When We Were Soldiers

“It’s a silent exodus that Americans can sense – but maybe not quite see. The gradual disappearance of millions of veterans has accelerated rapidly, ushering in an erosion of the nation’s social landscape.”

“It’s the passing of an era never to be repeated.”

In a rigorous review of federal, state and local census data, reporter Brittany Van Heyningen discovered the arrival of a dramatic demographic shift that will tilt the fulcrum of veteran influence as we know it.

She and photojournalist Cal Gaines chronicle the issue through six decades of veteran migration, the collapsing veteran universe in the Northeast, the largest expansion of national cemeteries since the Civil War, the microcosm of a single 195-home street and the intimate journey of terminally ill veteran Ivan DeBaecke.

This Special Publication/Section When We Were Soldiers has won first place for special section in the Society of Professional Journalists 2014 Sunshine State Awards.


It is a great honor in my first year as a photojournalist for The Daily Sun to be awarded the following awards for this project.

-Society of Professional Journalists – First place award for Special Section

-Florida Society of New Editors – First place award for Photo Story

-Florida Press Club – First Place Special Sections

This journey brought me into a cold, dreary meeting hall in Rochester, NY., where a VFW post is fading into the shadows. To the life of  WWII veteran Ivan DeBaecke who survived the Dust Bowl and Great Depression and his childhood farm in David City, Neb. where he will return to walk through fields of grain when his time has come. This project taught me more about life than I ever realized.  Within these veterans eyes, I saw hope, I saw sorrow, I saw fear, and I saw all of their tomorrows that they sacrificed for our today’s. When I was walking around in Rochester, NY.,  I came across a VFW mailbox and on the side it said “Hello, remember me.” I will never forget… The Greatest Generation.




Photo by Cal Gaines, Photojournalist


Dear soldier,

I know I’ll never understand what it was like to sail into enemy waters, fly a dangerous mission or fight in far-away jungles. 

I can’t imagine the pain you felt when bullets pierced your skin and shrapnel shredded your limbs. I’ll never know your fear upon waking in a hospital and feeling a piece of yourself missing. 

Facing the enemy in battle isn’t something I’ll ever experience. And my nightmares will never equate to the ones that have haunted your dreams for decades. 

I can’t imagine your desperation to survive as you jumped into water saturated with the blood of your friends.

I don’t know the icy cold of winter that seeped into your bones as you struggled to stay warm.

But I must thank you.

Thank you for the time you gave, the months and years you served your country, even though it meant losing time with the ones you loved.

Thank you for risking your life daily for a cause you believed in. 

Thank you for your last breath, wherever it may have been. 

Thank you for the blood you sacrificed to protect your family, your country. 

Thank you for having the courage to stand and fight. 

Thank you for sacrificing your tomorrows for my today.

— written by Brittany Van Heyningen, Journalist.

This letter and photo were published in the Dec. 7th, 2013 edition of The Villages Daily Sun

Posted in Photography

Overheard from the Dugout

As I stood there holding the camera to my eye with the barrel of my 300mm lens fixated straight down the first base line, I patiently waited as each lady approached the batter’s box for their opportunity to take a swing at the ball. Dust began to collect from the mound, wind shifted, and the Tuesday morning softball crowd cheered as the pitcher continued to strike one after another with the umpire yelling ‘YOUR OUT.’ At this moment it felt like any other day out at the softball complex, which generally included a cool morning breeze, saturated blue skies, and the smell of hot dogs sizzling on the grill.

Standing right near the dugout there is always some kind of joke and banter or incredibly loud screaming.


“Yeah our team name is Silver Streakers, but us old ladies don’t streak around the community.”

“Speak for yourself Sally, this young man knows we can streak it like the best.” (At which point I want to pack my gear and go sanitize myself.) Took it a little too far lady…

But with a big smile on their face and a gracious thank you for coming out and covering their match, it is always a great time and I’m not stuck behind a desk all day so I can’t complain too much.

I hear it all and I see it all. Capture the big hits and the huge misses. See the collisions and go temporarily deaf from the screams. But I also sometimes overhear the things that pull on my heart-strings the most and make me wonder and think about life and all of the really great times, along with the most difficult parts.

