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11.11.2019

Pictures for Heroes

This Veterans Day, Zach Coco wants us to reflect on the stories of soldiers who once fought in WWII. With only about 400,000 of the once 16 million soldiers left, future generations are in danger of not knowing the men and women who risked their lives for the freedom we all share today. Focusing mostly on the individual, Coco’s work stands apart from any memorial you may have visited or read about in your high school textbooks. 

Citing his grandfather, who fought in WWII, as inspiration, Coco uses his passion for photography as a way to give back to the individuals who are able to share their story.  Starting in Los Angeles, the LA-based photographer shot and interviewed 100 veterans for his first published book, WWII Heroes. In the next few years, he hopes to reach the remaining veterans across the U.S. to ensure their memory is never forgotten. Milk spoke to the patriotic artist about what Veterans Day means to him, the process behind capturing these images, and the importance of understanding the past. 

Have you always been interested in portrait work?

 Yeah. For the most part. Starting out you just kind of shoot anything that looks cool to you. But then once I started consciously choosing the direction that I’d like to go. I was interacting with people, and everyone is so unique and different. I was drawn to portraiture, I guess.

You have cited your grandfather as inspiration. Were you two very close? What was it like growing up in your family?

Yeah, he was my hero growing up and they didn’t live too far from us. So, holidays we would get together, birthdays we’d get together. And then as I got older, I started doing chores for him, mowing his lawn washing windows, taking care of stuff around the house for him, it kind of worked in multiple ways. It gave me a reason to go and see them, and then also kind of taught me certain values when it came to doing jobs for people. He always told me to do something for someone else as if you’re doing it for yourself. So put all your effort into the work that you do and take pride in that. So he kind of instilled those values and he grew up during the Great Depression, so you know, when I was washing his windows, he gave me two pieces of paper towels for the entire job, one was to wash and the other to dry and I had to make do. He taught me to value things as well and not just waste what we don’t need to waste.  

Were you ever interested in war? It’s in your family and you’ve spent four years working on a project about it, there must be something connecting you.

I guess I never really thought about joining the military when I was younger, but I was born on Veterans Day so I always have had this connection to veterans. And when I was younger, I used to volunteer at the VA hospital taking veterans to Sunday service and back to their rooms. I just kind of grew up in that environment and a lot of family members, my grandfather on both sides, they served, my brother served. I didn’t really put much thought into joining the service. Photography was my passion growing up so that was the direction I wanted to go. So this is kind of my way of giving back to them I guess.

Wow, born on Veterans Day and this book is coming out on Veterans Day? That must be so special.

I guess growing up you don’t realize the importance or significance of certain things and I always had my birthday off from school, but this is definitely special for me. This is all kind of lining up at the same time, and I’m really excited. 

Is there something you do in every shoot? A question you always ask or something to lighten up the mood for those you’re interviewing who might not be comfortable in front of the camera?

There are a few questions that I always ask, but they usually come at the end. I’m not a professional interviewer, the interviewing aspect has just sort of been making it up as I go. But the one question I always try to end with is, “What advice would you have for current or future generations?” and I get all sorts of different responses. But as far as people being uncomfortable, I’m always sensitive to what they’d be willing to divulge and what they’d be willing to share. I don’t press any one issue because I’m very aware and conscious of the fact that they’re sharing personal details of their life when they’re just meeting me for the first time. The trust they’re instilling with me, to sit down and talk about these aspects of their lives and also to have the responsibility to share that information with other people holds a lot of weight for me to make sure that it’s accurate and represents them correctly.

Was it difficult to find a lot of veterans who would agree to do it? Have you gotten a lot of no’s?   

I’ve probably gotten three or four no’s, which is kind of surprising. And a majority of those no’s came from people who thought they weren’t deserving enough to be amongst the group of veterans that are featured in the book if that makes sense. They felt that their contributions were not significant enough to be included among the other veterans and that just kind of shows the humbleness of that generation and those guys. I’ve only had like one or two people say no outright and that they weren’t interested. There have been a few instances where people have agreed to sit down with me and maybe not want to talk about certain things also. I feel that they are at a point in their lives that they realize they are the last generation and they don’t want people to forget what their comrades had died for. They see it as a responsibility to pass their experiences on to future generations.  

Do you ever find yourself getting emotional while you’re photographing or interviewing?

