Forty-four thousand veterans and their family members are at rest in Bay Pines National Cemetery, and each year the cemetery, established in 1933, hosts a Memorial Day ceremony for those lost.
This year, Gulfport photographer and Navy veteran Larry Busby has created his own special tribute, inviting local photo artists with a connection to the military to complete a story through the lens, showcasing the beauty of the historic cemetery and honoring the sacrifice of veterans and family.
In 1978, Larry Busby was a scrappy boy from rural Kentucky who wanted a chance “out.”
“I’m a hillbilly, not a redneck,” Busby clarifies, sporting an ancient U.S. Navy cap. “I would be dead by now if I never joined the military. A lot of the guys I know didn’t leave the county, but the Navy cleaned me up and I went from a boy to a man.”
Busby served for 10 years as a Naval Aircrewman and photographer before becoming an environmentalist, pioneering the Terra Ceia Preserve State Park.
As a creative photographer, Busby likes to play with what he calls “the science behind photography to paint fine art photographs.”
But the journey to his art wasn’t without struggle.
“I made a promise to myself that I would spread awareness no matter what. I joined a 12-step program and I’m in recovery,” Busby said. “Bay Pines Hospital has saved my life more than once.”
A Family of Heroes
If it’s happening in Gulfport, chances are Eagle Finegan is there, watching from behind the lens.
Finegan moved to Gulfport following Hurricane Katrina with few possessions, but was gifted a point-and-shoot camera; to her, a treasure.
“I was able to view my new world via the lens,” Finegan said. “The passion of the ‘click’ from the shutter, and I was able to show just how I view things.”
Finegan hails from a family of Army vets: her father, two brothers and nephew all wore the uniform; her nephew is a Marine, so Bay Pines holds a special place in the Gulfport resident’s heart.
Dorothy Smith was 3 years old when her father, J.D Smith, completed his time in the Air Force.
“Even though our dad retired before I got to live life as a military child, he instilled in us the importance of our heroes that have sacrificed for our country,” Smith said.
When she heard about Busby’s photo essay idea, Smith decided to shoot local veterans Jared Proctor and T.J Neer in Bay Pines.
Her shots capture the art on their skin, their proud faces and patriotic gear as they tour the cemetery.
“I love working with light, how I can manipulate it right out of the camera, placing shapes and using colors and textures to make the image pop,” Smith said. “I love working candidly with subjects and then seeing their reaction when I show them the finished project.”
Shooting on a Ship
The son of a veteran who died while on active duty, Thomas O’Connor also served as the Ships Photographer while serving as one of two Hospital Corpsmen aboard the USS Samuel B Roberts, braving waves while wielding his camera.
“After that, I focused on my other art pursuits until I rediscovered my passion for photography as part of my physical therapy after surgery,” O’Connor said, “and it has gone a long way in helping me recover.”
The VA is especially important to O’Conner, who echoes Busby’s appreciation.
“The VA has been extremely good to me,” he said, “and it’s safe to say they have saved my life at least once, probably twice.”
Burial in Bay Pines
For many veterans and their families, Bay Pines National Cemetery – where veterans and, in some cases, their families, can be buried for free – is a sacred space. Busby and the photographers who participated in the photo essay honor not just the space, however, but the profound sacrifice it symbolizes.
“Well we’re all going to die one day,” Busby said. “A lot of veterans are like this, like me. When we join we know this – you’re making a deal with the devil and not everyone can do that.”