Leigh Campbell served in the military for six years as a photographer, documenting the war in Iraq. Learn how his time in the service shaped his commercial photography career.
Growing up in a small town near Syracuse, New York, Campbell often mountain biked with his friends. But it wasn't until his senior year in high school when he picked up a camera. A school assignment left him and his classmates to create a short mountain biking film with a Sony Mavica, loaded with floppy disks. "We used a program called Fruity Loops to edit and create music, which was essentially the predecessor to AudioJungle," said Campbell. "It was pretty ridiculous."
Campbell continued on to Photo 1 at his local community college, where he used his dad's old Pentax K 1000 in the black-and-white film class. "I had no idea what a light meter was or what speed and aperture meant," said Campbell. "I was super green." Although he was majoring in graphic design and minoring in photography, Campbell loved the process of developing his own film and started to gravitate away from design.
During Photo 2, the photographer became interested in images published by the New York Times. At this time in 2004, the war in Iraq was in full swing. The photographs published in the newspaper were "motivating and inspirational" and led Campbell to drift toward a journalistic style of photography.
His final portfolio was a shoot in an operating room. Inspired by work like Eugene Richards' "The Knife and Gun Club," the photographer wanted to document his own line of hospital work. Although the portfolio was stunning, Campbell struggled with grades and didn't return to college. "Soon after, I was walking through a mall and ran into a recruiter," said Campbell. "He told me I should think about joining the military."
A month later, Campbell was enlisted in the National Guard as a Combat Correspondent, essentially acting as a photojournalist for the military. "The photography portion of Defense Information School was super brisk," said Campbell. "They basically told us to keep the camera in Program mode on our Nikon D1H and to just point and shoot." But the photographer was able to lean back on lessons learned in Photo 1 and 2 and was able to be more creative with his work.
In 2005 Campbell was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, where he and the 138th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment were tasked with documenting the transition of power from coalition forces to Iraqi security forces. His unit shadowed many foot patrols and Military Police units training Iraqi forces. "There were no must-have photographs," said Campbell. "We just documented whatever we saw happening and did our best to capture moments that told the overall story."
Lacking artistic direction while overseas but wanting to make great artistic and documentary imagery, Campbell discovered the Magnum Photographers and VII. "I started studying their work, which helped me develop my own eye and style," said Campbell. "I realized I could stumble into photographers like Christopher Anderson at any moment because they were in Iraq doing the exact same thing that I was doing,"
One day, he did just that. It wasn't Anderson, but Campbell's and Magnum Photographer Peter van Agtmael's paths collided while overseas. "He gave me tips," said Campbell. "And I also realized that all photographers at Magnum had great use of negative space and their imagery was vastly different than anything I was seeing."
Because of this interaction and the influence he felt from VII and Magnum photographers, Campbell became more and more confident in his work and watched the power of his images grow. He was confident in his passion to create great imagery and was able to speak up and volunteer for certain missions, such as covering mass casualty events in Iraqi hospitals. "Everything is so chaotic as a military photographer," said Campbell. "If you're more worried about camera settings than capturing the emotion of an event, you'll miss moments that you can never get back."
After getting out of the military in 2010, Campbell sought employment that'd allow him to exercise his creative brain. His commander who knew of his work and was an associate creative director at BBDO connected him with Tom Messner, an influential figure in the advertising world. Messner ran a program that helped veterans break into advertising, which allowed Campbell an internship as a production artist at Euro RSCG (now known as Havas).
Eventually, his coworkers realized Campbell was a great photographer too. He began shooting work for art and creative directors at the agency, which was published by clients, including an ad for Dr. Scholl's. In commercial photography today, storytelling and authenticity shape the ads we see, which is exactly what Campbell's strong suit is, particularly given his background that brought him to where he is. "I didn't care about the technical side of photography or what camera I was shooting on; what mattered was that I got the shot," said Campbell. "In military photography, you have to put the camera in any setting to get the shot regardless if it came out blurry or out of focus. I applied this creative journalistic style to my commercial shoots."
Today, Campbell works for Adworkshop, a marketing agency in Lake Placid, New York, as an art director, photographer, and graphic designer. He works on lifestyle shoots for tourism boards, hotels, hospitals, brands, and more. For personal work, Campbell focuses on photographing his two-year-old son, Fin, in an active-outdoor environment. "As a photographer in the military I learned how to work quickly under tremendous amounts of environmental pressure but still produce great imagery."