Java is GORUCK. But looks alone didn’t put him center stage. It’s a much longer story about the identity of GORUCK. Who we were, who we are, and what that means. To sum it all up, we were an anonymous USA manufacturer with a perfect and boring face and we became an approachable people brand. As he is wont to do, Java was at the right place at the right time and the rest is history.
100 lifetimes ago in 2010, Java stayed behind the scenes, and so did I. Way more behind the scenes than in the pic above. Our original website was simple, sterile, and cold. More mannequin than human, which made us wholly unapproachable. Nobody “got it,” and nobody really wanted to try. When your phone’s not ringing that’s me said the world. No Java, no smiles, no stories, no real authenticity. And there was a huge disconnect between who I was and how we were presenting GORUCK. At a certain point I just said this doesn’t work for me. If we fail it’s not going to be because we failed pretending to be a mannequin of a company. My favorite stories in life are the ones that actually happened, told by the people who were actually there. Non-fiction if you will. And GORUCK has a story, and it always did, so I decided to start telling it.
But that’s not the kind of thing that just happens overnight. I started GORUCK in 2008 because I liked the idea and I needed a hobby. I still had the desire to serve our nation in a time of war, and all of the jobs I was applying for were at the kinds of places that would not allow me to have any kind of public identity. It was very much a crossroads of GORUCK, and it was one of those choices only I could make. At the time GORUCK had no cash to speak of. I was the only person working full time, and what you find quickly is that the world really doesn’t care if you win or lose. People may, but the world doesn’t. I think the trick is to find a way to live your life how you want to live it. If you do that, success or failure is relative to what happens, not to who you are. I decided to be myself, and to explain how my larger goal for GORUCK is for us to be a Voice for Good. Inspired at 30,000 feet, I diagrammed out how we would do it on an airplane barf bag because that’s all I had and you gotta seize inspiration when you got it. But the world didn’t care until people cared. And two things made people start to care: the GORUCK Challenge and GR1 Explained. Each happened in late 2010 and each was a story I was blessed and yet reluctant to share. Both were about people. People who want to come together (the Challenge) and people who want to understand more about why a company does things the way it does (GR1 Explained). Wherever GORUCK is in 100 years, it’s because these two stories teamed up to build a path through our first big fork in the road: either die a mannequin or live as a people brand. And because my face was now out there, my prospects of serving our nation in the capacity I had hoped were essentially gone. It was a difficult decision, but as I started to learn how GORUCK could impact peoples’ lives, it got easier. I still have that small tinge of ‘what if’ from time to time, but that’s only because I’m human and I built up one plan as the right plan in my own head. I guess the world didn’t care about that, either.
Back to the now, this little shindig of a shoot isn’t Java’s first rodeo and I’ve joked that his bill rate is now $1,000/hour. Sometimes it’s as if he’s in on the joke but doesn’t find it funny and just wants his fair share of dinner. Hence all the stares. I find product photography exhausting work, but that’s probably because I don’t understand anything about lighting, aperture, shutter speed, or photoshop. But what I do understand is how to enjoy my time with Java. So when it’s time to take more pics, I bring the gear and a bunch of beers and before you know it I’m living in a moment instead of trying to create one. And then I just kind of get behind the camera, throw this or that gear around and see what happens. As Jules Winfield said, “I got my technique down and everything.”
Java hears better than he minds, so I end up taking some shots without him. It’s a similar process, just a little more boring. I like the pic above, and we use it on the Civvy Kit Bag page, but it’s void of a story if you see it by itself. Sure, the railroads are cool. I’ve always been fascinated by the frontiersmen in the early days of America, and the railroads remind me of that time. I glorify their pioneer spirit and have a highly romanticized notion of what was probably a very difficult and gritty time to live. I digress. So sure, it’s a cool looking kit bag next to a railroad with some mountains in the background. The light is good, but it’s still impersonal. Anyone could take this pic, and there’s no real story there.
This old retired train station is about a 2 minute drive from our factory in Bozeman, and pretty much what you see is how it was. I loaded all the gear into the back of the GORUCK Truck and set out to find a spot I liked. When we pulled around, I drank a beer, looked at the place from various angles while Java took an over watch position. Sometimes it’s important to soak in the moment before you just dive into it – that kind of thing. The pic above, and the pic below tell a lot more of a story to me than any perfect picture of the gear itself ever could. And I don’t really like the pic below (the kit bags are kind of crooked etc), but it takes me back to that moment. The graffiti brought an energy to a dying building, Java was still wet and tired from a Bozeman river, and I was really excited to tell the story about the soon-to-launch kit bags.
