Visual Arts

Gerry Johnson’s Capturing Veterans’ Pride

Photographer Gerry Johnson offers his services to veterans. Photo by Kelly Green.

A survivor of cancer and heart disease, photographer Gerry Johnson understands the value of time. That’s why he’s reduced his workload as a project manager at Zions Bancorporation to three days a week. A half-week at work provides enough money to pay the bills, but leaves plenty of time “to explore creative and fulfilling ventures in photography.” He’s explored the land and sky of the western landscape, captured the magic of candid personal moments, and — full disclosure – has produced some stunning images for this magazine. In his latest venture, he’s looking to give some of that valuable time back to a unique group of people.

“I have had a substantial amount of assistance from others in improving my skills as a photographer,” Johnson says. “Reflecting upon this one day, and wondering how best to ‘pay it forward’, I read an article about veterans and realized that this is one group that I’ve not ever really acknowledged. Or that has been really acknowledged by Americans.”

While Johnson came of age during the Vietnam War, and lost a lot of friends to the conflict, he was never drafted. His father and uncles, though, were World War II vets. Johnson says his father had a couple of photos from Germany, but never talked much about the war.

Johnson decided he would use his talents as a photographer to honor the vets and their sacrifices. He contacted the VA, offering to provide veterans and/or their families free portraits. Belinda Karabatsos, a VA volunteer coordinator, created the schedule and managed the shoots with her team, providing snacks and drinks for those waiting their turn. Jen McKeithen provided makeup and/or haircutting services while the vets and their families waited. Johnson, meanwhile, sat tethered to his laptop, reviewing and adjusting the photos to the sitters’ satisfaction so they could print the photos on site. This spring they completed two photo shoots, and have provided photographs for 64 vets. Another shoot is scheduled for Veterans Day.

At the shoots, Johnson shot from 9 am to 2:30 pm, a busy schedule for someone who cherishes his time. But he says it was energizing: the shoots became as much about the stories he encountered as the photos he took. One shot of a mother and son was the first they had taken together in 20 years. A husband and wife marked their 5th year of her sobriety by having their portrait taken. When Johnson asked one vet who the photo was for he replied, “For my obituary, I have a terminal illness and will be gone shortly.”

“I’m much more alert to the story behind the photo,” Johnson says, “and I share my experiences with others in an effort to get them to take family photos anyway. We have limited time here and no idea when that is up — capturing moments and sharing them is a powerful way to connect to one another.”

 

You can view Gerry Johnson’s work at his website. Anyone interested in supporting the Capturing Veterans’ Pride project can do so by visiting this page on the website and clicking the donate button. Veterans and families interested in participating can contact Gerry at gerrytj@mac.com

 

Gregory Walz is a native of Bitburg, Germany and received a B.A. in History from the University of Utah. He has worked at the Utah Division of State History since 2004, in the joint Research Center with the Utah Division of State Archives in the historic Rio Grande depot. He enjoys music in almost all of its forms and genres.

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