When Kevin P. Wallace retired from the Air Force as a senior master sergeant, he had reached the top of his game as a military photographer. He was the official photographer and public affairs officer for Air Force One under President Barack Obama and had been decorated with the Bronze Star for Valor, a Purple Heart and other honors for his combat photography.
But all was not well with him.
“I was in a very dark place,” said Wallace, who lives in Manteo, North Carolina. “PTSD had taken its toll on me. I knew I needed to do something to keep my mind busy and my craft as a photographer sharp.”
Wallace began applying to graduate programs, two of them in photojournalism. He was accepted to all of them. He chose the third: George Mason University’s master of fine arts program in photography at the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“It wasn’t my earlier successes but rather my earlier trauma that made me want to explore the MFA,” said Wallace, who is graduating from Mason this month. “And not having a [fine arts] background, I knew it would be challenging.”
Wallace said his passion for photography began about at 13 “when I got my first 35mm camera.”
He is also passionate about supporting veterans. In addition to his graduate studies, Wallace has served an ambassador for the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program and as a spokesperson for the Air Force’s Invisible Wounds Initiative, helping airmen and their families cope with post-traumatic stress.
Wallace also found that scuba diving and underwater photography have helped with his own stress, as well as inspiring his MFA thesis exhibition, “Fragmented Lens of War.”
“I love to be in the ocean, under the water, where all the noise from above fades away, and I can be part of the natural order and beauty of aquatic life,” said Wallace.
It was on one of his diving trips with fellow veterans off the coast of Morehead City, North Carolina, where Wallace encountered the focus of his exhibition. The group was spending two days diving by shipwrecks, which were said to be home to a variety of sharks, one of Wallace’s favorite photo subjects.
On a break, he asked the ship’s captain about the dive site.
“He said it was German U-boat U-352 but knew little else,” Wallace said. “When I got back to my hotel room, I began researching U-352 and a few hours later found myself deeply enthralled in learning about the wreck.”
He was so absorbed with his research that he was late for dinner with his dive buddies.
“I couldn’t wait to tell everyone the significance of U-352, which was sunk by Coast Guard Cutter Icarus on May 9, 1942, and was the first German boat American forces sunk,” he said. “As I excitedly informed my dive buddies of all I learned, no one seemed to care at all—but I was captivated.”
That research led to the creation of the “Fragmented Lens of War” exhibit. A public exhibit of work is a requirement for the MFA degree, but for now, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Wallace’s exhibit is digital. He is also in talks with an art gallery in the Outer Banks about a public showing of the work “once things get back to a state of normalcy.”
"Meeting Kevin changed my life in a way that I could never have anticipated," said School of Art professor Gail Scott White, who chaired Wallace's thesis committee. "Through his advocacy work, he helped me begin to understand the trauma and moral injuries that my father, a WWII veteran, had buried inside himself. Whatever Kevin may have learned from me, it pales in comparison to what I have learned from him.