There’s a story behind every badge, and one photographer is working to tell those stories through the lens.
“When you hear about police officers in the news, it’s usually because they’ve done something wrong, or they’ve been killed in the line of duty,” Colorado-based photographer Benny Bamba said.
Bamba was inspired to start his “I’m a Police Officer” project after the death of a Utah sheriff’s deputy.
After making a traffic stop on January 5, 2010, Millard County Deputy Josie Greathouse Fox was shot and killed, left to die on the side of a remote Utah road.
Bamba was working as a graphics designer and operator with a news network at the time, and when he asked producers when to expect a photo of the fallen deputy, he said he was saddened when they told him no photo existed.
“That really stuck with me,” Bamba told CNN. “This woman was putting her life on the line and she didn’t have a department portrait?”
Bamba said he decided not to let that happen again. Photography has always been a passion of his, so he began volunteering his time and talents to highlight the human side of those in law enforcement. He has made it his mission to give back to those who give so much for their communities.
He takes their portraits free of charge, because he says police officers are often overlooked.
“When you see portraits, you see how they treat other departments. Everyone loves a firefighter, no one likes a cop,” Bamba said.
“It shows different sides of us,” one of Bamba’s subjects, Det. Heatherlyn Lohrke of Salt Lake County’s Unified Police Department, told CNN affiliate KTVX. “Where mostly the public sees us in bad settings, where it’s a crime that’s occurred … this is something we can smile, have fun with. You can see we’re real people.”
It’s that genuine element that Bamba works to capture.
“When they relax and talk with you, they’ll adjust themselves — their body posture relaxes. They’re not guarded anymore,” Bamba said. “They’re smiling a little or doing quirky things that they normally wouldn’t do for a posed picture. Cops are always fronting, always joking. They have to put on that face to let you know everything is OK.”
Bamba’s passion project took on new meaning 2013 when his friend, West Valley City police officer Michael Valdes, died by suicide.
“He was one of the first people I approached — can I take your photo? — and he said ‘Benny, I’ll break your camera.’ This smiling cop who everyone loves killed himself. That was big for me.”
Bamba relaunched the project with a new goal — raising awareness of the prevalence of suicide among law enforcement and funding prevention efforts. Bamba gave up his full-time career in marketing and now raises money to travel between Colorado and Utah whenever he can schedule shoots. So far, he’s worked with nine law enforcement agencies, getting a rare glimpse into the people behind the flashing lights.
“He was out here for a week from early in the morning to late at night taking these photos. And he does it on his own dime,” Unified Police Sgt. Melody Gray told CNN.
“It’s something that you’re able to leave behind for your family,” Gray said. “It’s more that for us than anything. And with the climate around police officers and society, it’s a cool thing that he wants to show people we’re more than just the uniform.”
So what’s next?
“I would like to see ‘I’m a Police Officer‘ grow up a bit,” Bamba said. “All of the money raised goes toward these shoots and these officers, and I’d eventually like to see those funds going toward counseling one day.”
Bamba said he’d like to expand his collection to include other first responders, 911 dispatchers and others in public service.
“It’s still a person holding onto their humanity despite the hurt children, the domestic violence, the calls they respond to,” Bamba said. “I just want to remind them of who they are and what they do for our community.”