I hadn’t heard of Tim Kolczak or The Veterans Project before last fall. At the time I was running a photography contest sponsored by our friends at Tamron USA. Dubbed the Shadow & Light Photo Contest, my goal was to let photographers go back to the basics. To play with the core elements of what makes a dramatic photo. And then give two people a couple of new lenses.
To no one’s surprise, the contest submissions were all-around stunning. So many of our readers are supremely talented. Along the way, we struggled to narrow the field to ten finalists and then pick two winners. Tim Kolczak took home the grand prize for this Veterans Project photo:
Stunning, right? On the surface, a classic portrait. But look a little closer and you use the carefully orchestrated use of flash as well one muted spark of color to highlight this wounded veteran’s glass eye. When I look at this photo, I see drama and truth and, above all, humanity.
So I immediately had to figure out who this Tim Kolczak guy was, which led me to The Veterans Project and The Caregiver Project. The Veterans Project uses photography and photographic essays to tell the stories of veterans as they reintegrate into “polite society”. Tim says, “My quest is to show civilians what it’s like to reintegrate into society for our veterans. The focus of the project is to not only capture the legacies of veterans of the American military, but to capture the stories of all Allied countries and their warrior classes as well.” The Caregivers Project uses photography and photographic essays, “bringing attention to those who sustain the most overlooked injuries and greatest sense of loss stemming from the Global War on Terror . . . the families of those injured or killed in the service of our great nation.”
In other words, a Tim Kolczack talented photographer with many important stories to tell and he’s doing a fantastic job telling them.
So I immediately asked if he was open to doing an interview and sharing a few of his amazing photos with you all. Here are the results
Steve’s Digicams: How did you first become interested in photography?
Tim Kolczak: Interestingly enough, it was nothing related to veterans that first pulled me into this wonderful art form. It was actually when I first started seeing my fellow university colleagues becoming interested in wedding photography. I remember viewing their various blogs with such profound admiration, and yearning to follow in their footsteps. I also felt a sense of passion in knowing I’d have my own unique style if I became a photographer. It wasn’t until I was halfway through my Master’s program at UT Dallas that I first picked up a DSLR. I was getting my degree in Emerging Media and Communication (EMAC) and I just kept picturing myself chained to a desk, serving as the Social Media Manager at a company whose message I didn’t really care to relay. That thought scared me and I felt photography was a way out of that. I’d also been through a personal tragedy where I lost someone very close to me, and photography allowed me to break away from that pain. I felt a true sense of release when I stepped behind the lens for the first time. Since then, I’ve been perpetually captivated by the gift of storytelling through imagery.
What was your first interchangeable lens camera?
My first interchangeable lens camera was a Nikon D7100. It was actually a wonderful “starter” camera, and I know many photographers that started out with far less technology on their hands. Although it’s a crop sensor and not as advanced as my Nikon D750 I carry now, some of my favorite images were taken with the D7100. It’s a phenomenal camera. My very first lenses were the Tokina 11-16mm f 2.8, which is still to this day my favorite architecture/landscape lens, and the Sigma 35mm f 1.4. I’ve since acquired a Tamron 35 f 1.8 that’s now my go-to portrait lens. I love the “vibration compensation” that brings out the best of its low-light capabilities.
Did you do any photography during your time in the military?
I actually hadn’t begun my photography journey when I was in the military, but that desire to tell stories through visuals was always there. When I was over in Iraq, I’d thought about interviewing a lot of the guys and constructing some sort of deployment project where my fellow infantrymen spoke their minds. That really never came to fruition as our mission was very sensitive in nature and didn’t allow for documentation of any sort.
Has photography helped your personal transition into “polite society?”
I truly don’t know that photography has helped my personal transition, because I’d already been back from Iraq for quite some time when I first started taking pictures. I was fortunate to serve with the Texas National Guard so I already was pretty well-adjusted to civilian life. However, I do think I had a few issues from being deployed to a combat zone. Who doesn’t? I’ve always found that stepping behind the lens has offered me some form of respite throughout the more painful moments in my life. I think more than being therapeutic to my transition as a veteran, photography has just been an overall wonderful form of therapy in life.
