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Professor Profile: Keith Kenney

Posted September 9, 2016
By Emily Barber, Reprinted from The Daily Gamecock
Photo by Kamila Melko

In an office filled with African art pieces and books on photography, philosophy and research methodology sits Keith Kenney, a visual communications professor in USC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. I first met Kenney at the airport in Rome and got to know him just a bit as a professor in the three weeks following. Although it was unusual talking to him in a small room tucked away in a corner of the journalism school, his passion for photojournalism was as clear as ever.

Kenney first “fell in love” with photography in high school. He attended a private school that offered photography courses, where he developed his photos in a darkroom. He said this process was the main attraction of photography.

“It was sort of a magical thing, I thought,” Kenney said, after discussing the control a darkroom provides a photographer. He could alter aspects of the photos and watch the images appear on paper bathed in chemicals, rather than just ordering prints elsewhere.

Over time, Kenney expanded his dedication to photography to encompass photojournalism, which he described as “journalism with a camera” — storytelling through pictures rather than words.

Another part of his love for photography was the strong connection it had to travel. At just 17, Kenney took photos during an eight-week trip through northern France and the British Isles. This passion for international photography continued after high school when he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany. During his three years in the military, he worked in a darkroom with a German photographer and he took a photography correspondence course from a school in the U.S.

After his deployment, Kenney returned to school, first obtaining his undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin and his master's at East Texas State University, now known as Texas A&M University-Commerce. While in the Lone Star State, he worked as a staff photographer for a local newspaper before applying for a doctoral program at Michigan State University. Kenney joked that he thought he was applying for a teaching position in Michigan, while it turned out to be more of a graduate assistant position.

Kenney wasn't even 30 years old when he decided to pursue a career in higher education and left his job at the newspaper. He speculates that other photojournalists would be critical of his reason for switching paths because he said, "I got bored as a photojournalist."

"The fact of the matter is that I worked for a small paper," Kenney said, where he would have maybe four assignments in a day. "There was this down time, and also, news is cyclical ... Every year, there's Labor Day; you take Labor Day pictures. After that, there's Halloween. And there's football games. There's some repetition in it."

As Kenney recognized, this might seem counterintuitive; being a college professor might not seem as interesting as being a photographer. He started at USC in 1988 — nearly 30 years ago. But he said there are two reasons he prefers academia, the first of which is that he is constantly learning. The second is that there is no down time in his day-to-day life as a professor.

"I'm constantly working, which I like," Kenney said. "Also, I like academia a lot because I can be doing so many different things, like I just finished a very scholarly book and now I'm doing a series of short documentary films. And who knows what I'll do after that?"

Having the same job for decades never stopped Kenney from pursuing outside projects. One of the largest so far was the Journalism School Partnership Program, which was a $750,000 grant to improve a journalism school in the country of Georgia. Kenney was one of the leaders on the project and spent nearly a year living in Tbilisi, Georgia, accompanied by his wife.

In addition to working with Georgian professors, Kenney filmed for a documentary that is still being produced. This project and daily, close contact with the local people allowed him to absorb many aspects of their culture. One topic to be covered in the documentary is the custom of men kidnapping women as a way to force them into marriage; if a man could keep a woman for a full night, she was required to marry him. Some of the women in the village where Kenney stayed had become part of that community in this way.

Another custom Kenney witnessed was the tradition of having a "toast master" at large or celebratory dinners.

"So this would be a person whose job it was to lead the toasts," Kenney said. "Ideally he would know all the guests well enough to be able to say something about them in their toast, in the toast that he gave."

These dinners could last for hours, with toasts happening every few minutes, and the toasts were always supposed to celebrate the people they mentioned. The toast master was also responsible for making sure toasts were given in the right order, usually beginning with a toast to religion and moving through the family and friends by status.

"It sort of brings people together. It makes people feel good about themselves and each other, and it sort of creates a bonding experience," Kenney said.

More recently, Kenney has begun working on a series of short documentaries about South Carolina Muslims who are doing good in their communities. The first is about Dr. Reshma Khan, who works at Shifa Free Clinic in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. In addition to basic medical care, the clinic also offers eye care, mental health services, a food pantry, a clothing closet and back-to-school supplies — all free of charge.

"I'm trying to highlight Muslims who are doing this type of work, not just for the Muslim community, but for Americans in general," Kenney said. He also said that only one percent of people who obtain services from the clinic are Muslim. The rest come from other religious backgrounds.

After creating his series, Kenney plans to put them on a website together, which he hopes would inspire filmmakers in other states to pursue the same type of project. He also plans to compile a slightly longer film from some of the best segments and submit it to SCETV.

Although Kenney has identified as a photojournalist for many years, he said that the future of visual communicators in the media — particularly when it comes to making a living — is video.

"I think there's a huge shift from photography to videography," he said. "I think that there's going to be a huge market for video, and I think people will make money with video because video is not easy ... When you do video on your phone, that's nothing like what I'm talking about."

Given this change, Kenney predicted that USC will also shift to requiring more videography courses than photography because, in terms of specialty skills, creating video is still highly valued, whereas general photography might not be.

Unsurprisingly, given his interest in film, Kenney is a fan of movies. Although he was reluctant to pick a favorite when I asked, he recommended "Harold and Maude," a 1971 film about the relationship between a death-obsessed, 20-year-old man and an elderly woman. He thought this film in particular would be beneficial for college students to see.

"I think it's just about an attitude," Kenney said. "It's a way of life I guess I endorse and that maybe not everybody is really thinking about that or trying to achieve that lifestyle. You have to see it."

He says he doesn't like comedy films, but when the weather cools down a bit, he's promised that he'll never wear a boring tie and he'll never wear the same one twice this semester.

Overall, Kenney was realistic, recognizing the tough truths about photojournalism as it has evolved. He was talkative, expansive about his experiences, overseas and within the U.S. There are undoubtedly wonderful stories in his career that aren't found here, but most definitely are found in his photographs.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.