Honestly, I’ve been getting that question a lot lately, you know, the stories are very heavy but personally, it doesn’t really affect me directly sitting there listening to them. Even if they’re getting emotional shedding tears and that sort of thing. It’s almost all too unbelievable sometimes to imagine that a human being had endured such hardship and horrific experiences.  

Could you tell me about something that stuck with you when interviewing? Was there something that happened or a story that stuck with you? 

It was kind of early on. When I started this I didn’t really know too much about WWII other than what we learned in school and those kinds of highlights of Pearl Harbor being attacked, and Hitler and the Holocaust and then the atomic bombs and then the war was over. As I got into it and as I’m learning more and meeting with people one of the first interviews I did was with this guy named Sol Schwartz, and he was a Bataan Death March survivor. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that. I hadn’t heard of it. So, just a quick background. Before Pearl Harbor was even hit, we had troops over in the Philippines, and after Pearl Harbor got hit the next day, the Japanese attacked our troops stationed in the Philippines. Essentially they destroyed all of our airplanes and cut off all of our ships, the ones that they didn’t destroy in Pearl Harbor. They cut off all of our supply lines to our troops, so we have thousands of troops sort of stuck in the Philippines without being able to be supplied with food or ammo. So for about four months, our troops were retreating back into this peninsula called the Bataan Peninsula, on half rations and running out of ammo. The decision was made that all of our troops were to lay down arms and surrender to the Japanese. This was like four months after we got into the war. The Japanese were notoriously brutal towards those that they had captured. And so they disarmed all of our guys and if they found any Japanese relics or trinkets our guys had on them they’d kill them immediately. Our guys were forced to march 60 miles with no food and no water over the course of about a week, and a lot of people died a lot of people were killed, but Sol survived.

He ended up stationed in a prisoner of war camp. They were being starved, they were given very little amounts of rice which was filled with maggots and other bugs. He spent three and a half years as a POW eating nothing more than a small amount of rice a day while working in a coal mine 12 hours a day, 30 days a month, and, you know, disease and everything else. He overcame all that, and when he returned to the states, he eventually started a jewelry business in Beverly Hills and became Elvis’s go-to jeweler on the west coast, amongst other Hollywood elite and made a life for himself and he forgave the men that treated him that way. So forgiveness and compassion for somebody who went through something like that, I think is very meaningful.

 Elvis’s jeweler?

Yeah, he custom-designed certain pieces for him and Nancy Sinatra. Unfortunately, he passed away last year. Two months shy of his 100th birthday. That’s a really special story and that’s kind of stuck with me as one of the more remarkable experiences. 

What is special or different about your book with memorializing veterans that the war memorials or other books haven’t done?

I guess it’s different than a memorial because this really focuses on the individuals whereas memorials kind of touch more on the larger scale or the group effort. This gets more into the personal experiences of individuals. There are 100 veterans in the book although it doesn’t touch on every aspect of the war because it’s so involved and so intricate, but I started noticing while putting it together is that these individuals are kind of like puzzle pieces. As it went on, I started seeing how these pieces connected. People were in the same area, same battles and it just kind of, as we got to the hundred mark you could see the bigger picture more clearly rather than just focusing on one of them.

How do you think that these stories relate to people today? What is something you would like people to take away from this project?

The message I try to convey to people my age and younger is the message of why we live in freedom today, why we live in the country we live in today. There have been other wars since WWII, but that one war is kind of defining of the world in general. It was all-encompassing, and had we not won- had the allies not won that war- who knows the world that we’d be living in today. Germany could have taken over the US, Japan could have taken over the US and the freedoms that we enjoy may not have existed. So, I think just taking a moment, not just to think about that we do live in a free country but what it took to get there. Over 400,000 teenagers, American teenagers and other kids at the time, lost their lives, gave their lives, so we can have a chance at living our best life. That’s kind of the overall message that I hope is received and it’s not just the ones that gave their lives but the ones that came back they suffered as well. I hope that’s received by people that are reading this.

 Is there anything else that you would like people to know about the book or your experience?

There were 16 million service members, American service members during WWII. Today there’s a little less than 400,000 and they’re all in their nineties to hundreds and they’re dying off at about 400 a day right now. They’re not gonna be around for much longer, so I think this is kind of our last chance to honor them and thank them and show them appreciation. If people are interested in ordering the book and reading about the Veterans within it, they can order it directly through our website Pictures For Heroes.

Images Courtesy of Zach Coco


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