What inspired The Veterans Project and The Caregiver Project and what do you hope to share with the world that civilians might not know about veteran and caregiver lives?
The inception of The Veterans Project was inspired by my photography professor at UT Dallas, Doctor Marilyn Waligore. She admitted to me that during the Vietnam War she had vehemently protested, but later felt badly about the way those veterans were treated. It was an overall tumultuous time in our nation’s history, as I think we all now understand. She really wanted to help me develop something that was in a vein I’d already been plugged into. To be honest, I felt pigeonholed in that I felt she was choosing something So, after I decided to make her my official Capstone Project supervisor, I chose to spend my time with four different veterans documenting their lives throughout four separate days. Those first projects were incredibly limited compared to the project in its present format, but they registered within as something powerful I couldn’t quite grasp. These individuals opening up about their time before service, during, and after was so compelling that I found myself desiring to know more. We also decided to utilize a black and white format, due to the fact that we felt it very powerfully captured character and emotional movement in the images. There are no distractions with black and white. It’s simply the subject of the photo and whatever pertains to that subject, whereas color can become a bit distracting in portraits. I took a break for about six months because I wanted to develop myself more as an all-around photographer. However, in September of 2015 one of the first four veterans I covered took his own life. That man was SSG Carter Chick who just so happened to be one of my best friends and one of the men that deployed with me to Iraq. That moment was devastating on so many levels, but it’s what lit a fire within that I now credit for my “drive to light.” I feel a sense of perpetual motivation that’s inspired by Carter’s life and sacrifice. That particular point in time is where I realized this needed to be a full-time life work, and I believe that drive is what got me into Sundance as well as some national publications.
The Caregiver Project is a separate work that details the lives of veteran’s families. These families are either Blue Star (deployed veteran), White Star (veteran suicide), Gold Star (veteran Killed-In-Action), or Silver Star (veteran was wounded). I’d long lived with some sense of guilt due to the fact that I felt the families weren’t getting enough coverage through the media. When Carter Chick took his own life, I was impacted greatly by those left behind, his wife (Nikki) and two kids (Chad and Colt). I knew that although Carter was gone, that pain would never truly die. I wanted to document that in a way that was as respectful to them as possible, so I followed the family around to show people what it was like to be left behind. The Caregiver Project was a difficult work to begin because I was forcing myself into some very uncomfortable situations, with some families that had experienced an inconceivable amount of pain. This particular work is in its infancy stages, and it’s evolving just the way The Veterans Project did when I began that work.
I see both of these projects as bridge builders to the civilian community. I think there is a major perception that our military members are some type of government cyborgs sent on a mission they completely agree with at every juncture. That’s simply not the truth, as each veteran is an individual human being that has completely different reasons for joining. Some join for college money, some out of a sense of patriotic responsibility, some to protect indigenous people groups in partner nations, and some to test their own personal mettle. Through The Veterans Project in particular, I want that to be established through a visual identity essay. I believe that by highlighting each individual’s story we are able to capture a more authentic version of the historical narrative, one in which we sent young men and women to fight for national interests. It doesn’t matter if you agree with those interests or not. The simple fact is there are people volunteering every day to serve in a capacity that requires an unfathomable amount of sacrifice. I want to make sure that we don’t lose that lesson and forget the singular narrative.
The Caregiver Project is a reminder that it’s not only veterans that are making those sacrifices. I fervently believe that our caregivers have largely been disregarded or forgotten. That’s not to say that there aren’t organizations out there providing assistance, but part of that aid should be in the form of storytelling. We haven’t done enough for them in that particular arena. I’m of the opinion that art is in its greatest configuration when it causes social influence, and by telling these stories we’re spawning a sense of consciousness that produces action. The awareness itself isn’t enough, but I know that if enough organizations and individuals are enlightened, there will be change. Between the two projects, I feel that in the long term more people will be impacted by the work of The Caregiver Project. I think it’s a little easier to find empathy for individuals that didn’t make the choice to serve. I also tend to think that both projects are difficult reads in that they force the reader to emotionally grapple with a very difficult subject.
What I love about your photographs, Tim, is how much emotion and history and details each frame expresses about your subjects. You possess a talent for capturing human stories. How has your style evolved?
