After Iraq, Soldier heals through photography
June 23, 2011
Sgt. Keith McKern sees the world in snapshots of beauty. When a cloud moves to just the right spot in the sky or a tree branch tilts at precisely the right angle, McKern is in his element.
“There are times where I’m out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s just me sitting on top of a mountain or a hill watching the sun set,” he said. “I’ll just sit there for hours waiting for the sun to get into the right position. I’ll wait hours for the clouds to come in. It’s just really calming to sit there and hear nothing but a gentle breeze and maybe a hawk screaming overhead, and there’s something therapeutic about the seclusion and just being with nature. It’s peaceful.”
But it wasn’t always that way for McKern, the NCO in charge of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin’s legal assistance office. Peace is a state of mind he has fought long and hard to achieve, and his battle began far from Fort Irwin.
McKern has deployed to Iraq twice in his six-and-a-half years in the Army. The first time, his battalion lost only one Soldier. The second time, during a deployment with 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Stewart, Ga., McKern’s company suffered heavy casualties. Many of the friends he deployed with did not return, and McKern found himself haunted by memories of Iraq. He turned to alcohol to ease the pain.
“It’s kind of hard to focus your mind off of it,” he said. “You keep visualizing stuff over and over and over again or you contemplate what you could have done differently. You just sit around and there’s nothing to do but drink and party.”
Finally he reached a turning point.
Early one morning driving down a country road, McKern observed sunlight spotlighting pines along the road through the fog. The image’s beauty touched him, and he wished he had a camera in hand. Although long interested in photography, McKern had never pursued it. As a teenager, the idea of learning the craft intimidated him and he never had the finances to do so either. But with deployment pay fresh in his bank account and more maturity, McKern tackled his interest head-on. He put the bottle down, picked up a camera and focused on teaching himself landscape photography.
“I forced myself to go out and start looking at beautiful things,” he said. “I could see (the drinking) starting to get out of control, so I had to do something. I decided to take a proactive approach.”
McKern spent countless hours studying photography books and others’ techniques, and it wasn’t long before he amassed a sizable portfolio of landscapes. He never considered sharing his photographs until a friend happened to see some of them on his computer. He asked him how much the prints cost. Surprised, McKern offered him one for $10.
It was the beginning of a new chapter in McKern’s photography. After moving to Fort Irwin in May 2009, he landed a contract to sell his photographs of the Painted Rocks in the Arts and Crafts Center.
“I think they’re awesome,” said Jessica Ruiz, recreation assistant at the framing shop in the Arts and Crafts Center. “You can tell he takes his time on it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. The colors and the way they’re put together are really cool.”
Word of McKern’s talent began to spread, and friends encouraged him to do more to promote his work. Initially, McKern said he was reluctant to follow that advice, but changed his mind after realizing how much people enjoyed his photographs.
“When it comes to my photography, I’m really kind of self-conscious,” he said. “I don’t think my work is that great, so I dragged my feet on it a lot. The biggest compliment an artist can have is to create something that another person wants to own and look at day in and day out. Seeing someone who appreciates an image I created -- that’s really the most gratifying part.”
McKern presented his first public showings June 4 and 11 at Sandy Basin Community Center. Twenty-five of his best-selling photographs were for sale, and he aimed only to recoup enough money to continue taking more photographs, he said.
And he had another motive, too. McKern wanted to use his photography to honor the friends he had lost in Iraq. Ten percent of proceeds from sales of his prints went to Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization that provides resources and support for families of fallen service members.
Thanks to photography, McKern has reached a much better place, emotionally and mentally, he said. Instead of drinking, McKern spends his spare time seeking beautiful images. Some of the locations he has photographed include Joshua Tree National Park, Angeles National Forest and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
“I wanted to take pictures of beautiful things to put the bad stuff from Iraq out of my mind,” he said. “So far, it’s worked.”
In the future, McKern said he plans to continue photography.
“I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing and see where it goes,” McKern said. “If it takes me someplace where I can seriously make a living at it, that’s fine, and if it’s just making $100 here and there, that’s fine too. I plan to keep taking photographs for a long time.”
For more information, visit www.mckernphotography.com. McKern will host two final shows at Reggie’s from 3-9 p.m. Saturday and from 3-7 p.m. Sunday. Service members and their families receive a 30 percent discount on prints.