Helping a friend and
veteran leave a legacy
By Penn Hansa
Roscoe, CPP, orchestrated a portrait session of his best friend, Joe Rowe, that
he'll remember for ages. As a photographer who served in the Vietnam War,
taught workshops all over the United States and has been named as one of the
top photographers in Arizona, Roscoe has had his share of photographic
experiences. But this was the only shoot that he could give credit to fate for
making it happen. "It could only have been divine intervention to have
everything work out the way that it did," Roscoe said. "It was that
In a way, the photo shoot was
58 years in the making: Roscoe and Rowe have been friends since they were eight
years old. "If I didn't see him in 10 years and then I saw him again, it would
be just like yesterday," said Roscoe. "Nothing would change."
The origins of their
friendship are a little hazy to both. "We probably met after getting in a fight
with each other," Roscoe guessed. But they both recall the childhood they spent
together on the East Coast. They sailed, surfed and snorkeled together at the
beach, and spent hours in the forest climbing and exploring.
"We had it great growing
up," Roscoe remembered. "We didn't know how poor we were. We bought a bike and
it was Joe's and my bike. So he'd have it for a day, and then I'd ride it for a
day, like a family bike."
When they finished high
school in 1967, Rowe joined the Marines, and Roscoe decided to postpone college
to join the army. The army recruiter asked if he had any special skills, and
Roscoe told him that he wanted to be a photographer. It was the first thing
that came to mind.
"My parents gave me a
Brownie Bullet camera when I was younger, and I loved it," Roscoe said. "I
thought I was going to travel and take pictures of kings and queens."
That wasn't quite what he
ended up doing. After he went to school in the military to be trained as a
combat photographer, his first orders were to go to Alaska.
But it was just a mistake -
he was actually supposed to be in Vietnam.
During their service in
Vietnam from 1967-68, Roscoe and Rowe never saw each other, and only had vague
ideas of where the other was. When they returned, they were changed people. Both
suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It was just different. We
had our issues. We never knew what life was going to be like in a warzone. We
changed, not for the good or the bad. We just came back as good as we could
be," Roscoe said.
For years, Roscoe didn't
touch a camera. "I always had a love for photography, but because of the
memories I had associated with a camera, I had to be ok with myself before I
got back into it," he said. When he eventually
returned to the art, portraiture became his specialty.
"I think why I got into
portraiture is because some of the pictures I took overseas and some of the
ways people's faces looked told a story. And I thought, Well, you know what - if I can learn how to capture faces in a
storytelling way, that's what I need to do. I need to start capturing people
and telling a story with their face."
Roscoe ended up in Arizona and
joined PPA in 2008. He became a Certified Professional Photographer in 2010,
focusing on photographing the elderly.
"There's just so much
character in their faces. In young people, you don't have the wrinkles, the
character lines, the things that show how much time you've been in this world,"
Roscoe explained. "For these people who are grandparents, I want to pull a
character out of them to leave a legacy for the younger generations."
As they lived their lives on
separate American coasts - Roscoe in the west, Rowe in the east - they stayed
in touch through their families and the occasional phone call. "Joe's mom was
like my mom. I'd find out from her how he was doing, and she would tell him how
I was doing," Roscoe said.
And then one day, Roscoe got
a call from his friend Joe. Rowe told him he had been diagnosed with lung
cancer, which his doctor said had been caused by Agent Orange, one of the
herbicides and defoliants the U.S. military used as part of the herbicidal
warfare program Operation Ranch Hand. The effects of the spraying affect both
the Vietnamese and Americans as terrible remnants from a war that no one wants
Shortly after hearing the
news, Roscoe left for Rhode Island to take Rowe's portrait. It wasn't a
question of obligation, just a sense of duty to his friend and those who loved
him. "I was trying to create Joe's final image for his family," Roscoe said.
He called the Veterans of
Foreign Wars post in Wakefield, and they graciously allowed Roscoe to use their
hall for a temporary studio. But it left the question of lighting equipment,
things that Roscoe couldn't bring from Arizona for the session. So he did an
online search for photographers near Providence and came across Chris Garrison's
studio. Roscoe emailed him and explained what he was trying to accomplish, and
asked to borrow his gear. Without hesitation, Garrison heagreed to share his
"I didn't know him before
this email," Roscoe said. "I asked him why he would let me, a complete
stranger, borrow his equipment and he told me, 'You know, Bruce, I've had
people help me out when I needed them. I'm just trying to return the favor.'"
Fellow PPA member Roger
Salls from Roger Salls Photography, who had attended one of Roscoe's photography
workshops, came from Connecticut with a makeup artist to help with the shoot.
Roscoe, recognizing the importance of the event, also contacted the Providence
Journal for a reporter to cover their story.
The shoot only took a little
more than an hour. Rowe arrived and spent an hour with the makeup artist, then
Roscoe started doing his job. The Providence Journal sent a reporter, who was also
a Vietnam veteran, to interview Rowe. It was as if all the stars had aligned.
Everyone who was there that day was there for Rowe and to help create an image
that would capture his character. "I felt like a movie star," Rowe said to his
friend. "It lifted my spirits, and we had lots of fun."
It was a highly emotional
shoot for Roscoe, who realized that this would be the last portrait he would take
of his friend. "It is crushing to be losing one of the people you can really
talk to without having any problems," he said. "There's not a lot of people you
can call your best friend, and Joe is one of mine."
Rowe, who works with
PeaceTrees Vietnam to raise money for schools and libraries in Vietnamese
villages, asked his friend to help make his last wish come true: to see through
the completion of a library in the village of Mo O, close to where Rowe was
stationed in the war.
Thinking back on the shoot,
Roscoe couldn't believe that it all happened so perfectly. After all, if he
didn't have the venue, the lighting, or the assistant and makeup artist, the
final image wouldn't have been as meaningful as it is for both him and Rowe. "I
find it interesting that you can get photographers from all over the country
together, and you can make something happen," he said. "Nobody got any money
from it. There wasn't any incentive. They were just doing it to help."
The ties of friendship and
kinship, he realized, were stronger than he could have ever imagined.