Seven in 2017

New Year's Eve is a natural time to look back at accomplishments from the previous year while looking forward to new opportunities. Below is a selection of my seven favorite photos from 2017. 

I have been fortunate to pursue a career in photography and writing that has led me around the world while meeting many people. I look forward to 2018 and all of the new opportunities it will bring.

Here’s to 2018.

Understanding the Vietnam War

Today I finished watching The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The documentary that aired on PBS was a comprehensive look at the war that changed the U.S. while impacting the Asian Continent for decades.

Old prints from Larry Larson's tour of duty in Vietnam.

Old prints from Larry Larson's tour of duty in Vietnam.

I grew up during the time many Vietnam veterans were adjusting to life back in the states. I Remember listening to stories of family friends that completed a tour of duty in Vietnam, and I often asked my dad about his experiences during that time.

Like many adult males during the late 60’s and early 70’s my dad had a choice to make. He decided to volunteer for the National Guard in the hopes he wouldn’t have to serve overseas. The gamble paid off as he served active duty in Iowa for six years from 1965 to 1971 during a turbulent time. I have to admit that I was embarrassed to tell people that he didn’t serve in Vietnam. Until I watched the documentary.

My father holding my sister at our home in Forest City in 1970.

My father holding my sister at our home in Forest City in 1970.

That is when I realized how polarized the climate was in the U.S. and how insane the prosecution of the war had become for the generals and political figures leading it. Hearing the experiences of Hal Kushner, John Musgrave, Matt Harrison, Tom Vallely, Sam Wilson and others made me realize that the fog of war that consumed our troops fighting an unseen enemy in dense jungles was only matched by the fog of culture clashes that tore at the seems of this great country.

Since that time I have also realized how important the National Guard is. Especially after understanding the role they had in Afganistan and Iraq.

Traveling to Vietnam in 2013 has also had a lasting impact on me. I stood on the heliport of the presidential palace where the last Americans were evacuated from the country. I also stayed in the Hotel Majestic, in Ho Chi Minh City, where John F. Kennedy had dinner as a U.S. Senator in the 50s. I even took a boat trip down the Saigon River seeing miles of dense jungle line the river bank. The entire time I was in Vietnam I tried to imagine what it was like during the war. I also grappled with the fact that Vietnam is now a prospering country with an economy that offers luxury commercial brands like Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Mercedes-Benz. It is a far cry from my earlier notions of a drab depressed communist country.

Now as the veterans of Vietnam become grandparents and move towards retirement they have finally been afforded the respect they deserve from serving in a brutal war. A war that brought turmoil to both countries and left many lives shattered. I only wish that my father, David Murphy, was alive (he died in a tragic motorcycle accident) to ask him more questions about his experiences during that time. I also wish that Larry Larson, my father-in-law, was alive so I could ask him about his experiences of serving in Vietnam. Both were threads of the fabric that made the Vietnam era.

Meaning can be found by listening to the stories of the people who lived through it. That is why I will always take time to listen to the people that lived during that era. 


Finding the higher ground


Standing on a ridge looking over the terrain mixed with rolling hills, open fields and valleys a decision was made. At all costs and for as long as possible that ground was to be held.

Looking back, over 150 years removed, that decision doesn't seem all that important. After all, the person that made the decision was a trained military leader and had years of experience fighting Indians on the western frontier. It turns out that the decision was crucial to the success of the Union army during the battle of Gettysburg and some will say crucial to the success of winning the Civil War and preserving the United States of America.

General John Buford was responsible for that decision, but more importantly, he was responsible for knowing the terrain and understanding that the “higher ground” was crucial to stopping the main body of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia just long enough for the Union soldiers to secure their positions. Thus giving a battered Union army a slight advantage that would prove to be the difference in winning the battle.

Last week during a business trip to Gettysburg, I was able to stand on the ridge and survey the ground that Buford looked at on the evening of June 30 1863. It was a powerful moment to look over the terrain in front of us while thinking of what happened there a century and a half earlier.

Much has been written about the battle of Gettysburg. Bufordwasn’t a flashy person seeking glory and attention. Instead, he believed in himself and through leadership and the respect of his peers was able to make crucial decisions.

At the time and for decades to come not much was written about Buford though. Flashy names like Grant, Lee, Stewart, Sherman and Custer grabbed the headlines and the attention of historians. But it was the resolve and understanding of Buford that nudged history towards a victory for the Union.

