Ellen Kok

Photographer and Writer
 
Cadets
Location: New Hampshire, USA
Nationality: Netherlands
Biography: Ellen Kok is a photographer and writer from the Netherlands, who combines photo essays with written stories. She builds long-lasting relationships with her subjects, often following them for years. Her photography is based on trust and intimacy.... MORE
Public Story
Cadets
Copyright Ellen Kok 2022
Updated Feb 2022
Location USA
Topics Book, Documentary, Education, JROTC, Military, Photography, School, Teens, Youth
Try, Try, Never Die, HOOAH!” Many students of Fall Mountain Regional High School in Langdon, New Hampshire, begin class with that yell every day, sometimes delivering it in military uniform. They are cadets in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), a U.S. Army-sponsored program, which is offered as an elective at over 1,700 high schools. Its goal is not to turn children into soldiers, but to motivate them to become better citizens, by teaching them military values Americans admire: service, honor, discipline and leadership. By using military techniques that challenge the teenagers, both mentally and physically, the course tries to improve their self-esteem and perseverance, and give them a better grip on life.

For many students, this is precisely why they seek out the program. They come from broken households, several don’t live with their parents anymore, and some already have adult responsibilities: a full-time job, a baby. The class offers them camaraderie and the structure, direction, and security that is often missing at home.

Jenna (17): “I’m more on track. It’s helped me to calm down and focus. If I don’t, I’ll be disrespectful.”

But many students are also from families with a military tradition. And some intend to join the Armed Forces by enlisting or continuing with an ROTC program in college, at a time when the nation is at war.

Ryan (17): “Every male in my family has been in the military, my father, my uncles, my cousins. My father was in the first Gulf War and Desert Storm. One of my cousins went to Iraq. My dad doesn’t talk much about it, but my cousins tell me. Some is bad, some is good. I hope to go into the Army. I feel it’s a better job than what most people do. You’re giving everything you have for your country, and I think that’s just really cool!”

Curious about the place of the military in American society, photographer and writer Ellen Kok followed the cadets for over two years, going into their homes and hanging out with their friends. Earning the trust of these teenagers, their parents – many of whom are retired or active duty soldiers – and their teachers – combat veterans of Iraq and Somalia.

What do marching in formation, doing push-ups, shining uniform buttons, firing air rifles and addressing each other with “Sergeant” or “Captain” do for young people? Does it help them to cope with the challenges life throws at them, at home and in school?

The book Cadets shows in photos and a long written story how the military permeates many people's personal lives, as well as American culture.

***

“Though they can cut quite imposing figures in their uniforms, ultimately, Kok’s cadets are not simply made out to be miniature warriors. Rather, her frequently unguarded, often humorous photographs are primarily a look at the lives of teenagers — prone to the same joys and growing pains as young people anywhere else in the world.”

Jordan G. Teicher - Washington Post
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