Master Sergeant Jeremy Lock, a military photographer whose work has been featured in National Geographic, Time Magazine and the New York Times, and who has been awarded more Military Photographer of the Year (MILPHOG) awards than anyone else, became an esteemed photojournalist more or less by accident. His story is one that lends credence to the clichéd adage “everything happens for a reason” because Lock certainly had more than a few opportunities to choose completely different career paths—and almost did. In fact, if he had his way when first enlisting in the Air Force, he would have been trained as an X-ray technician.
Lock grew up in Beavercreek, Ohio, born into a military family. His dad is a retired Lt. Colonel in the Air Force whose achievements include helping to create the SRAM II missile, and his grandfather is a WWII veteran. Lock attended Wright State University, but didn’t graduate. Instead, he worked in construction, but again he found it wasn’t the right fit. He joined the military with the aforementioned aspirations for X-ray technician expertise— yet, those plans didn’t seem to be in the cards either. He was given a job as an imagery processor, which was “one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. And it’s easy to see why Lock considers that job one of the best things that could have happened, as it was his foray into photography. The job required that Lock develop and process satellite and spy plane imagery, which eventually led to a budding interest in other imagery equipment, including cameras. He started to self-teach himself photography, and before long, a few mentors took interest in his natural ability for capturing moments in time. He became an aerial photographer, and the rest is history.
Though he has been the recipient of the prestigious MILPHOG award no less than six times and his lens has witnessed the fall of Saddam Hussein, the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, the efforts of decision makers at the African Union Summit and other historical moments, Lock will tell you that he hasn’t taken “the picture” yet. “I don’t believe I’ve taken it yet, and I think that helps me stay fresh and keep working for that exciting new shot that I want,” he says. Check out C Magazine’s Q&A with Lock to learn more about the family man, his greatest fear and the one thing he refuses to photograph.
Please state your name and title.
I am Master Sergeant Jeremy Lock. I am with the United States Air Force, and I currently work for Airman Magazine out of Fort Meade, Maryland.
You have won the esteemed Military Photographer of the Year award six times. What is it that you are looking for when you need “the shot?”
When I need that shot, I’m looking for the human element, I’m looking for “the moment”—something that will connect the viewer to what my subject is feeling or going through at that time. Usually, those photos that I take, I don’t know what it is, but it literally makes the hair stand up on my arms.
Your family is steeped in military tradition and service. From your grandfather’s WWII tours to your father’s Pentagon work to your Afghanistan missions. Your family has laid their life on the line to protect freedom. What does the Lock name mean to you in this context?
The Lock name, I mean … It’s one of the proudest things in America to be a part of the military, to uphold our freedom, for our loved ones, our family, our friends and the rest of the Americans. It has been an amazing journey, not only hearing stories through my grandfather, but hearing my dad, watching his accomplishments, seeing how he grew and prospered, and then taking those values that I learned from my grandparents and my mom and dad and instilling them in my life through the military. It has given me a great sense of accomplishment, pride… of patriotism.
Your father, Robert Lock, is a retired Lt. Colonel in the Air Force. He helped create the SRAM II missile and remains a celebrated aeronautical space engineer. In other words, he is a rocket scientist. Did this status intimidate you while growing up?
Yeah, we always looked at him as the geeky-officer-nerd kind of guy, but it’s funny how things come back onto you. It was literally basic training when I was in charge of a bunch of guys, and I remember calling him up and saying, “Hey, these guys aren’t doing this, and these guys aren’t doing that.” And my dad just kind of laughed at me, and said, “See, now you know what I had to deal with.” I look back and I’m proud of him and proud of what he’s accomplished. And again, I couldn’t have done what I’ve done in my career without watching what he’s done in his. Life is a series of ... Life is a series of moments. If I have my camera in my hand walking down the street, or even if I don’t have my camera, and I’m walking down the street, I’m constantly seeing moments. And moments are those little things in life that can be in your face – a guy fighting fire, to the quiet moment of a young daughter being tucked in by her father. Those moments that make us feel human, that let us know that we’re still human.
What role did your family play when you decided to enter the military?
They were supportive, and they were kind of shocked. I went to college at Wright State University until they politely asked me to leave. Then I worked construction laying block and building houses, and I guess it just wasn’t cutting it. I loved an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, but some of the guys I worked with had to go back to jail on the weekends, and it just wasn’t the life for me. So I decided I needed to do something with my life, and I decided to join the military, and I wanted to become an X-ray technician. My mom was medical and my dad was Air Force, so I thought I could do four years in the military as an X-ray technician, have a great trade, and then get out. Well, life doesn’t always go that way, and my recruiter wasn’t 100 percent with me, so I was given a job as an imagery processor, and that was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life. After a couple of years of being an imagery processor where I would develop, process and print satellite imagery, spy plane imagery, things like that from Kosovo and stuff, our career fields merged, and I started picking up a camera and self-teaching myself. I had a couple mentors that saw some potential in me and helped me grow and just again, one of the most amazing and best decisions that I could make was going to the military. I look at what I’ve accomplished over 20 years – I hit 20 years last March, and I am just one of the luckiest people in the world. And not only that, but to have a family and love them and brothers and sisters that back and support me to be able to be that person that travels the world and tries to make a difference with his work.
You documented a fellow soldier through her fight against cancer You called it Kari’s War (kariswar.org). Reflect on the life lessons you learned through that extremely intimate and intense project.