Moving behind the first base coach to get a different perspective on the game, I hear two ladies talking behind me as they grip their hands onto the dugout fence looking on as I yet again bring my camera up to my eye to try to capture some action from the game. For a moment, time literally pauses. The ladies freeze in place as the ball slips from the pitchers hand and all that is heard are the two ladies behind me while I am frozen as well.

“I don’t know her name, but she is up to bat next.”

“Is it Carol?” The two women try to figure it out.

“No, I think it’s Sandra.”

“She has stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer, but she comes out here still. Hits the ball, runs the bases. She’s not ready to give up.”

“Is she doing treatment?”

“Not sure, I know she bought a sports car recently because she has always wanted one. I heard that she may not make it, but she loves it out here, she loves the game of softball.”

Coming up to bat my lens seems to look right into her eyes and for a moment pure happiness is seen. The cancer is not there, the worries are buried in the clay under third base, and she swings with everything she has as her bat connects with the ball.

I walked back to my car and packed up my camera gear hoping that wasn’t going to be her last game. I wondered if she would make it till next Tuesday so she could play the game that she loves, gathered around good friends that make her happy.

Every day I am connecting with somebody else indirectly or directly through the diversity and uniqueness of my career as a photojournalist. These opportunities are allowing me to capture something amazing every single day from people who I know nothing about. Yet we share a common ground of being strangers to each other and I am capturing their personal moments through how I view the world.

Posted in Photography

The Value of a Photograph in a Sea of Photographers

What is the value of a photograph today? What does it mean to take a photo and is everyone a photographer? These are important questions with a variety of answers as our technology has grown exponentially and the word photographer is loosely used today. Having a smart phone in this day and age is helpful to capture a moment in time to share with the world, friends or family while making something look unique based on the user’s preference of style. It seems that the ideas conveyed among some people are tapping into a creative realm, which is also a good path for an individual that might be interested in pursuing something further in photography/arts, but by no means does having the vast amount of internet users liking one Instagram photo a thousand times over make everyone an artist or even a professional photographer. A good eye, yes… Right place at the right time, sure. Technical savvy, maybe. And a techy device that does everything automatically with little to no skill involved.

Technology has surely helped us progress into a digital age — it also has consequences about how we tap into and absorb information — making some out there cynical, even lazy. Die hard film photographers would probably look at most of the photographers today with a bad taste in their mouths while other old school film users embrace the future while still revisiting their original craft which got them to where they are today. A lot of people out there in the world really do have a great eye for interesting things or a moment arises to capture something that we as humans find fascinating and sharing it with others feels natural; this is the age of the internet with an overabundance of user data. But there are so many images and outlets to share that it feels overwhelming to try to absorb them all.

As a photojournalist I know what I want from a photograph and I was hired for the newspaper that I work at for a reason, but the question still stares at me down the barrel of a gun. What is a good photograph or for that matter with the millions of images that graze our brain waves for a split second daily, how does the outside world view what a ‘good’ photograph is, do they even care what they see? Lets take the internet for instance. A multitasking mindless vortex of open tabs, mouse clicking, index finger scroll surfing as information scatters across the screen while our creative awe-inspiring brains play janitors, sopping up an age of mess, an age of move quick, think quick and can’t sit still to see the bigger picture (not really absorbing anything, and I am at times probably guilty of this as well)! I know this isn’t everyone and people are different across the globe, but yes, there does exist a generation that I quite frankly think doesn’t care about a whole lot and I am still not sure if we should blame ourselves (because we all have some type of self-control), or should we be blaming the upper echelons of mass media.

It is just really hard to realize exactly how everyone thinks that they can be a photographer with the simple click of a phone or an instant filter to change a tone. The best photographer’s, artist’s, cook’s, teacher’s, writer’s, athlete’s, the list goes on an on. They got their start with a great idea or a dream. They followed it, worked on it over and over again with perfection not being an ending to their career, but an ongoing goal to make each day a triumph. If a phone, a small handy camera or an old inherited film camera is inspiring, then go after more teachings to learn as much as possible. Technology does help, but don’t let it dictate creativity. I guarantee you if for say Rembrandt used some kind of instant filter to create a masterpiece or Chef Gordon Ramsey used instant grits to make an amazing dish, these men would not be famous for their pursuits. But the person or people who created filters and instant grits now that probably took some creativity and a lot of trial and error. You see the road less traveled may sound more appealing at times, but it is not and it proves absolutely nothing. Ask anyone who works hard in any career field and I am certain they would say that to achieve something takes time, hard work, and dedication.

