Ross Whitaker lives in San Clemente. By day, he works in commercial photography. When he isn’t getting paid to shoot Kix ads, Whittaker volunteers for Hearts Apart: a nonprofit organization that gives military families a free, professional portrait session before deployment. The family can keep the photos at home and the soldier gets a vinyl bifold card with four pictures that can withstand dirt, rain, water—almost anything a war can bring.
"It’s absolutely pure to photograph someone’s family and give them the pictures, and see them moved," said Whitaker.
"My first shooting with Hearts Apart was really fantastic. Since I live on the edge of Camp Pendleton in Southern California, I have Marines. All Marines. So I had a gunnery sergeant, and his wife, and his two young boys. I believe he was going to the South China Sea. We usually go either to my home or we go to venues, so we went up to the Rancho San Clemente Tennis Club. And it was very posh. They have a bridal changing room there."
Hearts Apart was founded last year in North Carolina by photographer Brownie Harris and businessman Brett Martin. For Harris, it didn't take long for him to realize the impact of his work. "After the first shoot, one of the Marine wives said to us when they were leaving the studio," said Harris.
"She was crying and she said 'We didn’t think anyone cared in this country.'"
Hearts Apart is now in over 40 states. And among its 300 plus photographers, there are professional artists, commercial photographers and Pulitzer Prize winners—all trying the best they can to keep families connected. Families like Amy and Tim McCoy, of Helendale, a small community halfway between Victorville and Barstow on Route 66.
Amy and Tim are both Army reservists, and they met when they were both on active duty. "It was a love hate relationship at first," said Amy at home, her daughter Sami sitting nearby.
Tim, who's currently deployed in Afghanistan, chimed in via Skype. "It was definitely a hate relationship at first. She took a book of mine, when I first met her," he said. "It was a patrol book."
"He showed up at the unit and he carried that thing everywhere," said Amy.
"And after watching him for most of the day, I decided to take it and watch him freak out. And freak out he did! We were married for about a month when I got deployed with the Navy for six months. So our first five years, over half of that was apart. It’s something we’ve always done, we don’t know any different to be honest with you."
The McCoys got their pictures taken last Summer, just before Tim's most recent deployment—David Kennerly, a former white house photographer was behind the lens. For the McCoy’s, that day was more than just a photo session. "With David giving us time, and people like him dedicating their time, it does show you more that you care," said Tim.
"We’ve come a long way from the time that the soldiers and men and women were treated the way we were during like Vietnam. You go to the airport, some airports, people don’t recognize you. Others, they actually go over and hug you. Same thing with the photo. You have a photographer that… he does this because he wants to, not because he has to."
Sitting at the kitchen table, in front of a laptop, Amy chimed in: "He’s given up his time, literally his money and livelihood to spend all day with us," she said. "I mean, it was… it was an honor."
If you know photography, makeup, or just want to lend a hand, Hearts Apart can use you.