Parris Island photographer Dana Beesley says ‘every Marine has a story.’ This is hers

As a child in Lewiston, Idaho, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Dana Beesley wasn’t exposed to much photography, beyond the harsh flash of the disposable camera on family camping trips.

Inspiration for the decorated military photographer and storyteller, a sergeant at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, came from a less obvious place — Her dad’s co-worker at the Lewiston Tribune newspaper: David Johnson.

“Every week he would get out the phone book ... and go to a random page, it didn’t really matter where it was, and call whoever’s number his thumb landed on,” Beesley, 25, explained. “Then he would go out to whoever it was, whether it was somewhere in the county or the Tri-Cities area ... and he’d go meet with them, he’d talk with them, spend time with them, build a relationship with them, and he [would write] a column [about] them.”

In a way, that’s what Beesley does now with a camera, minus the phone book. Each week on the job brings different recruits, different weather, different challenges, although the training and goals may stay the same. So there are always new stories to tell through her photography.

“There’s a tempo but no predictability, and I think that’s what I love about it,” Beesley said.

Beesley leads Parris Island’s content creation team, a shop of 18 photographers, videographers and graphic designers that produces material for the base.

On April 9, Beesley was selected as photographer of the year by the Military Visual Awards, an organization established in 2018 that encourages service members to submit high-quality military photos and videos into competition. Her winning portfolio highlighted the grueling training recruits must complete to become Marines, along with the solemn leadership of drill instructors, who lead recruits through training.

Judges included photojournalists at The New York Times, (Minneapolis) Star Tribune and Reuters.

She credited her leaders at Parris Island and the Marine personnel and recruits for the award.

“Every Marine has a story,” she said. “If I can even shine a light on these Marines and these recruits, [who] have incredible stories of resilience, overcoming, and sense of honor and duty to their country, ... then I have succeeded. It’s because of the Marines ... that I got the award.”

After all, she’s been in the mud before — literally. In 2015, Beesley completed recruit training at Parris Island, then the only boot camp to train female and male recruits. In February, the first platoon of female recruits started training at the San Diego depot.

Before joining the Marines, Beesley had attended the University of Idaho for a year. After boot camp, Beesley went to the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Md., graduating in 2016. She worked at the Pentagon for about a year, then enrolled in the Military Photojournalism Program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. She graduated in 2018 and then returned to Parris Island.

Beesley said the year-long photojournalism program allows active-duty military members to receive a “crash course” in communications within a college environment.

“Going as a Marine, and as an active-duty Marine, it was a new experience for me,” Beesley said. “It was exciting, for sure.”

Bruce Strong, director of the military photojournalism program at Syracuse, said Beesley exemplified the principle of service during her time at the university, as she sought to help her classmates grow as photographers.

“When you transition into the classroom, there’s this feeling that we’re in this together, and we’re going to make this work together,” Strong said. “She really contributed to that overall feeling of community.”

Claudia Strong, a graphic design professor at Syracuse, said Beesley always came into her class with a smile.

“She was not only a hard-working student who wanted to improve and intentionally worked towards that,” she said, but “she also was just a bright light in the classroom.”

Over the past year, Beesley has documented the transformation of Parris Island amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The base closed its beloved graduation ceremonies to the public last spring, but they’re opening up to a limited number of guests on May 7.

She said the coronavirus and related protocols have added a challenge to her photography.

“How am I going to show mom and dad back home that their children are safe and thriving and training hard and becoming Marines, despite this challenge?” she asked.

Johnson, the columnist who was Beesley’s first inspiration, said he didn’t know he had been such an influence on the young woman. “Her dad had mentioned that she had enjoyed reading my column,” Johnson, 73, said. “I like to think that a lot of people did ... because it was a column about everyday people.”

Beesley is ready to take on another challenge now — improving her portraiture skills.

“I think experiencing recruit training during the pandemic was a new challenge for me and a unique opportunity I got being on Parris Island,” she said. “I really want to focus on who the Marines on Parris Island who make Marines are ... the inner core of them as people, and what makes them who they are. I want to focus more on the people.”