DEER LAKE — For as long as there have been cameras, photographers have documented the often brutal reality of soldiers at war.
They have fought and died on fields of battle, their work left to silently show the best and worst of humanity.
Warrant officer Jerry Kean has been capturing his own memorable images since joining the Canadian Armed Forces as a military photographer in 1982.
Now retired from active duty, the Campbellton N.B. native was at a farm in Deer Lake last month as part of a winter training exercise with members of the 37 Canadian Brigade Group.
At their best, combat photographers like Kean can reveal things too painful to comprehend.
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, a number of the negative plates containing Matthew Brady’s now-famed photos were reportedly sold and used as glass in greenhouses where decades of sunshine slowly destroyed hundreds of the horrific images the wounded country was eager to forget.
Even in an age of streaming video and 24-hour news, photographs are often the images that linger with us after times of crisis — the event permanently seared into the mind as vividly grim as a bad dream.
Think of the Battle of Iwo Jima and one might recall Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of American soldiers leaning together to raise their country’s flag atop the island. Of all the footage taken on Sept.11, 2001, Associated Press photographer Richard Drew’s haunting image of one man’s desperate plummet from the north tower of the World Trade Center perhaps best represents the moment Manhattan became a war zone.
Kean has been a photographer with the unit for the past 10 years, and the brigade invited The Western Star to follow him as he snapped pictures during a simulated battle scenario.
Tall and long-limbed, Kean moved silently yet purposefully through the frozen fields and climbed through thickets of stunted trees, constantly peering through the lens of his Nikon D300.
Pausing to photograph soldiers as they fired fake ammunition, Kean was asked if the noisy artillery matched the live rounds used in combat.
“No,” Kean said instantly. “Live ammo is much, much louder.”
After a tour in Afghanistan as a combat photographer in 2005-2006, he would know.
While photographers are not protected by the Geneva Conventions for wartime conduct, he admitted they aren’t universally considered fair game either.
But in the sweltering chaos of Afghanistan, where he never had to fire his rifle, Kean said all soldiers faced the same danger.
“In Afghanistan, the Taliban doesn’t care who you are. If you aren’t with them, they just want to kill you,” Kean recalled as his eyes locked on a distant group of reservists creeping towards a unit of fellow soldiers playing the role of enemy.
Although his career took him to such places as Vimy Ridge, the Caribbean and Holland, he said he still needed to prove his worth in Afghanistan before gaining his fellow soldiers’ trust.
This bond was forged gradually by doing his job without being a hinderance in the field. He said the troops would invite him along on missions and help ensure his safety.
“I was never the last person and never the first person in line,” he said. “The guy at the back always knew he couldn’t fall in front of me — always behind me. It was a thing everyone knew had to happen.”
Trust is particularly important given a photographer’s vulnerability, while preoccupied with getting the right shot rather than not being shot.
“You have to keep it in the back of your mind that somebody is trying to kill you,” he said. “You kick in that sixth sense and become very aware of your surroundings.”
When he enlisted, the army was using black and white film, so each image had to be processed and annotated individually. Now, digital cameras allow him to shoot at will and experiment with alternate exposures and lighting.
Still, the early days taught him a patience now ingrained in him.
“You can say more with one picture than you can with pages and pages of words,” Kean said later at the command centre, the heat from his bowl of soup swirling between his hands, the meal going cold while he was lost in reflection.
Of all his assignments, he lists a chance to witness the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace as his favourite; the rigid, ordered place a stark contrast to the dusty disarray of desert combat.
Photography wasn’t his first choice when enlisting, but he said he’s grown to love his trade and the thrill of chasing the next image.
That’s why when opting to retire and spend more time with his family in Halifax, N.S. — which includes his wife Wendy and three children now in their 20s — he’s pleased to still be part of a unit with the reserves.
“We kind of got tired of moving,” he said. “The kids were in their teens, where meeting friends and being thrown in new schools is hard. It just so happened there was a chance to join the reserves and continue doing what I love doing — and that’s photography.”