take spontaneous photographs," said Foulkes, explaining that his training in the MSU School of Film and Photography had taught him to carefully set up a photograph. "I had to learn how to get photos right the first time."

Foulkes was a good photographer when he left Montana, yet in Iraq his work took on a maturity and power.

Foulkes' photographs range from the dramatic--helicopters against a lemon-colored sky, a fighter jet taking off from moonscapes and the eerie beauty of an approaching wall of dust before a storm--to the commonplace, such as fellow soldiers smoking cigars to pass the time. Foulkes also found beauty in the ancient and war-torn Middle Eastern country.

"The weather there was awful, but it was a pretty incredible place because it is so different than Montana," Foulkes said.

In all, he took more than 6,800 images. While in Iraq, he also posted many of his photographs to an MSU School of Film and Photography blog.

"Ten years ago I couldn't have done that," he said. "Ten years ago, photographers used film, which goes bad in the kind of conditions you get in Iraq. But with digital cameras of today and the ability to upload images to computers, you have a lot more freedom."

Last fall, Foulkes returned to MSU, where he is one of 565 veterans currently attending MSU, according to MSU's Office of Disability, Re-entry and Veterans Services.

"In some ways it is a relief (to be back in school)," he said. "All I have to worry about is myself and going to classes. School is definitely easier than before."

Foulkes said serving in Iraq changed his life in many positive ways.

"I really didn't know what I was getting into at first. No one in my family had been in the military and I didn't know much about it. I ended up liking the military a lot. Certainly more than I ever thought I would."

The experience also changed his thoughts about his profession. While he still is interested in a career in commercial photography, he now also is open to photojournalism. He still has another year left in the National Guard and he wouldn't mind becoming an embedded photographer in a war zone.

"It was a great experience," he said. "If I had to go again, I would."