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USMC Homecoming: Photographer Interview With Mathieu Snelson

Last week we shared a link to a blog post featuring a USMC homecoming shot by the talented Mathieu Photography with the Rad Nation! on our Facebook Page and Twitter. The post got a ton of love, and we decided to catch up with Mathieu to talk a little about his experiences.

Having shot tons of weddings, couples, and families you’re no stranger to emotional situations. Did this shoot feel any different from say a wedding? How so?

I had no clue what to expect going into this shoot. I had never been to a homecoming nor had I ever shot anything like this. I had never met the family prior either so I felt like I was going in blind. Almost everything about this shoot was different than I’m used to. It was pretty freeing to have such simple directions, “Take pictures of what is going on right now,” that’s it. I didn’t have to pose anybody I didn’t have to snap my fingers above my camera to get anyone to look at me. I had no shot list or expectations either. It felt really good.

When I arrived I just spent some time talking with the family about Kevin and his time away and about how the event may unfold. Most of the time we were just waiting there. When I first showed up they announced over the loud speakers that the buses had just entered the south entrance to Camp Pendleton, so we waited. Each time they announced the progress over the speakers you could sense the anticipation rise you could see and hear the excitement growing. Most wedding days there isn’t a whole lot of waiting around, there’s usually a pretty tight schedule and everyone is constantly doing something. Wedding days go by quite quickly. Those two hours I spent at Camp Pendleton seemed like a week. Those two hours were a constant crescendo, every moment felt by every person there.

There wasn’t anything to do there but wait. When we saw the buses everyone shrieked and cried and whooped but no one could see their loved ones yet, we had to wait some more. They had to turn in their weapons and what not. Meanwhile they emptied the semi truck filled top to bottom with their gear. I was able to learn about Kevin and his family and feel the love and appreciation they had for him and his choice to go off to war and service our country. At this point I learned too that the reason they hired me was because Kevin’s dad wasn’t able to attend the homecoming, and they wanted to document it and still get to experience his son’s return from war. Kevin’s dad wasn’t able to attend because he is currently serving in the army and stationed in Afghanistan. Yikes, not only does it take a strong and courageous man (or woman) to go off to a foreign land and serve our country in time of war but it certainly takes a strong loving family too.

So finally, we hear the veterans on the Harley’s coming around the corner. At this point everyone is about as excited as I would think you could get. Tears, cheering and more tears. Then we can see the Marines in formation marching towards us. I don’t get teary eyed often at weddings, partially because after being at so many it takes a very special couple or a very intense unique moment and I try for the most part to keep cool so that I can pay attention and get the important shots everybody and their mom expects to see But at this moment when the Marine’s rounded the corner I could barely see through the camera. I don’t even know any of these men but my blood is rushing, my adrenal glands are pumping something fierce. I don’t even really remember how loud the crowd was, I’m sure they were still cheering and yelling their son’s or husband’s names as they passed us in perfect formation and almost all of them straight faced and warrior like. They all stop turn towards us and stand at attention. Time once again frozen, just moments lasting forever. I was holding my breath barely able to see through the camera and not really knowing what exactly will happen at the moment the Marines are released. The moment the Marines were released I was still frozen for a moment, I just watched, I couldn’t help it; I forgot I was the photographer.

The intensity of the Marines running toward their families and friends the families running towards the Marines was much like Clash of the Titans or Braveheart minus the weapons. People just collided, embracing and not letting go. I almost couldn’t keep up with the family running to greet Kevin. I still couldn’t see, I was running to keep up with a camera stuck to my face. It was seriously crazy. Weddings have great moments, weddings are wonderful days filled with love and excitement. But I bet for many of these people whether it’s a son like Kevin or a husband or friend, this is a day better than your wedding. This is the day you are re-united with the ones you love most, almost a year of worrying and missing and longing to see that person you pledged your life to one way or another. Wow. That’s all I kept thinking on the way home. Wow.

The homecoming was obviously intensely intimate and personal for the family. How did you approach the need for great photos, while still respecting the feelings of the family?

Before I took a single picture I chatted with Kevin’s mom and sister and met all his friend and other family. I walked around a little bit taking some wide shots of the area, the signs that were made for Kevin (some details if you will). I just kept taking photos and getting closer and closer. I just wanted them to get used to me pointing and clicking at them before I started getting too close. After some more chatting with the family and friends (one of which was a fellow Marine) I was able to just be one of them, waiting for Kevin, I think it was actually really nice for them to be talking to someone about Kevin, they wouldn’t have been talking with each other about Kevin like they were talking about him with me. They already know him so they wouldn’t have been sharing as much, at least I don’t think. At this point it seemed they were comfortable with me clicking away right in their face, probably mostly because the only thing they were interested in was seeing Kevin, and in the mean time they could talk to me about how proud they are of him and what an awesome guy he is and how wonderful it will be to see him.

What advice do you have for photographers who are working on similar assignments? Is there anything you wish you’d have done differently?

I only really realized this after the fact, but I think the most helpful thing for me to get good images from this event was to be a part of the story myself. I had to be taking photographs from the family’s perspective. I had to, for a few hours, become a member of this family. I couldn’t be afraid to get too close. To tell the story of Kevin’s family welcoming him home I had to work my way into his family for a short time. This is where starting from outside and working my way closer and closer and getting to know them (even only in a couple short hours) was the key to getting the best images. At the peak of this whole event the family had forgotten that I was a bearded guy they didn’t know sticking a big old camera in their face and for just a few moments I was one of them, experiencing a lot of what they were experiencing. The photography industry is much different now days, but I remember when I was a younger fellow I always thought photographers were abrasive older men, slightly overweight with ponytails who were pushy and always getting you to do things you didn’t want to do and always just far enough away that you couldn’t quite understand what they were saying. So I have always tried to not be “that guy.” I always try to be friendly and fun, but also I don’t talk too much. I want to keep an open mind and an open heart and be ready and willing (and not too far away) to catch the real moments we all live in. I think shooting this event helped me realize that after shooting tons of weddings and becoming a little numb to the same old rigmarole, that it’s not about the flower centerpieces and twinkly lights, it’s about the people and their interactions and their moments that they share. We can’t be afraid to get too close to the people. The people are what are most important about the events we shoot. There wasn’t anything “pretty” at Camp Pendleton that day but it’s safe to say these are some of the best images I’ve taken. So in short, my advice would be to not be abrasive old men off in the distance clicking away but to be close friends taking part in the story itself.

Be sure to share your own emotional experiences as a Photographer with us on either Facebook or Twitter.

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