Mentorship

A transgendered instructor changed my life.


When I first met Staff Sgt. Jess Shipps I was enamored.

SSgt Shipps (Left)
Staff Sgt. Jess Shipps (right) eating lunch during an uncontrolled action photo assignment at Ft. George Meade, Md., Aug. 2013

It was shortly into our Basic Still Photography course at the Defense Information School. We checked out our D300s and shot for the first time. During the course of that weekend, I was given the opportunity to photograph a community outreach program in Baltimore Maryland.

A gentleman walked in the room, he was homeless. I felt a tingling in my fingers, my heart skipped, I raised my camera and pressed the shutter.

After a hundred clicks, I felt the pride of my first great photo — or so I thought.

I brought the images back to class Monday morning. Like a child with a crayon drawing I presented my work. Staff Sgt. Shipps destroyed it.

Compositionally I was far off, she turned red. Her freckled face turned and grimaced. She was pissed.

At first I was embarrassed. I felt ashamed of the pride I had once felt. But, she wasn’t done.

She went through each photo, quickly assessing fundamental flaws. And then, she looked at me. She told me I could be better. Her eyes cared.

After that first critique something changed in me. It was a foundational moment for the rest of my work. Shipps hated poorly executed, half-ass, boring, compositionally lacking visual work. But she always knew I could be better.

She wanted me to be better.

At the end of the course, I completed a photoessay. It was the pinnacle of our training. We took every skill we learned to that moment and created a visual story.

I worked and worked and worked.

It was the most effort I had ever put into a project. I wanted to avoid the critique-wrath of  Staff Sgt. Shipps — but I also wanted to be better.

Photoessay I completed during tech school at Ft. George Meade, Md. I won a spot in the DINFOS wall.
Photoessay I completed during tech school at Ft. George Meade, Md. I won a spot in the DINFOS wall. — August, 2013

During my training I had no idea Staff Sgt. Shipps was transitioning. She hinted at things, but I never really picked up on them. It wasn’t until this summer I actually understood her change.


 

After tech school, I arrived back in OKC. I chatted with her on and off via Facebook. Staff Sgt. Shipps helped me with the technical aspect of gear, editing, lens choice. Hell, I even bought a D700 because that’s what she told me to do.

Jess Shipps changed my life.

Facebook screenshot
(Staff Sgt. Shipps being a dork, I still crack up at this every time.)

After my training, my life fell into a subtle turmoil. The only thing I really had was my D200 and a 50mm lens. Jess encouraged, equipped and directed me through the difficult steps of the that chapter of my life.

 Almost a year went by. I hadn’t heard from Staff Sgt. Shipps.

 

In June 2015, I received a notification from a tech school instructor.

 

Screen Shot 0027-11-16 at 08.42.45

Staff Sgt. Jess Shipps committed suicide.

To this day I am still unclear about it all. It seems she was struggling with deep depression. I wish I could’ve helped her. I wish I could have told her what she meant — and still means — to me.

I spent the next two weeks watching her Youtube videos and trying to understand the pain she felt. The world lost such a beautiful soul that day. And I lost a mentor and a friend.

Every time I pick up my camera I think of her words. Her strict discipline. Her unrelenting passion for greatness. Her critical eye. Her boisterous laugh. Her quirky humor. Her broken heart. Her talent. Her service.

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