Mark Dye ’95
Not many careers can take you from the shop of a man who builds boats by hand in the Adirondacks one day, to meeting the Olympic hockey players who beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid in 1980 another, to a war-torn country half a world away the next.
Covering life with his camera lens, Mark Dye ’95, a photojournalist for the Watertown Daily Times, shares some of life’s most joyous, most disheartening and most inspiring moments with everyone who views his photos. With a click of the shutter, he can turn the mundane into the fascinating by using ingenuity, imagination and some of the skills he learned as a student in the Department of Art at SUNY Potsdam.
Dye didn’t start out wanting to be a photojournalist. If fact, he thought it could never be more than a hobby until he saw it listed as a career choice in a catalog while in high school. Knowing that’s where his interests were, Dye looked into colleges that had a strong photography program.
“My father was a professor at the University of Buffalo, I loved it but I knew I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to go where I could be my own person,” Dye said. “I toured some of the SUNY campuses, and SUNY Potsdam jumped out as being the best. I loved the location and the closeness to the Adirondacks. I am a city kid, but I also love the North Country, so now I appreciate both, each because of the other.
“The Art Department was perfect for me. It gave me a chance to know all my professors, and I had the freedom to do what I wanted. It was the right fit at the right level. I went from being an average student in high school to really being involved,” Dye said.
He was in the Art Club, the Rugby Club and the Student Government Association as the president and representative to the College Council; worked as the photo editor of the “Racquette” and served on numerous committees for the College. He even completed an internship with Dick Bitely, who then was the College’s photographer.
“The digital age was so far away at that point,” Dye said. “Working with Dick gave me the foundation in old school photography with chemicals and film. Those foundations and understanding the principles I learned then, helps me to be a better photographer today in the computer age.”
Dye said his education at SUNY Potsdam did more than just teach him how to take photos. “My experience prepared me to walk into any situation and deal with it by finding a solution,” he said.
“For me, the camera is like Linus’ blanket. I take it everywhere with me. You never know what will happen,” Dye said. “I’m a storyteller who captures just that right moment which makes the photo. You have to be able to see it before it happens, after which it becomes part of history.”
That training came in handy recently when he spent a month in Iraq embedded with the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. It took 14 months from the time he was asked if he was interested in going to the time when he left, but the wait was well worth the experience.
“I wanted to go oversees and take photos in a situation like this all my life,” he said. “I was ready to leave at a moment’s notice with my bags packed, although my mother and my girlfriend didn’t want me to go even if they were supportive of what I needed to do.”
While there, he spent his days documenting the work of the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade who served many roles to the Iraqi people. They were police officers, big brothers and trainers to those in southwest Baghdad, according to Dye.
“They kept the city going in every capacity including lots of civil reconstruction which you don’t hear about. They were really focused on improving the quality of life for the people,” he said. “It’s amazing how a soldier on patrol could go from humanitarian deeply concerned about the people on his or her beat, to combat soldier dealing with whatever was thrown at them and then back again so quickly.”
Dye said the most surprising aspects of Iraq were how green and lush it was and how life went on even though the area was a combat zone. People are people everywhere, there are good and bad on all sides.
“People weren’t just in hiding,” he said. “They still went to school and work, their daily lives just went on. It wasn’t a war zone with empty streets. People were everywhere, living.”
Adapting to another culture was a challenge, but it became a normal way of life fairly quickly, Dye said. There was a translator with the patrols most times to help ease the communication barrier. Respecting both the locals and the soldiers was helpful in getting people to open up to Dye and the writer who was there with him.
“I love culture shock,” he said. “The feeling that you are in a completely foreign place on another side of the globe. I was in awe of everything going on around me just soaking it up.”
Even so far from home in a sometimes-hostile environment, many of the soldiers were putting others’ needs ahead of their own. When writing home, many asked for such things as children’s sneakers and socks or Barbie Dolls, Dye said. The soldiers gave out candy, soccer balls and toys to the Iraqi children on a daily basis and knew many of them by name.
“Some of the adults were afraid to be seen speaking to Americans for fear they would be killed, but the children loved the soldiers. They would point out the houses their parents told them to stay away from, where the bad people were. The kids are the future, if they like us now they will be less likely to take up arms against us down the road.
“Other adults, often who were persecuted by the old regime, would invite you into their house for tea and not want you to leave. Everyone offered us tea and it became a great theme to the trip.”
Clad in body armor, a helmet, safety glasses and ear plugs daily, Dye faced being shot at and mortared a few times while in Iraq. There were soldiers in the brigade that were killed while he was there, a reminder that it was very real.
“I was never afraid, but you were conscious of what is going on around you at all times. You learn fast to hit the ground when you hear ‘incoming.’ When things got hot, I was too busy focusing on the moment and doing my job. Afterward, you’d realize what could have happened and that you should have been afraid but at that point it was over, and you can’t be afraid of what didn’t happened.”
Dye has received a great deal of feedback on the photos he took in Baghdad from the soldiers’ families, especially mothers and wives. This was something he never expected but found very rewarding. When someone is killed and he can send a photo of their loved one to the family it’s a reminder that it is not over.
Even though his life was in danger at times, Dye said he would go back to Iraq or some similar country in a heartbeat. “Doing the work I love on a global level where it effects everyone is really great,” he said.
Now that he’s back at home in Hannawa Falls, life has returned to normal. He continues to work at the paper covering news, sports and the flavor of life in St. Lawrence County.
When it comes to his alma mater, Dye has always believed in building school spirit by staying involved. Dye recently donated his time photographing the Renée Fleming benefit concert in New York City. He said he takes pride in SUNY Potsdam and he wants future students to feel that pride too.
His advice to students: “Follow your heart. If you need to change your major six times to find out what you want to do, do it. Loving what you do is most important. This is a great campus and area, so make the most of it. Take advantage of what’s going on around you because as my father taught me, the journey is the goal.”