Good Life

Shades of gray: State College native photographs Baghdad palace in black and white

Cynthia Roelle returned from an Army tour in Baghdad with a lot more than just stories and memories.

As a lawyer with the Judge Advocate General Corps, Roelle didn’t have a lot of spare time, but when she did, she would walk through Camp Victory, the compound the army set up at the old Baath Party headquarters — demolished when it was bombed near the start of the war — and photograph the destruction.

“It used to be a hunting and fishing type place where government people went,” similar to Camp David, she said. The compound housed palaces and buildings utilized the Baath Party.

Roelle, a State College Area High School graduate whose parents, Arthur and Elsie Stine, still reside in Boalsburg, always had loved all kinds of art.

In 1992, she had graduated with a liberal arts degree from Penn State and decided to pursue a law degree.

Roelle joined the Army as a JAG lawyer so she could keep working when her husband, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Roelle, was stationed overseas.

Then in September 2005, Roelle, was sent to Baghdad. There, Roelle put her love of photography to use, spending her Sundays with a friend walking around the military compounds taking pictures.

“I just feel a sense of loss, and just sadness at the real state of things,” she says. “And the price that ordinary people pay for our governments political and foreign policies.”

Roelle said she wasn’t trying to make any kind of political statement when she took the photos. She just took them for herself — to capture everything she saw during, what she called, a historic and unique experience.

“But I think when you see it, the destruction,” she said. “It’s just so ... it’s just a sense of loss. Why did we do this to each other?”

“And they’re just buildings,” she said of her pictures. “It’s not the people. That’s even more tragic.”

Several of the photos she took in Iraq were featured in Black & White, a photography trade magazine, earlier this year.

“I’ve always been drawn to black and white photos, for some reason,” Roelle said. “Black and white is just the very raw image.

“When I’m taking photos of something, I see it in black and white. When it’s in color, I’ll think, that’s not what I took. But when I convert it to black and white, then ‘Oh, that’s what I remember.’ ”

Roelle said she was honorably discharged from the Army and is back to working as a lawyer in Asheville, N.C. To fulfill her artistic hunger, Roelle said she often picks up a camera and takes pictures.

She said she enjoys very much being a lawyer and, for now, she’ll continue practicing corporate and estate law. Someday, though, she hopes to make a career out of photography.

“It’s an easy portable artistic outlet,” she said. “I just love taking pictures. Everyone looks at my photo album and says, ‘There’s no pictures of you, no pictures of your husband.’ ”

Right now, she has difficulty finding the time.

“I only have weekends, and of course there’s house chores and life,” Roelle said.

She says her friends are supporting her as she tries to kick off a portrait business.

“It’s a hard balance, but it’s a lot of fun,” Roelle said. “So it’s not like working during the day and coming home and working a second job.”

Sara Ganim can be reached at 231-4616.

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