Every Sunday, hundreds of crosses are wedged in the hot sand on a small strip of beach just north of California's Santa Barbara pier. Each represents a dead American soldier, a causality of the Iraq War. Names, ages, hometowns and the circumstances of their deaths are recorded in black marker on the white wood.
No stranger to the realities of combat, Brian Barker, a young professional photographer and naval reservist from Santa Barbara finds himself strolling on that beach frequently - his camera capturing the grim scene, almost ironic with the beauty that surrounds it.
One day, the 29-year-old California native snaps a cross memorializing Corporal Dominique J. Nicolas, age 25, of Maricopa, Az. He was killed May 26, 2004 in "hostile action in Iraq's al Anbar province," it reads. (see photo)
"There are so many crosses that they are actually running out of room on the beach," says Barker who has not yet served in Iraq .
During his active duty stint for the Navy, from 2000 to 2004, Barker spent most of his time doing law enforcement in Puerto Rico and on the controversial island of Vieques, just off its coast. It was on the small island's base, now closed, where the Navy conducted live fire exercises for ships and aircraft. It was known for its protest by locals who would hurl themselves onto the testing sites in an attempt to prevent the target exercises.
Still, the beauty of the place was not lost on him. He took photos of the Puerto Rican rainforest, its sunsets and dew-soaked trees. But when he saw how the bounds of imagination could be tested by the medium by watching his older sister take photos for a class his fate was sealed.
"I like the whole aspect of capturing something that gives a different perspective, one that other people are unable to see -- maybe it's just moving too fast or it's something just out of their realm," he says.
Using the GI Bill to fund his education, the reservist is now in his final year at the Brooks Institute of Photography studying combat photojournalism.
Upon graduation, he will enter Navy SEAL training and serve for another six years, while taking photos on location around the world. After that, he will pursue freelance photojournalism, working to expose problematic remote areas rarely covered by the media, such as Sudan and Haiti as well as war-torn areas.
"I'm hoping that being a SEAL will give me more opportunities and contacts for photography and that it will enable me to get embedded with the military [for photo assignments]," he says.
SEAL candidates do get about a month of photography training, mostly centered on reconnaissance. Barker hopes he can be a mentor for those students.
His own mentor is James Nachtwey, arguably the most influential war photographer of his time. Known for his work of the Vietnam War, Kosovo and documenting famine in Somalia , this is the job that Barker wants. "It's these types of civil conflicts I'd like to capture. And I'm certainly not afraid to get on the ground and get dirty."
Starting his career with film cameras, he now prefers digital for its portability and uses a Canon EOS 20D. Barker's style includes playing with light sources and usually involves adding the ambient light available. Using an off-camera flash or a handheld device that he holds up and to the side, sun is used as the fill light and flash as the key light source.
"I think the subject gets lost in the background if I rely on ambient light," he says.
He prefers simple shots. One of his favorites: an image of the Navy's inflatable boats called IBS's used for underwater demolition.