Navy Veteran Micah Renee Berge walked into the Sacramento VA and saw a familiar face. It was her own photo prominently featured in the Hall of Heroes. Describing the instant she noticed the portrait Berge said, “I realized at that moment that I was a hero, and that my story wasn’t over yet.”
Jon-Nolan Paresa, the visual information officer for VA’s Northern California Health Care System, was the artist behind the lens and the driving force in creating the new Hall of Heroes project at the Sacramento VA. Paresa had long understood the impact similar projects had on Veterans at other VA facilities. While the facility had featured images of Veterans in the past, Paresa wanted to utilize his nearly twenty years of experience and portrait photography expertise to add a truly special feature to the Hall of Heroes in Sacramento.
Paresa decided to completely revamp the hall from its traditional configuration of photos to an even more stirring, artistic arrangement. The monumental task of envisioning and producing a new Hall of Heroes was a task Paresa quickly and skillfully dived into.
Paresa decided to start the project from scratch and create two separate components for the hall, a portrait wall and historic wall. The historic wall was to feature black and white photos of Veterans in uniform from as far back as World War I. He sorted through over 400 pictures before editing them for picture quality. The portrait wall was to consist of black and white close-up photographs of Veterans as they had arrived at the Sacramento VA medical center.
Paresa immediately set to work and photographed 150 people, taking no more than five minutes a portrait, outside in natural light often on cloudy days in order to create the images he was looking for. He tried to avoid smiles in the portraits saying, “I wanted to try and capture their eyes” in order to capture their genuine nature and capture the feeling of “looking at the eyes of the warrior.”
Having her portrait in that Hall of Heroes had a lasting impression on Berge who said she “initially, didn’t feel like I deserved to be featured” in the hall compared to any other Veteran. However, Berge said that seeing her image among other portraits of fellow Veterans “helped me embrace being a Veteran and [realize] that a lot of our stories are really similar.”
Paresa sought to create an environment in the Hall of Heroes that felt welcoming and meaningful to the Veterans that visited. He felt that as the Sacramento VA was a Veterans’ hospital, Veterans should be able to see themselves, and their brothers and sisters in service prominently featured in a way that depicted them both in and out of uniform. Altogether, the Hall of Heroes he composed is made up of a wide spectrum of Veterans’ images, including Medal of Honor recipients and Veterans who now work within the VA and, as Paresa says, “when you look at all the faces, you see there is a magnificent story.”
When Anne Dicandido-Griffin, who was Paresa’s supervisor at the start of the Hall of Heroes project and who has family members featured on the wall, was asked about the hall she said that “there’s a lot of emotion in that wall” and it serves as “a great way to show people that you matter at the VA, you are our customer and this is how we honor you.”
About the Author: Mitchell Hale is a writing intern with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ digital media engagement team. The Naperville, Illinois native is a sophomore at Boston College currently studying political science and Islamic studies.