The United States military hosted a team of Israeli cameramen in a combat photography competition last week, in which the army photographers tested their mettle in obstacle courses, marches and target practice.
This was the seventh annual Department of Defense Hilda I. Clayton Best COMCAM (combat camera) Competition, created in honor of a US Army photographer who was killed when a mortar shell prematurely exploded during a training exercise in Afghanistan. It was the first time that a foreign military took part in the competition, and the IDF was the only one.
The five-day competition was held at the US Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia. It was hosted by the US Army’s 55th Signal Company, according to Lt. Netanel Ben-Ami, a commander and combat photographer from the Israel Defense Forces’ Spokesperson’s Unit, who participated in the event.
The contest began last Monday with physical training, a written exam and a challenge to create an audiovisual package on a specific topic. The following day consisted of an obstacle course and “stress shoot,” in which the soldiers had their heart rates elevated before target practice to better replicate shooting in real-world scenarios. The third day included a simulated urban combat mission, which included the evacuation of an injured soldier. On the final day, the participants took part in a 12-mile march carrying a 35-pound rucksack.
Throughout every part of the competition, the soldiers took photographs and shot video, and at the end of the day, selected five of those pictures and edited the footage into four-minute clips.
“It tested you mentally, physically and technically,” said Staff Sgt. Edward French IV, a drill sergeant in the US military.
Last Friday night, a group of retired combat photographers reviewed the final videos. The scores were then tallied, and winners were announced. French and his teammate Staff Sgt. Enoch Fleites came in first, followed by a team from the 55th Signal Company. The IDF team — Staff Sgt. Yoav Pinus and Sgt. Nir Bitan — tied for third place with a team from the 55th Signal Company.
The IDF Spokesperson’s combat photography program has gone through a number of changes over the years. Military photographers received relatively little combat training, until 2003 when Sgt. Lior Ziv was killed on an assignment in the Gaza Strip. Following Ziv’s death, the IDF determined that photographers who would be embedded with troops during operations had to go through combat boot camp.
During the competition, which took place over Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day, the Israeli soldiers held a memorial service in Ziv’s honor, airing a short film about him.
In 2014, the IDF expanded its combat photography program, having the cameramen go through even more intense training — as part of the Golani Infantry Brigade — before deploying them to every IDF command. This was enlarged further in the past five years, with an IDF Spokesperson’s Unit photographer embedded in nearly every infantry battalion, though now they undergo basic training with combat intelligence soldiers instead of Golani.
Though the specific hierarchies and organizational structures are different, Israel’s and America’s combat photographers operate in similar ways. Both of them go through eight months of combat and professional training before being deployed.
As combat photographers, these soldiers are embedded with regular ground forces and serve the dual role of both cameraman and infantryman, swapping between the two at a moment’s notice.
“You just know when something’s wrong. And when something goes wrong, you drop your camera and pick up your gun,” said Sgt. Fleites, of the winning team, who has served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Ben-Ami, the most senior ranking IDF participant, who serves as the commander of the military photographers in the IDF Northern Command, said while he and his soldiers have not yet seen full-scale combat, they have taken part in a number of operations.
“In Northern Shield, we were involved in every aspect of the operation,” he said, referring to an effort launched in December 2018 to find and destroy attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah into northern Israel from Lebanon.
Ben-Ami said he was informed of the operation nearly a month before it launched and that his soldiers worked closely with the infantry, intelligence and engineering units that led the effort.
He added that IDF combat photographers have also repeatedly been sent to the Gaza border, both during riots along the security fence and during flareups of violence when there is a potential for ground operations in the coastal enclave.