Helping a friend and veteran leave a legacy
By Penn Hansa
Bruce 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 incredible."
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 to remember.
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 studio's equipment.
"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.