One of the most striking things, Paolo Verzone says, about photographing military cadets is that they really know how to pose. In fact, they are so good at it that sometimes, when he was taking their pictures, he wondered if they would ever stop.
“They are able to stay still for four seconds without moving,” Verzone adds. “That’s a long time, and it was pretty amazing. I actually had to light them less, it was my secret photographic weapon.”
It’s understandable, he continues, because from very early on in their careers many are trained to remain still during drills. Military personnel make even more capable subjects than models, apparently. Who knew?
This discovery came as Verzone was working on his newest book Cadets. The project stemmed from a short assignment for an Italian magazine in 2009 (for which he was sent to photograph French military personnel), and saw him travel to 20 military academies from Portugal to Spain over five years. The aim? To understand the military “soul” of European countries.
“I wanted to see these places, the [military bases] in these countries, many of which were once fighting against each other,” Verzone says.
It wasn’t always easy: Not every military academy replied to his requests. And even when they did, it took a long time for him, as a civilian, to get permission to go inside. And even then he was rarely left alone. But it was something he wouldn’t give up on.
“I wanted to see who these young people are. To go beyond the idea of the one who gets in the army and stays there for life,” he says. “Now, military academies are very different places; you can get a complete degree, and then, for many, you can get out. Times are changing.”
Paolo Verzone is a Paris-based photographer who has been published in TIME, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Independent, and The Guardian among others. Cadets is available now.
Richard Conway is reporter/producer for TIME LightBox.
Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s Deputy Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise.