texasmonthly.com: You went to Killeen two years ago on an assignment for Texas Monthly. How have the town and the people there changed since then?
Peter Yang: I don’t know that I can answer this in any educated fashion. Two years ago, I spent my time on military bases and in military homes. This trip I photographed mostly at Shoemaker High School. Many troops were gone two years ago, and in that manner, things haven’t changed. To me, the city still feels empty.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend in Killeen for this assignment?
PY: Two days. We were mostly at Shoemaker High School, but we spent some time at Jessica Blankenbecler’s home as well.
texasmonthly.com: What was the atmosphere like at Shoemaker High School? What was your first impression when you got to the school?
PY: My first impression of Shoemaker was the cold clinical atmosphere of the hallways. It’s pure white in every direction and closely resembles a hospital. Among the first things you see are myriad stars that line the walls. The stars catalog the names of family members abroad.
But that is just a first impression. Barbara Critchfield, the main counselor in the story and our tour guide, was warm and very engaging. The students were very nice. One asked if I was a new student and needed help finding a class. Maybe it was my backpack.
texasmonthly.com: Were the students open to you photographing them? How much interaction did you have with them?
PY: Yes, both Rohan Osbourne and Jessica Blankenbecler were very open. Usually, I spend some time getting to know my subjects, and I make an effort to make them comfortable. I speak often throughout the shoot, and I try to make it fun with my lame, outdated jokes. But for this story, I didn’t try to lighten the atmosphere. I wanted to photograph them as they were. They instinctively knew not to smile.
texasmonthly.com: How did you decide what to photograph?
PY: I wanted to convey a sense of loneliness and solitude. I placed the two in open, empty environments.
texasmonthly.com: In the story, there is a scene at a funeral in which hundreds of Shoemaker students lined the street holding American flags. Did you get a sense of the students’ own support system while you were there?
PY: Absolutely. Rohan spoke fondly about the support group at school that has helped him deal with the loss of his mother.
texasmonthly.com: What message were you trying to convey through your photographs?
PY: I don’t know if I’m trying to convey a message so much as document a story. I don’t really plan how I’ll photograph people. I like to be inspired by the environment.
texasmonthly.com: What surprised you the most about the school, the students, and the faculty members?
PY: If you ignore the stars and their meanings and statistics, Shoemaker feels like any other high school I’ve been to. Having photographed at many schools, what most surprised me was how much access we were granted. We were free to roam the halls and photograph our subjects at our discretion. I’ve been granted far less freedom in the past for far less sensitive stories.
texasmonthly.com: Were you able to choose which photos you wanted included in the magazine?
PY: Texas Monthly has always been fantastic in including me in the editing process. It’s one of the rare magazines where I can shoot an assignment like a personal project. I think that kind of freedom really allows a photographer to reach his or her potential. You can see it in the magazine.
texasmonthly.com: In the end, how did this assignment affect you?
PY: Without getting political, I got to know two more people deeply affected by the war. I hope the next time I’m in Killeen it will be to cover the world’s largest acorn squash, or a cat who thinks he’s a dog.