It’s always such a tremendous compliment when anyone mentions that my images capture emotion. I feel like there is a certain technical degree of photography that can almost always be better, but you can’t teach the ability to capture emotion. That’s why I feel extremely humbled by that compliment when someone sees emotion in my work. I think my enthusiasm for the subject is what creates that sensation in the images. You can’t teach someone to be passionate about a certain subject, so I guess in a sense that’s a lesson to photographers out there. Find a subject you’re consumed by and develop your niche there. We’re in a tremendous age of digital tech where you can turn the subject of your obsession into a life work that actually allows you to make a living. As far as my own evolution as a photographer, I think starting late was a bit of an advantage in this world. I’d already discovered my passions and realized what I really cared about the most in life. While you could line me up with 99 other photographers and find me to be one of the least technically proficient, I think you’d find me to be one of the more passionate. That fervor for storytelling has continued to develop in that the more I photograph veterans and caregivers, the more I care about properly telling their story. It’s like anything in life. The more time you spend around a certain community, the more that group becomes your tribe, and the more you care about the way that tribe is portrayed to the rest of the world. I know that my “band of brothers” and the families of those brothers, are supremely sacrificial groups that deserve the ultimate representation in the narrative space.
On the technical side of imagery, I’ve definitely grown substantially as my career has progressed but I had an advantage in starting in Master’s level classes. My first class was in studio lighting where I was constantly playing catch-up to photographers who’d been shooting professionally for 10 years or more. Anyone that knows studio work knows that it can be the most complicated version of what we do as photographers. You’re constantly thinking about shutter speed, f stop, proper lighting, placement of that lighting, and many other factors. Starting in that arena was a tough world as a rookie photographer, but fortunately I had some very accommodating colleagues that strongly believed in my abilities. My capabilities have grown the more I’ve immersed myself in my work and that’s been an organic progression. My advice to all those photographers in the early stages of their career would be to just get out there and shoot. Reading a manual only does so much and my greatest growth has come from shooting in real-world scenarios. I can’t tell you how many images I look at now and think, “Wow, what was I thinking on that shot?” or “I know a million ways I could’ve captured this scene better.” Those lessons only came from mistakes in practical application.
Is there a particular photo session that was more rewarding or emotional than you anticipated?
I think all of my WWII coverage has been more rewarding than I possibly could’ve ever anticipated. It’s a wild feeling to be able to sit in a space with men who you know are responsible for your freedom. The stories carry an emotional impact that’s indescribable. I will always remember one story in particular and that was my coverage of SSG Alfred Haws. Haws was an Army veteran who was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines and led on a three-day march which later came to be known as the Bataan Death March. What makes this story even more incredible is his brother was in the camp with him as well as his future wife’s brothers. Alfred’s brother died in his arms after two weeks in the camp after losing his battle with illness and starvation. SSG Haws’ brothers-in-law both were brutally tortured and killed after being sent on a work detail. He’d later find that out when he met his wife.
To add to all that, when the bomb went off over Nagasaki the aftershock blew Alfred into a trench and broke his arm in about 30 places. The camp doctor sawed it off at the shoulder with a rusty saw. Despite all of those horrific circumstances, Alfred made it out of the camp after almost four years and would later become a Wild-land Firefighter. His daughter told me that although her father never spoke about his time in the camp, she’d catch him scratching himself raw due to the feeling of insects biting him. That emotional trauma remained with him until the day he died, three weeks after I covered him. Being able to tell his story to a packed gallery at Sundance was an amazing feeling, and something I’ll never forget. Part of the power of that memory came in my journey to his hometown, Logan, New Mexico. It was a dying farming community on the Eastern plains, and I remember thinking that it was the perfect metaphor for how most of these WWII veterans lived out the rest of their days. There is a humility in each of these warriors that’s hard to describe, so despite Alfred’s legendary status, a sleepy farming town was a perfect backdrop for his story. He was a warrior that desired no adulation or awards.
Most of your photos are either in black & white or with just the faintest hint of one color? What is it about this style that you feel helps best tell the stories of your Veterans and Caregiver Project subjects?
