Roger Sparks is a giant of a man possessing a demeanor that belies his gladiator appearance. Intimidating until you hear his first words, he puts you at ease with a style of language not unlike poetic verse. He's a study in contrasts. Dichotomy pervades every corner of his existence, especially as it relates to his former career as an elite, special forces soldier.
In the spring of 2012 I met a deeply solemn man named Roger Sparks, a highly trained Air Force Pararescueman, also known as a "special forces operator." His enigmatic career has lasted over 20 years.
As Roger spoke there was an unmistakable intensity in his eyes that his words failed to convey. It reminded me that some experiences are too visceral for the convenience of spoken language.
I met Roger a year and a half after his last deployment to Afghanistan. A deployment that was so violent it would essentially draw an end to his military career.
Along with a combat rescue officer, Roger was flown by helicopter to a precipitous, mountainside battlefield high up in the Watapur Valley. It was a dangerous mission meant to rescue a small platoon of critically injured soldiers who were still under fire and nearly out of ammunition. Roger and his partner were lowered by a winch onto the mountainside. The helicopter was under intense fire the entire time. When the two men were free from the cable an RPG detonated nearby them, sending rocks and debris flying everywhere. The scene was so dire the two rescuers called in a heavy bomb strike on their position, which they knew could result in suicide.
The bomb strike bought some time. Then with his advanced medical skills, Roger treated the men who stood some chance of survival and he fought to protect the wounded as he ran from one American casualty to the next. The rescue mission lasted for many hours. Roger was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism.
Two weeks after I first met Roger I saw him again and we had a long conversation about nothing but art. This time—Roger's words eloquently conveyed his experience. He was articulate, poetic, and anything but solemn. It wasn't long before I started watching him make his art: drawing, painting, music, and tattooing. The latter being a subject I knew absolutely nothing about. But that would soon change.
After knowing Roger for a short time I came to a nearly unexplainable conclusion: that he is a rare kind of person who the universe seemingly chooses to bear the suffering of the sins of the world. Until I got to know Roger I never would have staked any rational thought in such a bizarre sounding notion. But now I'm convinced.
Despite that Roger is an honorable and highly skilled warrior—art is his first language. Not because he's gifted at it, or because he enjoys it, or because people think of him as an artist. For Roger—art is a necessity. Art is his salvation. His craft has kept him alive during times when he contemplated suicide.
Shortly after beginning my two-year long portrait of him I began to notice how he would get lost in the creative process, much the same as an extraordinary concert pianist who seems unaware of the audience when the theatre lights are dimmed, when the spotlight shifts to the stage. The more tattoo sessions I photographed, the more I realized that Roger's art is a conveyance for the intimate connection he develops with his clients, many of whom have faced life altering events.
After Roger meticulously prepares his equipment, and the needle first touches the skin, his studio fills with a perceptible air of intense vulnerability. Roger's practice is both physical and spiritual, where the process eclipses the end result.
I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to pursue this project. There were many patient individuals who gave me their time, helped me, and kept me “out of harms way” when I was inside and around aircraft.
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