Ryan Mitchell Tells Stories From the Marines in the Most Unique Way

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My name is Ryan Mitchell. As a photographer, I want to be able to tell stories that I create to mimic emotions, situations, and climatic events that we, as human beings, can recognize within these images. To show that these toys can also emit emotions and feelings in their dark and desperate hours. The hard work that goes into creating the set pieces to the displaying of the figures, and to the technical audacity to capture the dynamic shots I place these figures in.

As a veteran, I also want to be able to connect my experiences and other experiences of veterans in other warlike settings, but also have a connection to my nerdy side of Star Wars and fantastical elements of such. I use what I have lying around my house, such as toilet paper to cover the light source to soften it or poster board as a bounce to illuminate the subjects in the frame. I have equipped on me is a Nikon D3100 switching between 35mm or 50mm NIKKOR lenses. My light sources have varied from various desk lamps found around the house. I switch between black and white to color, depending on the message of the narrative I want to portray. Sometimes black and white have a harsher tone to convey and come across as gritty and desperate to show these characters are going through such hard times they face. 

I was going through a hard patch in my life, and I needed to escape. Something to keep me occupied while transitioning from military to civilian life in college. Photographing with LEGOs was something I’ve always done when I was younger, and I figured I should continue since it gave me such joy in the past, and now it makes me happier I found something that keeps me going. 

In school, I learned about many different photographers over the years, but Elizabeth Margret Cameron has been a major influence as a contemporary artist. She took photos that told narratives within her work of portraits and large narrative motifs of biblical and mythical elements. David Levinthal is also a big one. His photographs use elements of toys as well to tell stories and various narratives addressing many political and historical themes. 
I am a young lad and have been shooting for two years now, and I can say I have seen a great improvement from just shooting on a location that was just “fitting” to building large set-pieces within my apartment. 
My identity as a photographer are the figures I use to pose and display them (or trying to) in realistic settings and situations that would be a resemblance to human features. 

I am using a Nikon D3100, which is a decent DSLR, and I’ve had it for years, so I don’t see me parting with it soon. Nothing techy about the light sources since they are household desk lamps with various experimentation on soft or hard light using tissue paper to harden or soften those sources. I believe using these. things have helped the motivation and the amount of work I put into each shot. I like the challenge of being limited to what I have. 
Artificial light, only because being able to control what and how soft your light can be, where it can be placed to illuminate the figure, and more importantly, working with the settings of the camera to show how much light is within the frame. 

Photography and shooting are important because they can tell so much within a snapshot, show emotion, and display a narrative of such within that very second of time. So much can be told in a photograph. I feel I’m more of a creator. I am placing these figures in settings and situations I create within these worlds I think up for them to interact in. With the gear I have told these stories to feel like I am “documenting” these events, but these are the fantastical worlds I came up with to capture these figures in. 
The act of setting up a shot becomes a ritual and as important as the final image in processing my thoughts. The attitude that exists within these images reflects a “tug of war” experience within the soldiers themselves: individuals trying to hide and push forward through their desperation and fear of the events at hand. They are only met with the melancholy of isolation and the contemplative arrival of the thought that they might not make it back home again. 

There isn’t much of a process; it was mostly trial and error of capturing shots. However, I realized when shooting dynamic shots to get fog or dust in the air, a high shutter speed was necessary. To balance that was having a high ISO within 400 – 1600 and a low F-stop for the deep shallow depth of field. The dust is usually dirt found outside placed in a clump outside of frame sprayed with a computer air duster captured timely using the fast shutter. I could shoot at least 60 images on one scene and try to narrow it down to 10 decent ones to edit in Lightroom.

I am developing a portfolio photo book that is titled “The Forgotten Side of the Barrel” as taken from the artist’s statement of the project itself. For the soldier, war is a gritty world, often obscure and isolating while full of feelings of fear. In these images, I use toys from my childhood to recreate and reflect upon both my experience in the military and after returning home. All figures displayed with be LEGOs in harsh and gritty settings from various photo narratives I did to push forward these themes. I wanted to be like a documentary walk-through of life on the frontlines showing a darker and more realistic side to the Star Wars Clone Wars saga. 

This project shows the personal experiences and experiences of my fellow Marines in my unit who deployed to combat theatres and the stories they would tell me of what they experienced. It conveys the need to keep exploring this theme, and the personal journey that comes with finding something that you love doing, and the drive to continue it through your life. 

All images and story by Ryan Mitchell. Used with permission. Follow him on Instagram and at his website. Got a cool photo project? Here’s how to submit it!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.