Emotional context is everything when it came to my choice of black-and-white as a medium. The faint hints of color are always consistent with a meaningful part of the image, but to be honest even the slight color scared me a bit at first. I pictured the selective coloring trend that was a bit of a cheesy fad for a while. So, most of my images are left completely colorless but when I do choose some color it’s incredibly relevant to the message. Most of the time you’ll see it in the flag or a piece of memorabilia that’s of special significance to that particular veteran. Black-and-white tends to create some sense of focus on the subject of the image where all the outside distractions outside of that subject dissipate. Although I do love some color, I’ve found that for this particular work it’s the most effective means to maintain emphasis on the individual. Plus, I’ve always felt like black-and-white portraiture was the most beautiful work. There are some impeccable artists out there that have so successfully utilized it, and I find myself wanting to know more about the subjects in their images.
Your photograph of Corporal Josue Barron (USMC, OEF Veteran) recently won our Tamron-sponsored Shadow & Light Photo Contest, and it’s a bit more stylized or impressionistic than some of your other work? What inspired this particular shot?
First of all, it was an honor to win the Shadow & Light Contest as there were so many deserving photographers. I’d like to express my sincerest “thanks” for that award. Marine Corporal Josue Barron actually stepped on a pressure plate IED (Improvised Explosive Device) in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan called “Helmand Province.” He lost one of his legs, his eye, and suffered a litany of injuries which required an incredible amount of surgeries. I’d seen his glass eye which was emblazoned with the Marine Corps EGA (Eagle Globe and Anchor), and it just struck me as a significant example of sacrifice. He was the first veteran I’d photographed who’d lost an eye and I wanted to treat that injury with the greatest amount of respect possible. These stylized shots are all about feeling and I only take them if I feel there is a significant reason for that shot. I try to maintain an emphasis on documentary style photography but if I see something that begs for a stylized shot, I pull out my flash unit.
Have you gotten to use your Tamron 70-210mm F4 prize lens at all and how is it working out for you?
It’s funny you ask that because I don’t shoot with zooms at all unless it’s an absolute requirement for the session. I’ve found that the best glass is found in primes, and I love to interact with the subject. I’ve found that while primes make you work harder for the shot, there is something intensely gratifying about using one. A lot of my friends that are photographers always told me my work would require a zoom lens, because I’m covering some individuals that have pretty active lifestyles. However, even in my shoots with veterans that are now high-level athletes I’ve found that my primes have been enough. That being said, I’m looking forward to having the Tamron 70-210 on hand. It’s actually a very fast lens, and I find myself enjoying the capabilities it brings to my arsenal. I’ve always been a huge Tamron fan as I believe their build quality is second to none. Third-party lenses scared me a bit when I started photography, but I’ve actually found that Tamron carries some of my preferred lenses. I don’t care if this sounds like an advertisement because they really do make some damn good lenses. Tell them to feel free to sponsor me if they want (laughs).
What’s in your kit right now? Do you have a favorite lens for your portraits?
That Tamron 35mm f 1.8 lens I mentioned earlier is my favorite portrait lens by far. It’s so lightweight that you almost forget it’s on your camera. The thing that places it at the top of the ranks for 35mm lenses and some of those other, more shallow depth-of-field 1.4 lenses, is the vibration compensation. I love the ability to shoot at 1/60 and find no visible blur in the image. The 35 is the ultimate comfort zone as far as perspective. It tends to dramatize the image a bit and it provides just enough perspective of the scene. I’ve also taken some pretty rad landscape shots with it as well. It makes all the difference in the world to find a comfort zone with a certain focal length.
However, I’ve definitely thought about working their 85mm f 1.8 into my bag. It’s been on my wishlist for quite some time. I want to work outside of my box a little bit. I also work with a Tokina 11-16mm f 2.8 that I like for a more dramatic look. There is a particular image of Marine Sergeant Kirstie Ennis that I took of her sitting on the couch in her apartment with her multiple legs laid out next to her. I remember having her look out the window and asking her to think about how far she’s come since her helicopter crashed. That image always gives me the chills and I took that with my Tokina 11-16. Now that I look back at the image I notice the noise level is a little higher than I’d like because I was shooting on my Nikon D7100, but it’s still one of my favorite images I’ve taken.
Interested in any of the gear Tim used to capture his photos?
Check them out at B&H Photo-Video:
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