Four years ago, dad-with-a-camera Eric Stegall had a friend who was transitioning from his service in the U.S. Army into the civilian sector. He noticed his friend’s LinkedIn profile photo was a hero shot: He was in uniform with a rifle on his chest, a dog at his side, and a rocket launcher behind him. “It’s certainly a great shot to have,” says Stegall, “and not at all what you want as a profile photo on LinkedIn if you’re trying to get a civilian job.”
Stegall, an amateur photographer who’d been photographing the marching band at his son’s high school, offered to make a headshot for his friend that would be more appropriate for a private-sector job search. He studied portraiture via YouTube, used a reflector and a Nikon D4, and came away with 100 frames of his friend in a suit and tie. His friend’s roommate, who was also ending his military service, liked the photos so much he asked Stegall to make his portrait as well.
As he made those headshots, the roommate conveyed to Stegall how difficult it is to move into the civilian workforce from a military background, especially for people who entered the military right out of high school and have no private-sector work experience. Stegall realized what an important service he was providing. Thinking other transitioning service members might need professional headshots in civilian clothing, Stegall set up a booth at a military base and made 16 portraits that day.
One subject, a “Hollywood drill sergeant,” as Stegall recalls, appeared to be about 7 feet tall with a 27-inch waist, flattop, square jaw, and dimpled chin. As Stegall made captures, he says, the guy “looked like he wanted to cut my throat.” That is, until Stegall joked, “I need more Army and less Navy out of you.” The subject laughed out loud, resulting in some amazing portraits. When Stegall showed the subject his images, the “hero of a man” who moments before had been giving Stegall’s lens a death stare, draped his hulking arm over Stegall’s shoulder and began to cry. He gave Stegall his mother’s email address and asked if he would send her the photos. “She hasn’t seen a picture of me in 20 years in civilian clothes,” he said.
The interaction was life altering for Stegall. He had no idea the impact a portrait could have on former military personnel, not just providing them with a professional headshot for the private sector but helping many of them to see themselves as individuals for the first time in a long while. When the military bases he contacted said they weren’t aware of any programs providing headshots to former military service members seeking civilian jobs, Stegall created his own. Portraits for Patriots is a nonprofit network of over 100 professional photographers who volunteer their time making headshots of transitioning vets and their spouses at bases from coast to coast. “Every month, we reply to anywhere from 900 to 1,000 inquiries for headshots around the country,” he says, so the need for volunteer photographers is great.
The workload is immense, but the mission is on point. “Once you see a military service member’s face when they see a really great picture of themselves, it’s all you need to keep going because it’s just perception altering,” says Stegall. “I get emails every week saying that Portraits for Patriots was the best part of the transition and how it helped them make the mental exit from the service. Just because you are part of a military unit doesn’t preclude you from shining as an individual. It’s how that picture makes you feel about your yourself that is what matters the most. It is fantastically rewarding and everybody in it feels the same way."
Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.