“I shoot dead people”

Photos of military heroes shot by local photographer at Arlington National Cemetery.

By Richard Lieberman

Don Harper a local photographer has been quietly shooting the last photos of our nation’s military heroes. Don, a military veteran has been shooting the funerals at Arlington National Cemetery since the 1980’s. Starting in 1985 while attending a series of seminars at the Washington School of Photography in Washington D.C. Harper was approached by a fellow student who was a White House photographer for Bill Clinton. Taking notice of Harpers photography work, he encouraged Harper to promote his work professionally. “I had always told people not to mix a photography hobby with making a living in life, but he convinced me otherwise” said Harper.

Encouraged to attend a professional photography conference and find the photographers whose styles and work he liked and then finding one or more to mentor with. Harper spent the next two years mentoring with people whose photography and personality he liked.  “When I started to do photography professionally, I started with the intention of doing weddings, bridal portraits, and High School senior photos, and that’s what I concentrated on first” added Harper. Wedding photography became Harpers main area of business, and in Northern Virginia business was good. In addition there were several networking groups that he hooked up with. “One of the people I networked with was a bagpipe player, we became good friends and one day he said to me you need to come to Arlington National Cemetery. “I said why would I need to do that?” Harper’s friend told him he was playing the bagpipe at Arlington funerals and that there were several photographers present, but didn’t feel they were doing a decent enough job and that the people deserved better. Most of the photography done at the time was of the “snapshot” variety. “I went to a funeral there with him and photographed it, and then went to a couple more, and finally got enough material to set up a web site” he said. Networking with funeral homes and others, the business took off from there.

Funerals at Arlington are a big event. “For an officer’s funeral there is a marching band, the horse drawn caisson, the firing party, and if it is a General they have the cannon volleys as well as the rifle volleys” said Harper. Harper was fascinated by the histories of the deceased. “Most of what I have done is with older people who have lived a long, productive life and served a distinguished military career. Occasionally there have been KIA, but fortunately they have really dropped off dramatically.” He added. Harper also added “It usually takes about three months for internment, so some of the grief has subsided, until taps is played which is a tough one for families”

Harper flies to Washington D.C two or three times a month photographing funerals, and depending on circumstance like a morning funeral he will fly back to California the same day. Afternoon funerals requires him to stay for two or three days.

Don, who is now  semi-retired lives with his wife in a fifth wheel RV and travels around the country spending much of their time living beachside in Ventura and enjoying million dollar views, and oceanfront living.

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