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Photography Helps Ronni Mae Knepp Heal From PTSD

For Ronni Mae Knepp, joining the military in 2004 fulfilled a lifelong goal to follow in the footsteps of the father she admired. She spent nine years in the Air Force, working as a communications intelligence analyst and rising to the rank of staff sergeant. 

“I thrive on structure and like that chain of command the military provides,” Knepp said. “It’s very methodical, so you always know what’s going on. I also liked the camaraderie and knowing that we could depend on each other.”

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B.F.A. fine art photography alumna Ronni Mae Knepp. Photo courtesy of Ronni Mae Knepp.

Enlisting in the Air Force also led Knepp—with the help of her former husband, a fellow soldier—to a new dream: Turning her childhood photography hobby into a career.

“My husband kept saying, ‘You’re always taking pictures, you have a good eye, why not pursue a degree in it?,’” said Knepp, who earned both an A.A. and B.F.A. in fine art photography through the Academy’s online program. “Since I was in the military and working, I could afford it. Photography clicked for me because I could be very creative but also use the technical side of my brain, something a lot of military people have, by mastering the ins and outs of things like settings and exposures.”

Knepp began her studies in 2010 while she was still in the Air Force. She was also the mother of three boys. She chose the Academy because it was the only college at the time offering online photography degrees and the flexibility she needed. Still, juggling the demands of the military while going to school full-time and raising a family was no easy feat. Knepp credits the support she received from the Air Force and her own determination for helping her stay on track.

“I needed to do this for myself, so I made it work,” she remarked. “Because I had a desk job, I could get a lot done during the day when I wasn’t actually on the clock. And I used my kids to get images for homework assignments. My 12-year-old became one heck of a muse and assistant!” 

As if Knepp didn’t already have enough on her plate, she was sexually assaulted by another member of the military shortly before she started at the Academy. A few months later, her husband was killed in a motorcycle accident. (She has since remarried.) Knepp was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and turned to her camera for therapy. 

 The 11 black and white photos in her Looking Up series evolved as she battled depression. During this period, she often found herself gazing upward in rooms, searching for some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. The photos in the collection transform ordinary things many of us wouldn’t even notice into striking works of abstract art: A segment of a round, bug-speckled light fixture glows like a giant eyeball. The lines and geometric shapes of the tightly cropped insides of an umbrella converge in a way that might remind you of a pointy-eared cat. A close-up shot of curtain fabric ripples like a patterned wave, the texture so bold and vivid you can almost feel it. 

 “The series depends on highly formal, balanced elements of composition,” Knepp explained. “It abstracts light sources and shadows, turning objects into something to look up towards, something positive. I create more abstract work because that’s how my brain has learned to deal with certain situations. I compartmentalize, which is common with PTSD. I break things down into small boxes.”

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Objectified Form by Ronni Mae Knepp. Image courtesy of Ronni Mae Knepp.

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An image from Knepp’s Looking Up series. Image courtesy of Ronni Mae Knepp.

Knepp has an especially strong connection to another project, Objectified Form, that also relates to her PTSD and sexual assault. The series of 25 stark black and white images depict different parts of the female body. 

“I was working through taking back my control as a woman, both physically and mentally,” said Knepp. “Females are objectified in society and the art world—I would love to expand this series into a solo exhibition.”

In addition to helping her heal from PTSD, Knepp hopes her art will aid others suffering from it and increase awareness of the sometimes-invisible condition that afflicts many veterans.

“I don’t want to use my photography to show how much I struggle,” she said. “I want it to encourage others who have PTSD to keep pushing through and to know they don’t have to commit suicide.”

Knepp also wants to inspire and help others as a teacher. She is once again enrolled in the Academy’s online fine art photography program, this time to earn her M.F.A. 

“Teaching is something I’ve always enjoyed, which is why I’m going for this degree,” she said. “I’d love to teach at the Academy.”

 

To see more of Knepp’s work, go to www.ronnimaephotography.com.