I got to see the willpower of a strong, single mother – how strong a female can be in this adversity – but again, how one
can come out so hopeful and pretend like they kicked the world, just beat the world. And I also learned something from this as I have with a lot of the other things I’ve photographed: Sometimes we think we have it bad, but there are always people out there that have it a little worse. The majority of that whole project, and what I learned, is how to put a face on something that millions of people are going through.
So would you call it “lovingly sad?”
Do you ever consider the potential that you might be taking a picture during a moment when you may actually trade your life for the
picture? I don’t think any picture is worth dying for. However, I would rather die on the battlefield for my country than drive along the road and die in a car wreck, or have a heart attack or whatever.
We all have that ability to have beauty. Even through the war zones and earthquakes and tsunamis, I think that’s one of the greatest joys of my job, seeing that beauty in human nature. Beauty will always rise to the top in war and not, and that’s what I love about my job—seeing beauty rise.
How many countries and continents have you visited?
I’ve been to over 40 countries, and I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica.
Do you wish you could forget anything you have seen?
No, I don’t. I’ve made tons of mistakes in my life, but I would never ever change anything that I’ve seen or anything that I’ve done because I believe it makes me who I am today, and I wholeheartedly believe that I am a good person who means well and wants
to do good in this world.
Soccer team of choice?
The United States, of course.
Are you a natural teacher?
I don’t like to call myself a teacher; I like to call myself a mentor. Teaching, to me, is more like getting up and
lecturing and saying this is how it has to be done. Mentoring is more of a guide, a journey, helping the individuals through their progression, through their journey with their photography. And also letting them be able to make those mistakes because as humans, we don’t learn unless we make mistakes.
What was it like to walk into Saddam Hussein’s house after he was overthrown?
We were one of the first Air Force teams in Iraq. We came in like three days after the statue came down, and there were still bodies lying all over the place. But to walk into Saddam’s palace was something you don’t ever think you’ll do in your whole life; you don’t think about something like that. His palace was so huge, but so mobster, so gaudily decorated.
Do you remember anything particularly obscene in his?
No, but right next door to the palace was Uday’s place, and we were the first people to come across his lions. He had a male lion and two female lions in a cage, and we fed them and they gave birth, and that was kind of neat.
What are your iPhone app addictions?
Right now, I’m addicted—and have been for the last seven to eight months– to my iPhone, and the two apps that I really use are Hipstamatic and Snapseed.
Where do you spend your summer vacations?
I usually spend my summer vacations in the Outer Banks at Rodanthe in North Carolina.
Nikon or Canon and why?
First off, I’m a Nikon guy. And the reason I’m a Nikon guy is because that’s all I’ve ever known. However, that’s all I ever want to know. Nikon has treated me well; And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you shoot with a Nikon, a Canon, a Fuji, or you shoot with a point and shoot or your phone— at the end of the day, it’s all a tool, a tool of the trade.
You are a soldier first. At what point do you trade your camera for a weapon?
The only time I trade a camera for a weapon is if I feel the people I’m working with are in imminent danger. I’ve only had to raise a weapon one time, thank God. One of the guys in our patrol had been shot in the back, and he was being evacuated out. People think I’m crazy when I go out on a mission – I just go out with a 9mm pistol, and the reason I do is because I’m not there to fight. I’m there to capture what our brave soldiers and our brave military are doing. There will be a weapon for me to pick up or use if I need to. My job isn’t to fight; my job is to capture what the amazing military is putting itself in front of. If photographers aren’t there capturing and showing what’s going on, it’s like a tree that fell in the woods with no one around: You didn’t hear it, so you didn’t know it happened.
Soldiers are the _______ of a society.
Military members are the backbone of society. Military members are what give my kids the freedom to walk around, play soccer, say whatever they want, go to school, and you can go on and on. They are the backbone of this country.
Is there anything you avoid shooting at all costs?
Weddings. I just don’t get into shooting weddings. I just don’t like them.
Natural Born Killers.
What is the craziest thing you have ever done?
Ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain in 1994.
Are there any new recording artists that have your ear?
What is the proudest moment of your military career?
My last trip to Iraq in 2006 when I was awarded the Bronze Star. That was from everything from being blown up in IEDs, to firefights, to sticking my finger in bullet holes of wounded people. And also, hitting that 20-year mark and wishing I could do it all over again.
Of your six MILPHOG awards, what are your most memorable moments?
The first year I won was amazing because it was the first year I achieved it. The photos were a little bit of Afghanistan and a little of my Civil War documentary that I was working on. The next memorable one was in 2005, the second MILPHOG I won. In the
military you would always hear, “Oh, Combat Camera is always winning, or this person is winning, because they always have the good jobs, blah, blah, blah.” It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you could be in the war zone, you could be at the earthquake, if you can’t take great pictures in your own backyard, you’re not going to take great pictures when you’re over there.
So, that’s what I won when I was at a base-level job. I was working for a small base newspaper over in England, and I won with just shooting just base kind of stuff. And I really cherish that award because it showed everyone that you can take great pictures in your own backyard. The next one was my fourth one that I won, and the reason that I love that one so much is because I beat the record. There’s only one other person that’s won it three times. For me, it’s been 20 years of hard work and wanting to be excellent in everything that I do. And I left a legacy in the military. I left a legacy for younger people to attain, reach and beat someday.