To further demonstrate the power of that decision, it needs to be said that in modern sports terms the Union was having a disastrous season. Any team going through and 0-8-1 season would be questioning if they could ever win. Today coaches would be fired, fans would fill the airways with opinions on how to turn the tide of season or just give up for the year all together.

And that’s exactly what was happening during that time. The people of the north were tired of the war and President Lincoln had already fired two generals that weren’t getting the job done. Lee was trying to capitalize on the disillusionment of the Union by leading a campaign in the north to win a major battle and hope for an end of the war. All of these variables collided on the grounds just outside of the small town of Gettysburg. Making the decision by Buford that much more important.

Buford of course didn’t single handedly win the battle or the war. But his actions and heroic efforts delayed the Confederates long enough for the main body of Union troops to grab the true high ground on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge.

It has been said that the United States of America was born in Philadelphia in 1776 and preserved on the battlefields of Gettysburg in 1863.

What does all of this have to do with us today? It is a case study that should help us understand how important leadership is. In my mind, many layers came together to make the Buford's decision a success. Buford had earned the respect of his superiors that in turn allowed him to make important decisions. He had also earned the respect of his soldiers so they would carry out his orders without question. He was also able to see the larger picture and understand the importance of taking action.

Learning about Buford and seeing the battlefield made me survey the landscape of my career. I’ve had victories and setbacks as has everyone. I know that moving forward, I’ll keep Buford’s decisions in mind as I look for the higher ground.

Reflections at the wall

On Monday I had the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. A fresh blanket of snow covered the National Mall and very few visitors were at the memorial. The wall was, as expected, a powerful reminder of the loss that the Vietnam War brought to many families and to our great nation.

The American flag is reflected in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The American flag is reflected in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

As a light snow filled the air, I looked at line after line of names on the black granite memorial. I took my time and read many of the names. As I would look at their names I tried to imagine who they were, where they came from and what they had witnessed during their battles. They gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country at such a tumultuous time in our nation's history.

It was a haunting and powerful moment, standing there looking at the names of those we lost as I also reflected on my recent trip to Vietnam. During that trip I looked at the people I passed, rural areas I toured and city blocks I visited always thinking about the history of that nation. To visit Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) and walk the streets where the Tet Offensive raged and buddist monks performed self-immolation in protest was a powerful experience. I've met many veterans here in the U.S. that will forever be scarred by the war. I often look through a box of old Polaroids my father-in-law, took during his time of service in Saigon.

Much of the war has been forgotten by the people of Vietnam. Nearly four decades have passed and many of the scars of the war have been covered up. I asked about how Americans were viewed today by the Vietnamese and I was told that not many of the younger generations know or talk much about the war. There are museums and memorials (I visited several) that detail the North Vietnamese heroes from the war but it seemed, for the most part, that between the throngs of scooters that packed the streets and the people going about their daily routines war had never touched their lives.

I guess for me it makes memorials like the Vietnam Memorial or any of the other war memorials in Washington D.C that much more important. It is important that we never forget those that fought and died for this great country. Many lessons can be learned by remembering the names of those we lost during a polarizing time in our nation's history.

It was fitting, as I left the memorial, to see the American Flag reflected among the lines of names listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


To read more about my trip to Vietnam follow this link: Caring half a world away.

  Reflections at the wall

Tragedies and memories

A tragedy yesterday in my hometown of Forest City reminded me of a photo that I took years ago during a sunset behind a rusty windmill in Union County. As I was stopped along side the road taking the picture a car pulled up behind me.

The sun sets behind a windmill in Union County south of Winterset, Iowa.

The sun sets behind a windmill in Union County south of Winterset, Iowa.

A gentleman rolled down his window and said good evening to me. We talked about the beauty of the sunset and the rolling prairie that faded off into the distance for several minutes before he told me that he had just come from a funeral visitation for a close friend that had passed away.

That’s when he told me that his friend would be proud to see someone, like myself, alongside the road taking time to appreciate a simple sunset. His heart was heavy as he rolled his window up and drove away.

It was a powerful moment for me, knowing that memories and snapshots are often all we have to remember loved ones that have passed. That man and his story about missing his friend that night will always be attached to this photograph.

I hope that the family in my hometown that suffered such a devastating loss this weekend can hold on to the memories of their children and look at simple things like sunrises and sunsets as a reminder of their joyful memories.