"Fifty Cents a Paycheck" by Corcoran School of the Arts and Design student Eric Dietrich is an intimate look at the late lives of those who serve.
By Ruth Steinhardt
When Eric Dietrich was serving in the U.S. Marines in 2001, he noticed a 50-cent deduction from one of his paychecks, accompanied by the acronym “AFRH.” A fellow Marine told him it was something about a military retirement home. Mr. Dietrich didn’t think about the matter again—until 16 years later.
By then, Mr. Dietrich had spent more than 11 years in active service, which took him to combat tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places. He was a member of the Navy reserve and a trained photographer, serving as a mass communication specialist.
Professionally Mr. Dietrich was well situated, but he wanted to finish his undergraduate degree. So he enrolled as a B.A. student in photojournalism at the George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. He was looking for volunteer opportunities in Washington, D.C., when a friend suggested he look into visiting the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest D.C. It clicked: the Armed Forces Retirement Home was the “AFRH” of that old half-dollar deduction.
Mr. Dietrich’s NEXT thesis project, “Fifty Cents a Paycheck,” is a series of portraits and vignettes he took over almost six months of visits to the AFRH. The series, which was on display at the Corcoran’s annual NEXT exhibition this May, is intimate and precise: a man laughing in a hospital bed as a young volunteer serves him ice cream, a cane hanging on a doorknob, a seamed face obscured by cigarette smoke.
“I tried to go in with an open mind,” Mr. Dietrich said. “I wasn’t trying to editorialize or to push a particular agenda. This is their home. I’m just a guest. But I wanted to capture moments of human connection.”
The week after NEXT opened that human connection became even more immediate, as a group of about a dozen AFRH residents visited the Flagg Building for a personal look at “50 Cents a Paycheck.” Kaitlin Jencso, studio coordinator at the Corcoran School, captured the visit in photographs: