After graduating from Lewiston High School in 2014, Dana Beesley found herself at the University of Idaho in Moscow. But Beesley’s itch for something more translated into enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps.
After completing basic training, she found a path where her creative muscles would be flexed as a combat photojournalist for the Marines. The empathy, passion and keen eye reflected in her work recently earned her national praise when Beesley, 25, received the Military Visual Awards 2020 Photographer of the Year.
She is the daughter of Val and Brian Beesley of Lewiston. Val Beesley is pastor of Good Hope Lutheran Church in Gifford and St. Paul’s in Craigmont, and Brian Beesley is news editor of the Tribune.
Dana Beesley found a few minutes in her busy schedule to answer questions about her role as a sergeant in the Marine Corps and how she looks at photography.
Lewiston Tribune: What initially sparked your interest in photography?
Dana Beesley: I was really drawn to wildlife and the beauty of the national parks as a child. My family and I would frequently go on camping trips to places such as Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, the Oregon Coast and the Black Hills, and those adventures really instilled an appreciation and sense of wonderment and creativity in me. I didn’t really handle a camera too much unless it was a disposable one we picked up at a Walgreens along the way, but I have family members who are amateur birders, and I loved looking through their binoculars at wildlife up close. My parents kept hundreds of issues of National Geographic in the basement of our home, and that was where my first interest in travelling and photography started.
LT: How did you find photography and photojournalism within the Marine Corps?
DB: I actually auditioned for the Marine Corps Band at first. I played trumpet throughout junior high and high school, and thought I wanted to pursue music more. I proceeded to fail my audition miserably, so that didn’t end up being in the cards for me. But it was serendipity that an opening for the Combat Camera Military Occupational Specialty (or MOS) came up, and I jumped at the chance after my recruiter told me all of the opportunities that were available with that assignment.
After Marine Combat Training, I was assigned the designator Public Affairs Specialist, and went to school at the Defense Information School (at) Fort Meade, Md. There I was trained in the areas of writing, the Adobe Suite, broadcast journalism, photography and videography. Over everything, I enjoyed photography the most, however. My first assignment was on the Digital Engagement Team for Headquarters Marine Corps at the Pentagon, where I became a content curator and social media manager.
After I was stationed at my first unit for some time, I received the incredible opportunity to attend Syracuse University in New York for a year through the Advanced Military Photojournalism Course at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. There, I and around 30 other service members were taught by professors in an intensive program involving photojournalism, writing, multimedia storytelling and graphic arts, and attended communication classes with civilian college students. There, my life and goals truly changed as a photographer, and I was inspired to continue to help shape my Marines in the future with the knowledge I gained.
LT: Describe your current position at Recruit Depot, Parris Island in South Carolina?
DB: I am currently a combat photographer and social media manager with the Communication Strategy and Operations office. After the Public Affairs and Combat Camera MOSs merged into Communication Strategy and Operations (or Commstrat), I was given the specific designation of combat photographer.
LT: Do you think there is a difference in how photojournalists for news outlets are trained as opposed to military photojournalists?
DB: At DINFOS, the instruction that we receive as service members is extremely condensed compared to what a photojournalism major would receive. One of my instructors told me that the training we go through is the equivalent of a four-year degree. We pick up the camera and create imagery or write stories much sooner than would a college student, and we must follow a set of intensive guidelines as storytellers in the military that civilians would not receive.
LT: Talk about your experience with documenting the Crucible?
DB: Experiencing the Crucible as a recruit was and is still today one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through in my life. You are broken down physically and mentally in every way imaginable for months, and the Crucible is the final step before receiving your Eagle, Globe and Anchor. Even though I knew in my mind I had to put my head down and hold on for a few more short days, I and a lot of my peers thought about quitting multiple times throughout the 52-hour event. There’s no feeling in the world that can compare to the moment your drill instructor puts the EGA in your hand at the end.
Coming back to the island as a storyteller and a Marine, I see the same pain these recruits experience that I experienced years ago. The recruits are frustrated with each other, hungry and tired at all times. It truly is a test of mental fortitude and fight over physical pain and fatigue. I want to capture that perseverance and emotion as much as I can.
LT: How do you approach assignments you get for the Marine Corps?
DB: Every day is different, even though the training schedule is the same week by week. There will always be morning physical training, a company will always be going through the gas chamber, rappel tower or swim qualifications at one point during the week. That being said, the recruits who go through this training are all different. They all have different fears they must overcome, or breakthroughs they never achieved before, and I think that’s why being a storyteller on the island can be a challenge. To beat the monotony of the same training, I’ll try to challenge myself with a new lens or intended theme for the shoot; I’ll look for new composition angles or lighting techniques. The photos may not always end up the way I intended, but I can always go back out the next week and try, try again. I think one of the most rewarding things for me as a leader in the Marine Corps is going out with my younger Marines and seeing them capture gorgeous imagery, or get stronger at speaking with drill instructors, recruits or higher-ranking personnel for their stories. It motivates me to see them succeed and receive the accolades they deserve. I am so lucky to work with a team of incredible photographers, videographers and graphic artists; it is because of them that I got to where I am today.
LT: Why is documenting the Marine Corps important to you?
DB: The Marine Corps is often misunderstood because of our approach to warfighting and rules of thought. People think we are a certain type of way because movies portray us so. But in my career so far, I have not only met the most steadfast and compassionate of friends, but the biggest role models in my life. We are human, just like the rest of society, and we all have made sacrifices for the betterment of our country.
I try to approach new challenges with the mentality that “Every Marine Has Story,” and it’s my job to show them they are part of what makes our military the best in the world. A lot of the Marines I have done stories on believe they don’t have anything special about them to offer, and some of them have never had someone want to tell their story or ask them questions about themselves. This is where the challenge of establishing that relationship and comfortability with the person is so important. To you as a storyteller, they need to be more than a transactional conversation or a couple of quotes scribbled in a notepad.
They have all faced and overcome struggles in their own life, and although we all wear the same uniform, we as service members are all unique in our experiences. I want to highlight the drill instructor who works 18-hour days training recruits and juggles being a parent and their partnership with their spouse; the young Marine who arrives at the armory to issue weapons to recruits at 4 every morning; the Marine who goes home at the end of the day and works late into the night on a hobby or outlet they are passionate about.
LT: What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a photographer since enlisting in the Marine Corps?
DB: The Marine Corps has given me everything I have. I want to give back as much as I can for the opportunities the military has opened up for me and the incredible relationships I have established. I never was a person who had the confidence to lead or step out of my comfort zone, until I became a Marine. I’ve gained so much more confidence because of the Marine Corps and discovered skills that I didn’t know I had. If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would have experienced all of these incredible adventures and met these exceptional people, I would have laughed and shook my head in disbelief.
I have grown as a photographer even just in the short time that I’ve been at Parris Island. I went from barely knowing how to operate a camera to being able to teach others about photography and journalism.
The community of passionate storytellers in the military is different than I ever knew existed, and being surrounded by people who love this job as much as I do encourages me every day to challenge myself.
Name: Dana Beesley
Position: Production chief/combat photographer at Communication Strategy and Operations office on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, Beaufort County, S.C.