The Marine Who Photographs ‘Star Wars’
Sgt. Matthew Callahan’s pictures bring toy soldiers to life
The droid seems to struggle against his restraints. The machine looks up at his captors — clone troopers hidden behind white armor dinged and scuffed by constant battle. It’s a black and white photograph and so seems menacing and real. Another droid stands waiting, arms bound and held by the sturdy arms of a trooper.
This isn’t a deleted scene from the Star Wars prequel trilogy, nor a sneak peek at The Force Awakens. This is the work of U.S. Marine Sgt. Matthew Callahan. The pictures from his Galactic Warfighter series are beautiful stills of a world in chaos — clone troopers fighting galactic battles across a vast empire.
At first glance, I wondered how he afforded all the armor and props. How did an active duty Marine manage to get his friends into clone trooper armor? But there’s no people in any of his pictures. Callahan photographs toys.
He’d only been in Afghanistan a month when he snapped his leg during a patrol. He flew back home to recover, but just because his leg needed time to heal didn’t mean the Marines were done with him. He rested, but he also learned a new trade.
“That’s what got me into photography,” he tells me. During Callahan’s recovery period, he began public affairs training at Maryland’s Defense Information School. He received broadcast training, learned how to interview and be interviewed … and how to take photographs.
“It was just a simple assignment,” he explains. “Go capture motion, make it blur, freeze.” One of his friends had a six-inch Star Wars stormtrooper toy. He photographed it for class and he loved the picture so much he wanted to do more.
“I started to experiment,” he says. “Galactic Warfighters,” Callahan’s Star Wars gallery on Instagram, is the product of two years of experimenting with toy photography. The pictures are haunting.
“In the past six or seven months it’s picked up its voice,” Callahan tells me. Most of the photos are black and white action shots of Republic-era clone troopers in combat. In one, troopers push through the vegetation of some unknown planet, in another one trooper aims a rocket launcher at an unseen enemy as debris explodes around him.
Callahan explains that he’s trying to give life to these troopers in the same way he did when he was a kid. He told me that most people give their toys personalities when they’re young. “As we get older we still tend to anthropomorphize objects … our phones, our cars. [The photographs] act as an ode to that.”
But “Galactic Warfighters” goes deeper. Along with the action shots, Callahan’s work includes black and white portraits of clone soldiers in chairs. Each photo has a stark white background and a small paragraph detailing the soldier’s thoughts.
In one a trooper stands behind the chair where a charred helmet rests. He’s looking to the side. “It was hard to see on the ground and I found myself in a crater with a few other men,” the caption reads. “A time-delayed rocket plummeted into the ground feet from me, and I froze. A Wolfe trooper kicked me down and curled himself around the explosive when it detonated. He saved my life.”
For Callahan, the Galactic Warfighters project is about joining the fantastic world of Star Wars with the reality of the Marines. “That’s what you’ve seen in the most recent work,” he explains. “The black and white editorial style. The journalistic vignettes of clone troopers and galactic warfare.”
“I wanted to tell [the toys] stories,” he says of the portraits. “To take them off their fictitious pedestals and ground them in reality. To make them human.” Those little stories he tells come in a flash, and he says there’s no overarching narrative to the project.
“It’s ironic in a way,” he says. “Because there are so many of them I can quickly put them under a microscope and very briefly explore their thoughts, feelings and what they’re going through without tethering all those stories together. It mirrors what you see in the real world, with photographs coming out of combat zones. Small stories of the whole.”
Those small stories mean a whole lot to Callahan’s fans. He gets positive feedback from combat veterans who tell him the pictures are therapeutic. He also hopes the photos will get some Star Wars fans to think about America’s various wars.
A lot of people love Star Wars, but fewer know much about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I ask him if he’s worried that the public is losing touch with the military, or if he finds it insulting that people care more about Star Wars than real wars.
“It’s not insulting,” he tells me and there’s excitement in his voice as he talks. “That’s how society works. Conflict has always informed pop culture. This is an exploration of that, closely merging two realities together. The fictitious meets the real.”