Ben Ham stood chest deep in a Lowcountry creek, puzzling crabs and delighting the no-see-ums.
While holding his breath to keep from creating ripples, he maneuvers his 8-by-10 folding wooden camera to capture a black-and-white image of soaring live oak limbs mirrored in the still water.
He calls the photograph "Eight Foot Tide." It is a prize piece in the collection of limited-edition, large-format landscapes he sells as fine art at his Hilton Head Island studio. It's the cover shot on his book, "Vanishing Light."
And today "Eight Foot Tide" carries out a special, almost holy mission. Its Lowcountry tranquility helps soothe the soul of a grieving nation.
About 20 of Ham's photographs hang at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. They hang where families of troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq wait to see their loved ones as they hoped they never would -- in a flag-draped, metallic box.
The photographs from the Hilton Head studio are a key component in two new facilities opened since 2010 to add dignity and caring to the thousands of Americans most closely touched by war.
The new Center for the Families of the Fallen has a Great Room filled with leather sofas and quiet meeting places. It has playrooms and nursing rooms, because so many of the fallen have young families. Comfort can come from a chaplain, or a cookie made by volunteers.
As family members wait for their walk out to the flight line, they can now gaze into Ham's oversized, framed pictures from the Lowcountry -- as well as other corners of America, from the Colorado Rockies to the Pacific Northwest.
"We wanted to create this space that would in some ways bring comfort to them and maybe through Ben's images offer a connection to something that is familiar," said S. Todd Rose, the civilian who directs the Mortuary Affairs Division at Dover.
Ham and his father, Bob Ham, traveled twice from Hilton Head, hauling a big trailer full of photographs to be hung at Dover.
The framed prints can be five feet tall and six feet wide. They reflect more than 20 years of scouting the Lowcountry for the right scenes -- usually involving trees. And now they include the California wine country, the open skies of the Southwest, and Italy.
They record minute detail in alleys of oaks, or clouds over the marsh, but that's not exactly what Ham is after when he shoots long exposures, a dark cloth over his head like someone from the 19th century.
"I'm trying to evoke an emotional response," he said.
He likes the first light of day, especially if fog is involved.
The response to his work in Dover has been such that more photographs were ordered for a new chapel annex that opened in February.
Ham said he's deeply honored that his work is part of the mission at Dover.
Rose said military personnel support the families throughout the process, but familiar, peaceful scenes like Ham's fill a crucial mission..
"When families are notified of the death of their service member, they generally are traveling within 24 hours to Dover, if they choose to," Rose said. "Their loved one is returning within 36 to 48 hours, and so there's a lot going on in that time frame."
Timeless scenes from Spring Island, the old Sheldon church and our expansive saltwater marshes now help slow down the awful rush.
'FIND PEACE IN'
A federal policy change in 2009 spurred the changes at Dover. Families were given the right to decide whether the media could photograph the arrival of their fallen kin. And the families were given the option to travel to Dover at government expense.
In the past, only those who lived nearby typically came to Dover.
But with travel expenses provided, and an 8,500-square-foot Fisher House for Families of the Fallen on base, more families are coming.
Rose said Friday that in the four years since the Department of Defense policy changed, 8,005 family members of troops killed in combat have come to the facilities where Ham's artwork hangs. The number of fallen troops to come through Dover over that period is 1,699.
When the Air Force decided to upgrade the facilities, it finished the first building in less than a year. Contractors across America were honored to drop other jobs to do the work needed at Dover.
The daughter of a woman on Hilton Head who was familiar with Ham's work was the designer for the international architectural firm that led the job. She suggested her daughter look at the photographs.
"I find the same thing that many of the families have found in the serenity of his images, the peacefulness of it," said Rose, the Mortuary Affairs Division director. "And sometimes when there's no answers to why people have to face certain circumstances, an escape to somewhere else that's more peaceful is something that they find peace in."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.