FAYETTEVILLE — Lea Hartman used a black washable marker and a steady hand to write the word “independent” down Jacki Raney’s left leg. Both women are professional photographers, but on this day, they were just Army wives.
After the ink dried, the pair ventured to an empty field near Hartman’s house for a quick photo shoot.
Raney braved chilly temperatures in a black and white blouse, a pair of bright red shorts and black heels that she’d only worn once before. She looked both confident and poised as she posed with one hand on her hip and her left foot slightly forward.
The look conveyed the independence Raney has found since becoming an Army wife.
Raney is the ninth woman who has been photographed for Hartman’s I Am Project blog. Hartman, a lifestyle photographer who often shoots photos of families, launched the project in 2011.
Each black and white image features a military wife with an empowering word painted on her body. Hartman has taken pictures of women wearing words such as brave, determined and blessed.
“I ask them one question, which is ‘What is it that you most want people to know about you as an Army wife?” Hartman said. “They choose their own word.”
The project not only gives Hartman a chance to convey strength through photography, but to tell stories.
“I decided to create a series of images that allow us to put a voice and a face to the title of ‘Army Wife,’” Hartman said. “I felt military spouses weren’t well represented in the media in general.”
Military spouses face unique challenges, including lengthy deployments and numerous misconceptions that can be hard to overcome, Hartman said.
“I would say the project really came about as a therapeutic thank you,” she said. “I can’t reasonably take credit for it, it’s really the story of these women.”
Hartman didn’t adjust well to Army life at first. She was married to her husband, David, for five years before he joined the Army.
“I kind of wallowed in self-pity for a while, and I picked up photography during that time as a way to cope,” she said.
But it didn’t take long for Hartman to take notice of the women around her.
“I had never met such strong women in my life,” she said. “They handled all the obstacles that came with being an Army spouse with grace and courage.”
The women broke away from the stereotypical victim mentality of Army wives, she said.
“The thinking was very much, ‘My husband does his job for his country and this is my job for my country,’” Hartman said.
Sarah Purdue was the first woman photographed for the I Am Project.
“She was just amazing, she has a go-get-’em attitude,” Hartman said. “She had been married and had two babies, all before she was even the legal age to drink.”
The words “I am strong” were written across Sarah’s chest for her photo shoot.
“That really stemmed from so many people thinking she wasn’t because she was young and inexperienced,” Hartman said.
Rachel Brown’s word for the photo shoot was “devoted.”
“I wanted a word that explained that I will always be there for my husband, no matter where his choices take us in the Army or elsewhere,” she said. “I also wanted to convey I will always be the best mom I can be.”
In Brown’s photo, “devoted” is written across her right forearm, which she used to embrace her then-newborn son, Joshua.
Brown’s husband, Chris, was training an hour away the day Joshua was born, but he didn’t see his son until at least three hours after he entered the world.
During that period, Brown asked people not to post any photos on social media.
“In this lifestyle, you miss things all the time, but I still wanted him to meet Joshua before everyone else did,” she said.
Brown’s proud to have been part of the project.
“I think the idea was genius, and I like the way Lea makes it individual to each person,” she said. “Because everybody is different, and everybody goes through this lifestyle in a different way. It’s really great how she’s showcasing Army wives in a good light.”
Hartman doesn’t put out a model call for women to photograph. Instead, she goes about the process organically, getting to know fellow Army wives before asking them to participate.
“Some of them think about it for six month or a year before they agree to do it,” she said.
Raney, photographed on a recent Saturday, exemplified the spirit of the project. The California native got married less than a year after graduating from high school.
Her husband, Dallas, already had been in the Army for three years, but military life was new to Raney. After getting married, the couple almost immediately moved to Germany.
“That was my very first time away from home,” Raney said.
While her husband was working, Raney was thrust into learning how to manage the household.
“My parents had always done everything for me,” she said. “The Army basically had to teach me to be independent.”
Now, Raney rarely seeks help from her husband.
“I just do it myself,” she said. “ I don’t even think to ask him.”
Raney’s been struck with how she felt after viewing the photos on the I Am Project blog.
“They just really make you stop and think about what we go through,” she said.
Hartman said the women who have been photographed have experienced a range of emotions upon seeing their photos.
“I’ve gotten everything from exuberance to tears,” Hartman said. “There’s something about writing a statement on yourself and really owning it and having it captured for all time.”
Ultimately, Hartman would like to see the photos from her blog in the pages of a book.
“I would love to have the proceeds go to support Army families or the Wounded Warrior Project,” she said.
Hartman is continually inspired by the women she photographs, she said.
“It’s really hard to be completely self-centered when you’re surrounded by all these women who are going through the same things you’re going through and handling it much better than you are,” she said.