Veteran and Photography Alum’s Secrets to Success in School and Behind the Camera
Filed under: Film & Production
November 10, 2017
Christopher DeWitt spent 20+ years in the military and, for over a decade, was an Aerospace Ground Equipment maintenance specialist for the U.S. Air Force. In this role, he helped to maintain critical aircraft testing equipment. Yet he’d long been interested in photography, and when given the opportunity to apply for a position as a military photojournalist in 2007, he took the leap.
“I always enjoyed taking pictures. I had several cameras growing up. For my high school graduation, my parents bought me a camera. It's always been there; I just never really tried to perfect that craft,” he says. “When I saw the opportunity to be a photojournalist, I thought I might enjoy it, but it was a huge shift. Looking back, I wouldn't do it any other way. I'm so glad I was able to make that career change.”
In his new role, DeWitt’s passion for photography grew and he decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Digital Photography at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh—Online Division in 2009 to develop his skills. With his military schedule, online classes were the perfect fit.
However, mere months into classes, DeWitt was facing deployment and had to disenroll, knowing that internet access was not guaranteed. Throughout his service, DeWitt was deployed a total of six times, including three deployments in Afghanistan, where his photographs captured the story of U.S. military efforts to rebuild the country and train its citizens.
Upon returning from his final deployment in 2012, DeWitt was stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. With his military retirement approaching, DeWitt recommitted to refining his photography talents. “I immediately started thinking, I want to get back to school. I want to do this for myself,” he recalls.
Still, his work on the base kept DeWitt busy. In fact, the Black Forest Fire—the most destructive fire in Colorado history—broke out in his final week before military retirement. When the local military bases joined in the firefight, DeWitt dressed in his flame retardant uniform from deployment, grabbed his camera, and went out to document their work.
While other images were captured from helicopters, his was the sole photography from inside the fire. “Being able to witness and show what the firefighters were doing, to see the structures that they were able to save, was amazing,” he recalls.
Among those images were pictures of a home being saved, a home where months later, DeWitt and the firefighters were invited to a meal with the family. “It’s rare to see the impact of your work like that,” he says. “At the time, I thought I was telling the story of these firefighters and their role with stopping the Black Forest Fire, but this family saw it as, ‘That's our life. That's our home. These are our memories.’ That was really touching to meet the father and mother and their daughter.”
By spring 2013, DeWitt had resumed classes at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh - Online Division, completing his bachelor’s degree two years later in 2015. Throughout his classes, DeWitt juggled a full-time job and his personal photography business, and his schoolwork was never easy.
“I had to deal with the fact that these instructors were going to push me out of my comfort zone. They were going to expect me to give them more, and more, and more, and for there to be a progression throughout the class. I used to think, ‘Oh, not him again.’ Later I realized, ‘This guy is pushing me to be better in my craft.’ The instructors’ desire for their students’ improvement really stands out.”
Since graduating, DeWitt has stayed in touch with several instructors, contacting them for their expertise and advice. DeWitt also appreciated that, despite being an online student, he was able to meet students and faculty from The Art Institute of Colorado and participate in their in-person portfolio show as well as work with their Career Services team and attend their campus graduation ceremony.
“I was welcomed as one of them. It wasn't about being affiliated with the Pittsburgh campus or with the Online Division or about living near the Denver campus. It was about the school at large, with everybody wanting what was best for the students.”
Today, DeWitt is the Lead Photographer at the Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. His work is used across the social media and websites for the base and the U.S. Air Force, as well as saved in other U.S. Department of Defense image repositories accessible to the media and the general public.
“I’m still doing in many aspects what I did in the military, in that I'm helping to tell the story of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines across the globe through images. That’s something I'm passionate about,” he says.
Even his least favorites classes from his program, he says, have proven beneficial to his current work. “The business class wasn't exactly the most fun, but I have used many of the things that I did in that class since I graduated. Here I am doing commercial photography for this large company, and I've got these documents and experiences from class that I can relate to this real world scenario. It's fantastic.”
For DeWitt, the hard work of juggling the military, work, and school was ultimately worth it. “We've all got things in our lives that get in the way, but you're going to have to step up, to push yourself," he says. "You're here to learn and you have to put in the work and the effort. This isn't easy. It's going to be hugely rewarding, but you're going to have to earn it. Nobody's going to give you a thing. You have to go out and get it.”
To view Christopher's portfolio, visit www.behance.net/chrisdewitt.
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