Each summer a new class of Coast Guard recruits, known as “swabs,” begin their education with a seven-week boot camp at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Photographer Markham Starr followed the class of 2016 as they transitioned into cadets.
All photos/art by Markham Starr
Markham Starr always imagined a life near the sea. He grew up about 20 miles from Connecticut’s Long Island Sound and as a boy rocked away his summer afternoons on his family’s boat, awed by the occasional sight of a United States Coast Guard vessel in the distance. Packing the kind of natural wonder that a lot of young boys have for the military, he dreamed of one day joining its crew. He planned to apply to the Coast Guard Academy, so in 1976, during the summer before his senior year in high school, Starr visited the campus in New London. “But on the day I arrived, they took one look at my eyes and said, ‘You’re out,'” he recalls. “At that time you couldn’t even wear glasses.”
Instead, Starr followed a different path, but one that still kept him close to the water. For 20 years he worked at the Mystic Seaport Museum, later making his living as a builder. Seven years ago, at the age of 48, he took up a camera and aimed his creative pursuits in a different direction. The documentarian in Starr put him alongside farmers and fishermen, capturing ways of life that are tragically, sometimes quickly, disappearing. But change and loss are only two of the themes he explores. At the heart of Starr’s work is curiosity about people: their stories and the lives they choose to live.
“People excite me,” he says. “Who are you, why are you doing this, what does it mean to you? And I tend to pick topics where that’s a major part of it. Sort of self-contained worlds that people go by often but don’t really know what goes on in there.”
Which is how over the course of seven often sticky, humid weeks, Starr found himself back in New London, at the United States Coast Guard Academy. His focus was “swab summer,” a seven-week boot camp, the first part of a rigorous four-year education for some 250 new cadets. Starr shot more than 10,000 images, interviewed longtime officers and their fresh recruits, and delved deep to capture the demands and rewards of swab life. The work resulted in Starr’s new book, Swab Summer: Transformation at the United States Coast Guard Academy; selected images from it are shown here.
“These are kids who come from all walks of life,” he says. “Many come from military families, but many don’t. One girl I followed learned about the Coast Guard from her local banker when she was down at the branch with her mother. So many of them come fed on Hollywood images of what it’s like. The screaming, the marching, the drilling: They expect that will be the case throughout their career, but as they get more into it, they develop a more nuanced impression of life as a Coast Guard officer.”
Starr shared the cadets’ evolution. The skeptic in him had come to the Academy packing his own preconceived ideas about military life–about what it did and didn’t do for the young men and women it recruited. Two months later, his views had broadened.
“Being a Coast Guard officer isn’t just about brains or ability,” he says. “It’s about respect. Having the same respect for the guy serving you a hamburger at McDonald’s as you have for the admiral standing next to you is a key component, and without it they don’t want you in charge of their ships or their personnel. I came away a fan.”
But would the Coast Guard have been the career for him? Starr shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I wouldn’t have met my wife if I’d gone into the Coast Guard. And my notion of it was as romantic as the kids’ coming in now. But it is an amazing place.”
Markham Starr’s previous story for Yankee, “The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island,” in the July/August 2012 issue, won the City and Regional Magazine Association’s “Best Photo Essay” award for that year. To order a copy of Swab Summer or other books and photos by Markham Starr, visit: markhamstarrphotography.com.