Eventually Java assumed the position and there you have him on the tracks with the black Civvy Kit Bag. Something about how Java can stop a train with a mere glance and even if he doesn’t care to, the kit bag can withstand anything, to include a moving train. The kit bag above doesn’t look as perfect as I’d like it to, but I guess that’s how it looks when you throw it onto a railroad track and have 3 seconds before Java decides he’s graced it with his presence long enough.
Jack showed up, Java showed a little caution for the first time in his life, and eventually our day was over there. By eventually I mean that 15 minutes later a train pulled up next to us and the conductor told us we were trespassing. On the way out we saw the sign.
So the next day GR1 and GR2 were on the list as well. Sometimes it’s easy to just leave old product pics up on the product pages. Especially because as new gear comes along, that requires a lot of time to shoot. And life is short and new is usually more fun than old. But sometimes you gotta do a little housekeeping. We had made some small changes to these two rucks over the years and the pics we were using were not up to date.
Shooting GR1, our original piece of gear, always takes me back to my grandfather’s deck shooting GR1 Explained. Java only made a cameo in that one, but that was my intro to how to make product photography not suck. I found it terribly difficult to do and that post took me three full days to take those pics and tell that story. I look at it now and wish I could change this or that – mostly I wish I could make the pics better – but it was too seminal of an event to try to re-do. The pics weren’t perfect, the words weren’t perfect, but neither was the person doing the post and neither were the people reading it. But what it was to me was real. Finally. By real I mean personal, by real I mean authentic. And that moment represents a time in my life when I started to love GORUCK. It became about the story, about the commitments we were making, and about explaining everything. As I started taking more and more pics of our gear, slowly but surely they started to look more interesting to me when Java was in them. Probably because it’s more fun to have him around than to not and I’m completely biased.
My thought by taking pics outside was that imperfect was OK. I have a high attention to detail which is a euphemism for a raging case of OCD (ask anyone, they’ll tell you, hopefully with a smile). Indoor shots with a white background have to be perfect. Outdoor shots with dirt and grass and Java can’t ever be perfect. In the real world, perfect looks out of place, even when it’s just on a website. So imperfect it was.
Pretty often I get notes and questions about photography. If you all knew how little I know about it, nobody would ask. But the bottom line is that we had no money and I wanted shots that would represent GORUCK. Standards don’t go down, so my quality had to go up. So over the last few years I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of pictures. It doesn’t make me an artist, it doesn’t make me a photographer, but it does make me committed. There are no shortcuts in life, and you gotta put in the work if you want things to work out. It reminds me of the commercials that promise to teach you how to speak a foreign language in a month. Don’t buy them, it’s a total lie. It’s the same with cameras. If you really want to get better, you gotta put in the work and you gotta take your camera everywhere. For me, taking pics is like shooting an assault rifle. You have to aim well and stay stable so your shot doesn’t turn out blurry (or miss entirely). The aiming part for me means that you manually select a focal point. This is oddly like a rifle’s selector switch that you use to set the rifle to semi-automatic, fully automatic, or safe. Most cameras default to an auto focal point with automatic flash. The light of the flash is meant to flood the subject with light so that the picture never turns out blurry. Basically, most cameras assume you don’t know what you’re doing. By and large I don’t, but if you aim the focal point on what you want to shoot, keep the camera stable when shooting, and there is enough light, the pics will turn out just fine. I never use the flash, it makes pics seem fake to me. I also don’t know how to use fancy flashes that are supposed to make things look more real. If you’re just starting and you try it my way, you may have to take 100 shots to get 1 or 2 that you really love, but in the digital age it’s not that hard to download all your pics and delete the blurry ones. For instance, the pic above: the focal point is the MOLLE webbing on the shoulder straps of GR1. Java has his tongue out because he just saw a squirrel in the distance, and it provides a little bit of color in the background. But the focal point is meant to show the detail of the webbing. Below I changed the focal point to Java instead of the ruck. It’s framed about the same, but obviously it’s a vastly different picture.
Anyway, that’s my short answer to the questions I’ve gotten. I guess the last one is what camera I use. I’ve had 3 in the last couple years, all Nikon. The D80, the D90, and the D7000. It wasn’t a conscious choice to go with Nikon. My dad bought me the D80 and I learned on that one, so I’ve upgraded as I keep breaking them (I’m really hard on things). The trickier part is the lens, though. I don’t like zoom lenses. Too complicated and they require more light. Basically that means you’ll be more dependent on a flash if you use a zoom lens. So 99% of the time I use either a fixed 35mm or 50mm lens. Your feet are the zoom but you get used to it. Sometimes it sounds great to have all these different features in life, like zoom on a camera, only to find that you would have been better off with something that was simpler to use and did one thing really, really well.
