CNN Photos

Study and serve: The dual identity of the ROTC

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC as it is more commonly known, trains college students to become commissioned officers in the various branches of the United States Armed Forces.

Students get military and officer training while attending classes at their college, and they usually receive a scholarship to help them.

After their graduation, they move on to active-duty or reserve status in the branch they’ve elected to serve. But before that, their dual identity as student and military can sometimes create conflicts.

Photographer Alejandra Carles-Tolra, a 26-year-old from Barcelona, Spain, was fascinated by the ROTC programs she saw at Boston-area schools. She found the program and its participants interesting and hoped to showcase how the students still have an individuality about them that isn’t automatically subjugated by the military collective.

“Like many people of my generation and culture, I grew up exposed to a lot of military imagery, mostly through the media and Hollywood films,” Carles-Tolra said. “Typically, a very specific representation of the U.S. Army is portrayed, so one of the hardest challenges was to detach myself from that preconceived visual knowledge and to find my own voice, focus and point of view.”

Despite coming from different schools, all of the students portrayed in the photos are part of the Liberty Battalion at Northeastern University. The battalion was established in 1983 and trains approximately 120 students from neighboring colleges.

Carles-Tolra’s photos captured the students in class or in outdoor training scenarios. She said she tried to portray each as individuals and as detached from the military as she could.

“The uniform and performances reference the Army and the military persona the cadets are trying to adopt, whereas the gaze and gestures bring light to their individual identity,” she said. “Resonating within these images is this confluence of agendas, at times subtle and at other times quite apparent. The (uniform) unifies them as a group, and (their expression) separates them as individuals.”

Recognizing that college life is often a time for people to discover what they will become later in life, Carles-Tolra photographed freshmen as well as seniors to highlight the diversity in the process as the students become military leaders.

“The underlying sentiment was as varied as their backgrounds, goals and reasons to join. However, feelings of confidence and pride were certainly more apparent in senior cadets than in freshman students,” she explained. “Like actors who perform a role according to a script, these students are learning how to adopt a military identity as their own while attempting to build their own sense of self.”

Historically, college campuses have been places where ideals and opinions are exchanged — sometimes forcefully. ROTC programs are often targeted when students wish to protest against military policies — the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is one example.

Carles-Tolra hopes those who examine her photos carefully will realize there are young men and women who are still trying to figure out who they are inside those uniforms.

“My hope is that my photographs will invite the viewer to get a closer look at these young students that are so often seen as an army collective and less so as individual college students,” she said. “By portraying both in the same picture, I try to bring the two identities together.”

- Larry Frum, Special to CNN