Sewickley Marine finds focus in photography
For nine months, David Biernesser sought solitude.
Like countless other returning veterans, the Marine corporal struggled to readjust to civilian life in late 2006 when he came home from a tour of duty in Iraq.
By his own admission, he spent too many hours in bars. He blew through his savings. He lacked discipline and had no idea where he fit in or what he wanted to do with his life.
“I needed to clear my head,” said Biernesser, 29, of Sewickley. “I had to figure out my life.”
So he packed his bags. He got a job as a truck driver and for nine months, from August 2007 to March 2008, he just drove. He saw parts of 45 states, alone with the road, stopping only to snap a photo when something caught his eye.
“That's when I discovered photography,” Biernesser said. “I didn't know what I was doing, and the photos weren't any good, but I just started doing it.”
In the process, he found focus.
Photography became a therapeutic outlet for him, something many former soldiers struggle to find, and led him to a new career.
Biernesser became passionate about photography. In 2008, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He dove into the training and hounded professors for guidance.
“He was one of those kids who kept showing up after class, saying, ‘Hey, take a look at this, what do you think of this?' ” said Scott Spangler, adjunct professor of photography at the Art Institute and a former Tribune-Review staff photographer.
“He's got an edge over most photographers. That edge comes from his experience with the military.”
A year into his studies, the Marines recalled Biernesser for a tour in Afghanistan.
Rather than bemoan the interruption, he viewed the deployment as an opportunity. He shipped off in February 2010, and he brought his camera.
“I'd heard about these beautiful mountains there. I thought I was going to take pretty pictures,” Biernesser said. “But we were in Marja, in the south. It was flat. It was like Iraq. I had to rethink what I'd be taking pictures of.”
Biernesser was part of a group training Afghani police. His commander, upon learning of Biernesser's photography skills, encouraged him to bring his camera everywhere. Every day, Biernesser slung his rifle over one shoulder, his camera over the other.
“We would go on foot patrols though opium fields,” Biernesser recalled. “That's when I really started to understand the Afghan life, to see what the Afghani people were like. It's a hard life.”
Biernesser studied the work of American photojournalists in Afghanistan and saw they usually focused on soldiers. Biernesser decided to document the natives instead.
At first, the Afghanis were leery.
He recalled two men standing on a dirt road, staring at him and his camera. Biernesser approached and lifted the lens. The men raised their hands to shield their faces. Biernesser lowered his camera.
But over the following days and weeks, the men reappeared. Biernesser inched closer to them, slowly gaining their trust.
One day, he stood face-to-face with the men. Again, he raised his camera.
This time, they did not protest. They just stared back at him, half of their faces bathed in the shadows of a setting sun.
Biernesser snapped a shot. He named it: “Just a Couple of Guys.”
It was one of thousands of images Biernesser shot in Afghanistan.
Spangler, who helped him edit his work, said Biernesser captured something different there. Unlike others, Spangler said, Biernesser was able to pull a unique and honest beauty from a bleak landscape.
“He's got the gift of not having to worry about fear,” Spangler said.
“I would have fear. To go into an environment where I don't know the language, I don't know how to say I need food, I need water — but with his training and background, he can go in and communicate with nonverbal gestures. He can universally speak to people. That's a gift most of us don't have.
“For David, it's, ‘I'm going to do this,' ” Spangler said. “I can foresee him being the next Eddie Adams. Who knows?”
Adams, a former Marine, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. His most famous photo came from the Vietnam War, in 1968, when he captured an image of a police general executing a prisoner on a Saigon street.
Biernesser's photo of the two men in Marja hangs alongside many others inside the International Images Ltd. art gallery in Sewickley.
His work from Afghanistan — as well as photos he's since taken in Europe and Western Pennsylvania — are on display there through the spring. He recently started his own photography website and business.
For Biernesser, photography is a form of therapy, which many returning veterans lack.
Biernesser met Junior Ortiz, a Marine veteran and the U.S. Labor Department's deputy assistant secretary of Policy, Veterans' Employment and Training Services, in late November during a seminar for mental health professionals in Canonsburg.
Ortiz spoke of the difficulties many vets face when they leave a war zone and then try to adapt to civilian life. Biernesser snapped photos of Ortiz from the audience.
At one point, Ortiz pointed at him as an example of a well-adjusted soldier.
“That camera,” he said, “is your therapy. It's your outlet.”
It's more, Biernesser said. It's his voice.
“I've never been the most eloquently spoken person. I could never be a poet,” he said.
“Photography allows me to show people what my brain sees. When I don't know how to explain something, the camera shows what I mean.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.