Soldier battles stress disorder with camera

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Hobby becomes therapy

On a windy spring day in 2010, Staff Sgt. Keith McKern—who’s petrified of heights—hung over a cliff 1,000 feet above Horseshoe Bend in Page, Ariz. With camera in hand, 30- to 40-mile per hour winds blowing at his back and sand stinging his face, McKern endured to get just the perfect shot of “The Bend.” One the most majestic landscapes in the country, the 1,000 foot high rock formation sits at the beginning of the Grand Canyon almost completely encircled by the Colorado River.
“I had to look down over the edge and stare my fear in the face in order to get the shot. I was shaking like a dog crapping razorblades,” said McKern, a paralegal with U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox.
For five hours he waited patiently a safe distance from the rock’s edge for clouds to make an appearance. Once Mother Nature finally obliged him, he spent three more hours low crawling back and forth from his safe spot to the edge in an effort to cap-ture the perfect picture.
“I was trying to get the reflection of the clouds in the river, which required a long exposure time. This means I had to put a tripod on the ledge, get the camera on the tripod and do a bunch of moving around on the cliff’s edge. My nerves were seriously shot at the end of that shoot, but I finally got the shot. It was worth it.”
As frightening as this whole process sounds, McKern actually found it very therapeutic. In fact, he took up landscape photography in 2008 to help him overcome the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed during his second tour in Iraq where almost 30 percent of his platoon was either wounded or killed. Battling PTSD, he found himself in a very dark place with disturbing images of war constantly flashing in his mind.
Then driving through the back roads of Georgia a month after redeploying Fort Stewart in June 2008, McKern was overcome by the yellow beams of light from the setting sun streaming through a forest of Georgia pines.
“Watching this scene in the forest, I didn’t think about Iraq, my friends’ deaths, being shot at, blown up or nothing,” said McKern. “It was just extremely calming and peaceful.”
That’s when he decided to make a serious investment in a hobby he’d always had an interest in, not just by purchasing the equipment, but by immersing himself in the art. He read at least a dozen books, highlighted them like he was studying for a college exam, researched techniques on the Internet and studied other photographers’ work. Doing photography forced him out of the security of his barracks in search of beauty to replace the gruesome-ness of war that was consuming his mind.
“There’s nothing more peaceful than sitting on a cliff in some secluded place hearing nothing but the breeze—no traffic, no phones, nothing man- made, just you and nature. I love sitting in a forest somewhere and hearing the gentle winds blow through the tops of the trees. If you close your eyes, it’s like the forest is breathing,” said McKern, originally a forward observer who changed his MOS to paralegal specialist in 2009.
Much to McKern’s delight and surprise, his therapeutic hobby is on the road to becoming a business venture. It all started when a friend expressed an interest in buying one of his prints shortly after the Soldier picked up a camera. In May 2009 at Fort Irwin, Calif., he landed a contract to sell some of his work at the post arts and crafts center. He came to Fort Knox in 2012 and just recently signed a contract with Wild Earth Gallery in Elizabethtown to sell his art. Gallery owner LaDonna Eastman, who looks for originality in the works she features, describes McKern’s photos as jaw dropping.
“His photos just grab you; they evoke emotion. The lighting and contrast is great; they are stunning and different than what you would see every other place.”
A selection of his landscapes will first appear on the gallery walls beginning in early April. A two-month showcase of his work is scheduled to follow next year.
McKern has captured images of numerous majestic landscapes, to include Angel Oak in South Carolina, Antelope Canyon in Arizona, Zion National Park in Utah and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.
“These images and photographs are places I dreamt about while deployed. The tranquil peacefulness of them brought stillness to my soul in the most vexed times in Iraq. I want others to feel as I did at the moment I captured the image.”
In this digital age when modern cameras allow photographers to shoot hundreds of photos without the concern of wasting valuable film, McKern rations his shots as if he was limited by the number of frames on a roll of film, shooting only a handful of shots at each scene. First he selects his location and then spends days—sometimes weeks—researching the landscape, weather forecast, phases of the moon and times of sunrise and sunset.
“When I scout the area on line I form ideas and expectations. Then for weeks I’m forming ideas and composing photos in my mind. When I get on location it’s like a Zen experience looking at my subject trying to find the best angle and capture the best light to bring out as much beauty as possible. I want originality.”
In addition to landscapes, McKern also photographs portraits and special events, and gives photography classes.
For now, photography remains mostly a therapeutic hobby for McKern, who would love to someday turn it into a full-time business. While he realizes he may not be able to achieve that dream for at least another 12 years until he retires, his wife, Mary, believes it will come to fruition. Having covered the walls of their home with her husband’s work, it was she who suggested he contact Wild Earth Gallery.
“I think his work is amazing,” said Mary. “The time he takes and the way he composes his pictures is so different than what I have seen from other (photographers). And I think it’s great that he got into a gallery. We’d been told that it’s so hard to get into a gallery and that (to make it happen) you have to do all these things, and all he did was send an email and make a phone call.”
His images can be viewed on his website at www.mckernphoto graphy.com.