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Photo op

A free spirit joins the reserves. Oxymoron? No, a smart move by a photographer who wants to see more, know more and reveal more.

By JANEL STEPHENS
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's 5:30 a.m., and Beth Reynolds is flashing back to boot camp.

Although she's lying in a warm bed at home, she still hears the commander barking orders. She gets chills as she remembers standing at attention in 20 degree weather in only her dress uniform.

A successful photographer, Reynolds, 36, followed a childhood dream and joined the U.S. Coast Guard reserves.

She went to New Jersey for two weeks of basic training, where reveille sounded each day at 5:30 a.m. and a tough physical regimen awaited. The cold, rainy conditions were hard on the seven Floridians in the class.

"We were all, like, 'This isn't right, it's just not right. We can't handle this,' " Reynolds said.

Today she is a petty officer 3rd class and public affairs specialist for the Coast Guard, and soon will be working with the media, writing and taking photographs for Coast Guard publications and building the Coast Guard photo archive on the Web.

But she won't be leaving her passion for local photography behind.

She recently learned that she had been chosen from among nine applicants to be Tampa's photographer laureate. Reynolds received $25,000 to produce a photo essay on the city this year.

It might appear that joining the Coast Guard in her mid 30s was a drastic life change for Reynolds. But for the St. Petersburg native, becoming a reservist follows the thread of her mission in life, which she says is to reveal the truth through photography. "It's all about getting rid of these preconceived stereotypes that people have about other people, no matter what our differences are," she said.

As a reservist, Reynolds said she wants to "educate people about the Coast Guard and really get people to understand what our missions are and what we do."

She started when she left for boot camp, the night of Dec. 8, packing a bag with a few toiletries, a pair of tennis shoes, a gray sweat shirt and her Nikon 180 to document her experience -- which earned her the nickname "Shutter" by fellow reservists. Her pictures from boot camp will be published in the Coast Guard reservist magazine.

Reynolds was one of four women in her class of 28 at the Cape May, N.J., boot camp, a two-week training course for candidates with college degrees and life experience deemed valuable to the Coast Guard.

She flew to Philadelphia and took a two-hour bus trip to Cape May, where a uniformed woman walked briskly to the bus and ordered the recruits out.

Reynolds began having second thoughts.

"I was scared out of my mind," she said. "All you have are these visions of people calling you a maggot and making you 'drop and give me 20' and people are screaming in your face and I thought, 'This can't possibly be like this.' "

It wasn't as bad as Reynolds envisioned but was rigorous nonetheless. Most of her classmates were firefighters and police officers. Many had gone through some sort of boot camp before. The training she did under the Florida sun didn't prepare her for the mile and a half run she had to complete to graduate.

"It's 23 degrees and the wind's blowing and snot's coming out of your nose and it's frozen," Reynolds recalled. "Your eyes are watering and your hands feel like if you crunched them all your fingers are going to break off."

It took her three tries to complete the run. That day, the chief petty officer suggested the trainees complete their run around the barracks instead of on the track. Everyone agreed and took off. Reynolds fell behind as the men in the group kept a steady pace ahead of her. After several laps, she heard the chief yell, "You've got 20 seconds!"

"I could see all the guys down there cheering me on," Reynolds said. "I don't know where it came from, but I just started going." She sped past the chief with two seconds to spare.

Now that she's in, Reynolds wants to be able to take pictures at Guantanamo Bay.

"I desperately want to go to Cuba to photograph what's going on down there," Reynolds said. "I want to make documentaries for the Coast Guard to really show people what they do." And although her term is for six years, Reynolds said she sees herself as a reservist until she retires.

Reynolds first heard about the Coast Guard while attending Shorecrest Preparatory School in 1984. She listened as her 11th grade American history teacher, Brad Moore, talked about his four-year experience as an officer. Her interest grew stronger over the years.

When asked whether he thought Reynolds would ever join the Coast Guard, Moore said no.

"But I'm not surprised at all," he said. "If you've met Beth you know that she's a free spirit, an artist. ... She has commitments and principles. She's just a first-rate gal, and I'm proud of her."

When her marriage of five years ended two years ago, Reynolds re-evaluated her life and made a list of 10 things she wanted to do while single. Among them were learning a second language, cutting off her hair, taking drum lessons and joining the Coast Guard. She did the first three before meeting Judy Gray.

Gray has been a public affairs officer with the Coast Guard reserves for eight years. The two met while working on a documentary project.

"Normally I say to people, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' " Gray said. "But as soon as we started talking about it, I knew she'd be ideal."

Reynolds met with a recruiter and after six weeks of paperwork and waivers, was sworn in as a reservist Nov. 14.

It's definitely a change for Reynolds. She has spent several years documenting breast cancer survivors in Florida, welfare mothers and burn victims. She followed the career of a retired Connecticut fire marshal. For three years she worked as a production runner for ESPN after college, and in 1997 she created her own publishing company, the Photo-Documentary Press, specializing in black and white photo essays and fine-art books.

Reynolds currently works part time as coordinator for the special projects and photography program at the Arts Center in St. Petersburg. She also teaches night photography classes there. She is an adjunct journalism professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and is a freelance photographer for nonprofit health care and art agencies.

A theme hasn't been set for her photo essay of the city of Tampa, a project of the Tampa Public Art program, but Reynolds has decided to form the project after Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith and his three-year photo documentary of Pittsburgh.

Add her part-time position as a Coast Guard reservist and you've got a schedule that is not for the faint of heart.

"It's a matter of balancing," Reynolds said. "I work seven days a week, I've always worked seven days a week, and as an artist, that's kind of just the way it is."

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