Regular trips as USO photographer enable faculty member to hone skills

Forget first class or even coach, when Steve Manuel flies he most enjoys military transport -- even if that means the occasional landing that leaves everyone but the pilot with an increased heart rate and white knuckles.

“When we went into Guantanamo Bay, the plane dropped into a diving corkscrew to stay out of Cuban air space -- otherwise they’d have shot us down,” Manuel said. “I thought we were all going to die. But, it was really pretty fun.” Manuel then unleases his trademark laugh, a mix of honest enjoyment and some self-depreciating enthusiasm.

A former public affairs officer for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps spokesman, Manuel joined the Penn State faculty in 1996 and serves as a senior lecturer in the College of Communications. A Penn State alumnus who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University, Manuel teaches introduction to public relations, public relations methods and problems, crisis communications and first-year seminars in war reporting and ethics in photojournalism.

As a photojournalist, Manuel has won numerous photographic and writing awards. He continually sharpens his photojournalism skills with assignments from the Penn State Alumni Association, the Associated Press and other news organizations. His photographs have been featured in more than 115 publications, including The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and USA Today as well as many Alumni Association publications. 

He especially anticpiates photojournalism duties on USO tours to international combat locations. While some people might enjoy far-from-the-front-line assignments, Manuel only wants tours that get him close to the action.

For the past 17 years he has participated on tours to Afghanistan, the Balkans, Guantanamo Bay, Okinawa/South Korea, Iraq and Kuwait. He’s traveled with comedian/actor Dane Cook in June 2008, seven PGA golfers for Thanksgiving 2008 and comedian/TV host Stephen Colbert in June 2009. He recently returned from Qatar, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi with actors Kate Walsh (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Kal Penn (“House”) in May. Through the years Manuel has traveled with numerous actors, celebrities and even a group of NFL coaches.

“Most of them are so good at giving their time, and some really stand out. Dane Cook and Stephen Colbert were among the best. They did everything they could and never turned anyone down. Cook did three shows a day in 130-degree heat and he had the same energy whether he was in front of 50 people or 5,000. Off stage, he was low-key, polite and respectful.”

Still, Manuel, who served during the Vietnam War and remains a Marine at heart, enjoys meeting members of the military most. “I’m not awed by celebrity,” he said. “I go because I like seing what the military is doing, and I go back to see how the troops live. They’re volunteering to do what they do and they live in some austere conditions. I think everybody who lives in the United States should have to make a trip to see what they do.”

Before he retired from the Marines, Manuel’s primary duty was writing public affairs guidance for field commands of all the military services for response to any questions from the press on exercises, operations and specific events. He was responsible for the Western Pacific region, which included China, the Korean Peninsula, Japan, the National Security Agency and POW/MIA Affairs. He served in many locations throughout the world, including Hawaii, Vietnam, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and New York.

Manuel started his photography career when a commanding officer asked if he could take pictures of a Toys for Tots drive at Fort Indiantown Gap. Those receiving the toys were Vietnamese orphans of U.S. military personnel.

“The higher ups asked if I could take some pictures and write a few words,” Manuel said. “I said, ‘Sure, do you have a camera?’” Officials sent the camera and some film, and Manuel took the pictures. He returned the film and a little while later they sent back a stack of papers with Manuel’s photos all over the front page. “I thought, ‘Hey, I like this,’ and I just kept doing it.” That was in 1971, when Manuel was 19 years old. He has not stopped taking pictures since.

Likewise, the USO tours began in 1996. He declined an initial offer, was subsequently told the trip was with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and decided to go along. Since then, the USO tours have been a fixture on his schedule for semester breaks and during the summer.

Contacts: 
Last Updated July 24, 2013