Bottom line is that these overabundance of images that can be found by typing in a few words on the internet are just that. They are images of moments in time that are saved forever. Some are taken with heart and soul while others are taken with nothing and a filter added to give some sort of ‘creativity,’ or life to the photograph that didn’t exist before it was taken. Sometimes this is okay for someone trying to be creative, but in no means is it worthy to call that person a photographer or even an artist. To be either of those things takes time. It takes sacrifice, it takes heart, it takes a willing individual who is trying their damnedest to make a career/a living in a creative field that is not set on automatic.

To anyone out there that reads this, seek out what you truly want. Don’t settle for second best, and if you have a passion and you want to pursue it, DO IT! You won’t regret it, you will only look back and think about what you could have been doing. If you love photography or anything else that inspires you, try to learn more. Challenge yourself to take a class and seek out new things. The sky is literally the limit. Do whatever it takes to reach the top and keep climbing.

Posted in Photography Tagged , , |

Professional Photography Values


There is so much to be said for photographers as we have so many ideas to convey and share with others, but our ultimate journey is one within ourselves, it is about who we are and what makes up our worldview. Photography also has a strong visual language that shares important features with verbal language-both communicative and organizational. Understanding the useful ways to approach a career in photography is quite important, but keeping that career and being successful is crucial.

Within the field of photography a steady relationship not just with yourself but also with the people that you interact with through your professional life is crucial. It is your own responsibility to go out and create new relationships or hold on to ones that you may have had for a while. With this responsibility comes great usefulness, but to obtain that you must understand that people value us as individuals. They see something in our photography, they see something in how we carry ourselves, and they hold their highest interest in us for whom we really are. How we carry ourselves displays our work ethic and it is of the utmost importance when it comes to interaction with the world; whether in an interpersonal setting or within a social media network. Recognizing and acting on opportunity is vital. Go for it! Act on your feelings, and if you don’t go for it you will never know how it would have turned out. As photographers, literally at times chance is all that we have to run with.

Overall reflection of self, visual language, and a clear vision of what you really truly want from photography is key. It might take some time and effort, but it can be accomplished with great dedication, and passion. We carry so many ideas by our side because photos are a huge reproduction of self — these images we produce become a part of our souls — they linger after we are dead and gone. You must remember how important it is to never back down, to remember who you are, what you stand for, and if you want to be successful that success is not something that gets handed to you or something that just appears. By going outside in the world, looking around, and taking a chance. Positive results will ensue.

This one life is placed before us to do whatever it is that we wish to do and how we wish to approach it is based on our individual decisions. You see, our visual language has many dialects. Being happy with yourself, your work, and your thought process, will offer a multitude of different successful paths to choose from. Always remember that giving up is never an option. I wouldn’t be a photojournalist today for a successful newspaper if it wasn’t for some of these important key points. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted and how to obtain some sort of success. I had great help along the way and kept an open heart and an open mind to whatever obstacles were placed before my path.

Posted in Photography Tagged , |

Edward Weston

Edward Weston

“Like a painting or a poem, a photograph can be an experience in itself.”

Recently I was introduced to this video as well as the photographer that I have never heard of. The video is a timeless piece about Edward Weston and his uses of a viewfinder camera.

This video was done in 1948, but its philosophical nature as well as the techniques that are used still stand tall among photographers today.

Photographers are a unique bunch. Our eyes are the tools that we use to determine our next shot. We are always thinking, seeking and viewing the world possible differently than someone else is seeing it. The ideas behind a photograph are a true experience that is shared with so many walks of life. While the photograph allows the photographer to seek something within himself or herself, it also is an interpersonal interaction with the outside world.

Important and lasting relationships are also formed around photography, showing that the photograph can last a lifetime while also evolving society.

Photography is powerful, it is a form of expression that has been used for a long time and it stimulates are minds while filling our souls with a sense of life.

“The reasons why we like things are often buried deep below our conscious minds, stemming perhaps from some long forgotten experience in our childhood or answering a need that we ourselves don’t know we have.”

Posted in Photography
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