Beneath the otherworldly pink sky, the sign of a sandstorm, the U.S. Marines of Echo Company stalked through a grove of palm trees in Ramadi, Iraq.
If it had been a rice paddy and nearly four decades earlier, David Swanson could have mistaken it for Vietnam.
He never set foot in the Vietnamese jungle, but as a boy growing up in York, Pa., his parents’ copies of Life magazine brought Swanson pictures of the war. They were made by some of the world’s most renowned photojournalists, including Larry Burrows who died covering the conflict when his helicopter was shot down.
The pictures made Swanson want to be a war photographer, too.
It was April 2, 2004, on Swanson’s first day patrolling with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment — under that pink sky. After spending weeks in Baghdad continuously emailing military public affairs officers, Swanson, a staff photographer for The Inquirer, was finally embedded with U.S. troops.
“Everybody said, ‘Don’t go,’ ” he recalled in an interview.
Anti-American sentiment was high, and the road to Ramadi included a nerve-wracking drive through Fallujah, where four Blackwater contractors had just been killed and hung from a bridge.
“I had a heartfelt decision with myself: This is why I’m here.”
The year before, he’d done two mostly uneventful stints photographing the war in Afghanistan and figured Iraq would be more of the same.
But he quickly learned how fraught the situation was. On April 6, insurgents slipped into the city and ambushed the soldiers of Echo Company at an intersection through which Swanson had just walked the day before. A dozen Marines were killed.
The ambush led to an hours-long firefight. When it ended, he followed as Pfc. Eric Ayon got behind the wheel and tried to start the engine of the bullet-ridden Humvee in which several of his comrades had just been shot. No luck.
Three days later, Ayon, of Arleta, Calif., was killed at the same intersection in another attack. He was 26.
Swanson’s right arm was grazed by a bullet during a shootout the next day. The wound wasn’t serious, but the fighting weighed on him.
“They just put, whatever, that iodine juice on it and bandaged it up,” he said. “I was scared, but I thought I was pushing my luck a little bit.”
After two weeks in Ramadi, he had his fill of the action and returned to Baghdad. Fifteen years later, he remains friends with some of the Marines from Echo Company.
Swanson, now 54, is leaving The Inquirer at the end of this month after a 30-year career. He is taking a buyout but not retiring or giving up photography. He plans to move to Los Angeles and begin a new chapter in his life.
Though he grew up in York, he never spent time in Philadelphia until he moved here to freelance for the paper. A graduate of Ohio University, he was hired in 1989 as a Delaware County photographer for The Inquirer’s former “Neighbors” suburban section — which meant covering a lot of high school sports, he recalled.
But he yearned to cover international events. In the summer of 1992, Swanson flew to Bosnia to photograph the conflict there for The Inquirer’s Sunday magazine. It was his first time in a war zone, and he quickly discovered he had to pick a side to cover. He embedded with the Bosnians for a month.
“I just wanted to be there,” he said. “It was exciting.”
On September 11, 2001, Swanson was home with his five-month-old daughter, watching the news coverage of the attacks. He took a shower and drove from his home in Rose Valley through New Jersey, eventually taking a Port Authority Trans-Hudson train to get into Manhattan. Then he walked three miles from Times Square to Canal Street, arriving at midnight to crash at a college friend’s place with only his equipment and the clothes on his back.
The next day, he went to the smoldering scene at Ground Zero. It was surreal, he said: contorted shards of steel, paper flying around, the smell of diesel and dust covering everything — including the green polo shirt he wore for ten days.
“It would get eerily quiet when they would pull out a body,” he remembered.
If it was the action that drew him into photojournalism, it was the humanity that stuck with him.
In Haiti, he noticed that victims of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake made sure one another had food and water.
“People are the same all over,” he said. “The less people have, the more they are willing to share.”
His camera has taken him to other major stories near and far: Hurricane Katrina, the West Nickel Mines School shooting, Penn State’s sex abuse scandal, and more recently, the Eagles’ Super Bowl win.
In 2012, he was part of The Inquirer’s team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on school violence.
As photographic technology evolved, Swanson kept pace. He was the newsroom’s first photographer to earn a remote pilot license and uses drones to record both pictures and video.
“Photography is a mixture of art and science, and this is the latest science involved with it,” he said. “I like to show people what they wouldn’t see if they were standing next to me.”