The re-shoot of GR1 continues. One of the great lessons I learned in the summer of 2010 came from Colonel Littleton. He told me that part of your job was to entertain people and not to take yourself so seriously. Having Java in the picture with GR1 is certainly more entertaining than if you’re just looking at the ruck. Java makes me smile and smiles are good. Sure, we build gear and there’s a time to simply communicate what something is and to present it in a classic and simple way. But not all the time.
And then the squirrels really started doing their thing, and there I was in the way of Java’s sniping eyes. So we started to play the duck and weave game so he could keep a closer eye on the target.
In case you were wondering, yes he sprinted the 50 yards after them. Not pictured is me running after him, bringing him back, and half threatening to tie him up. Eventually Christian stopped by and said the plan was to grill out tonight, which we do every night. He brought his camera and I showed him a thing or two about what I was doing in some random park full of squirrels and empty beer cans. To go back to some of the photography tips – I gave Christian a few lessons on focal points and stuff and now we’ve started using some of his shots on the site.
As much as I enjoy having people around, like in Sizing Rucks and Drinking Beers, for whatever reason with this kind of a shoot I work a lot better alone. It happens faster that way and I really prefer to sling the gear around on a whim. Asking for help may not be my greatest strength, but with all the mistakes I’ve made in life, I’m coming around. So maybe someday I’ll be better about doing this stuff with other people.
Anyway, in a Bozeman summer at dinnertime, the smell of sizzling steak follows you everywhere. The anticipation was killing us and by us I mean Java, but we still had a lot more work to do. Below are some of the shots we use on the site plus some B-Sides. Our goal is to have 14 pictures for every piece of gear we launch. Some are up close, some are atmospheric, and some are more entertaining than others. I think over-communication is difficult to achieve, and as a gear company I think people want more information. Which we’re happy to provide. You just gotta be prepared to see Java from time to time in that journey.
I wonder what Java will do when he finally catches a squirrel. Not if, when. Will he eat it, will it scratch him up something violent before he lets it go? I dunno, guess I’ll have to wait and see. I ate squirrel once when I was in Survival (SERE) school, and I’m sure Java would have liked it, too. It was delicious because we hadn’t eaten in days. We (hopefully) cooked the rabies out of it and then loved every morsel. Perspective is a beautiful thing in life. That said, at this point I prefer Montana steaks to squirrel stew. And luckily the former was waiting for us back at the house. But we had one pit stop to make before the backyarding could begin.
Back at the house, the first round of meat was all gone so we had to prep a second go round. In the interim, out came GR2, still my personal favorite. I use my GR1 every day, but if I could only have one ruck for the rest of my life, it would be GR2. The biggest difference to me between the two is that GR1 works great for an overnight trip and it’s the best daypack I’ve ever used. GR2 is a decent daypack, though it’s a little big for that. But if you have an overnight trip or plan on traveling the world with one ruck, GR2 is the perfect answer. I would call GR2 closer to travel gear or even luggage (GORUCK style), whereas GR1 is more of a classic backpack (but also GORUCK style). Back in the day nobody bought GR2. In my head I knew price was going to be a factor, and at $395 we’re asking a ton. But GR1 was also expensive at $295. My theory was that having GR2 priced even higher made GR1 look less expensive. It was a stupid theory based on why the second most expensive bottle of wine on a menu is infinitely more popular than the most expensive one. Whether it worked or not doesn’t matter, it was a stupid thought because nobody valued any of our rucks at what we were charging. Like I’ve said, I owe you all a breakdown of our pricing, but that’s another post. What I didn’t realize was that I needed to better explain the rucks, how they work, and why I use and trust them. Hence GR2 Explained. Eventually people told people and GR2 is our second most popular piece of gear, behind only GR1.
Java was kind of torn at this point. He didn’t want to be too far from me. All the moving around made him think we might leave again. And he never wants to be left behind. His goal, you see, is to be included in everything. But the grills were going and he didn’t want to miss that adventure either. These are the kinds of decisions only Java can make. And sometimes he pouts about it because life is tough.
Java and I have done a lot together, and if you see us around, I’m happiest when I’m with people I love and Java’s by my side. Somehow in the process of GORUCK we figured out a way for him to earn his keep. He makes people smile, me first among them, and we keep including him in everything. So at the end of every adventure, much like at the end of Where the Wild Things Are, there’s a warm supper waiting for him. It’s the very least I can do — that and make sure Chris don’t call him Donnie he hates that gives him that last bite. In life, you gotta be good to the people, and the dogs, who are good to you. That is, of course, only if you want them to keep magically showing up at the right place at the right time.