In 2010, New York Times photographer Damon Winter launched a yearlong effort to document the war in Afghanistan through the experiences of a single U.S. Army battalion. Along with reporter James Dao, Winter embedded with the 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division. As the soldiers prepared to deploy overseas, the photographer snapped this image of an emotional Sgt. Brian Keith saying goodbye to his family.
Here, in his own words, Winter tells the story behind the picture:
Before reporter James Dao and I deployed with members of the 1-87 Infantry Battalion, we traveled to Fort Drum in New York to document their last few days in the United States before the several waves of soldiers left for their year in Afghanistan. We went through the entire pre-deployment process with members of Fox Company on March 29, 2010. That evening we went to a small, drab building where soldiers were issued their weapons and night vision goggles and were allowed a final few hours with their loved ones before leaving.
The Army public affairs officers said that I was not allowed to witness this "designated family time," that I could only look in through the windows because it was too private. I explained to them how crucial it was that I be allowed to witness these final moments and eventually convinced them to let me in as long as I got permission from each individual family. We didn't know the men at all at this point and hadn't quite figured out who would be our main characters that we would follow throughout the year.
I spotted Sgt. Keith with his wife in one of the rooms and could immediately feel how difficult it was for him to say goodbye to his wife and son. Their whole family was there, maybe 10 family members all gathered there watching as their tears began to well up as the departure time drew near. I spoke to the families and told them about the project and apologized for intruding on their private time, and they said it was fine for me to stay with them until Sgt. Keith had to leave. I ended up on the ground opposite them, taking only a frame or two every few minutes.
After Sgt Keith had left, his mother came up to me and thanked me for being so discreet and respectful of that very personal moment between her son and his wife and thanked us for pursuing our year-long project.
I recently saw Sgt. Keith after he returned to Fort Drum at the end of his deployment. He and his wife are now separated and are planning on getting a divorce. I spoke to him exactly one year after that photo was taken, in a small, sparsely furnished apartment that his parents found for him online.
He told me that he was so shaken that day I made that photo because he knew that his marriage would not be able to survive the year-long deployment and that it would probably be the last time that he and his wife and son would be together as a family. He knew in his heart that once he left, things would never be the same.