Coffee, lots and lots of coffee. That’s pretty much the only constant in Mark Kinonen’s work day as a photographer at UTMB. So it only makes sense that I find him – surprise! – drinking industrial-strength coffee in his office on a Friday morning, charging camera batteries for a shoot later that day and jamming out to an eclectic mix of music (think Miles Davis/The Black Keys/Bryan Adams) as he answers emails and gets his creative juices flowing.
At first, he was shocked that I would want to follow him around for a day. He’s a self-proclaimed “introvert” and isn’t used to being the center of attention. But I insist, and he gives in, warning me that his job is not glamorous.
“This is really weird for me, because the whole point of my job is to not be seen — I like being a fly on the wall,” said Kinonen. “My goal is to be a transparent medium for whatever message needs to be communicated. However, that doesn’t stop me from climbing up a ladder and yelling directions at 250 physicians in order to shoot a group photo (laughs).”
Kinonen has been at UTMB for 13 years. He started as an audio/visual technician and did everything from rewiring classroom audio systems, to wearing a lab coat and acting as a researcher in staged photos.
Over the years, he was able to experiment more with photography, and his passion grew. Processing and developing film in a dark room evolved into digital cameras and Photoshop editing. He credits great on-the-job mentoring with helping him perfect his skills.
As we sit and chat, a new internal medicine resident shows up for a portrait session in the studio next to Kinonen’s office on the fourth floor of Levin Hall on the Galveston Campus.
“My 11 o’clock appointment is right on time,” said Kinonen as he morphs into photographer mode, setting up lights and getting his equipment ready. At the same time, he holds a conversation with the resident, making her feel comfortable and pointing out a mirror for any last-minute adjustments.
Although he says he’s an introvert, it’s evident that he really is a people person. He knows how to engage shy clients and help them forget the camera is there, all the while directing them into flattering angles for their body and face shapes. Ten minutes later, Kinonen is back at his computer editing and cropping her photo to be used on the UTMB website, department poster, as well as her ID badge.
Kinonen has taken some of UTMB’s most iconic photos. In addition to shooting hundreds of portraits and special events each year, he also takes on other projects, amassing 6 terabytes of digital photos that he has to backup routinely.
“I’ve shot items as diverse as food, hands holding brochures and medallions, aerial campus photos, petri dishes, rat eyeballs, bones (human and otherwise), and even a slice of Sir William Osler’s brain,” said Kinonen.
When he’s not behind a big lens, you can find him hunting down photo requests from the archives — he’s organizing and digitizing photos from the last four decades. He also spends hours at a time editing, scheduling photo shoots, troubleshooting problems with equipment and handling billing invoices.
At 5 p.m., he gathers his equipment for an event that starts in an hour — the Department of Physical Therapy’s Professionalism Ceremony, which consists of 53 Doctor of PT students receiving pins and reciting the professional pledge with faculty. He goes down to the Levin Hall main auditorium early to set up lights, mark an “X” in orange tape where students will stand for photos, and move furniture so he will have the best angles.
“A great deal of time is spent before and after events making sure things are done professionally and the process runs smoothly for our clients,” said Kinonen.
He jokes that when the night is over, his face will hurt from smiling.
“My face does hurt a lot, in a good way, from smiling,” said Kinonen. “I get to be present for a lot of happy moments — graduations, homecomings, award ceremonies, groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings; a lot of ‘first’ moments — new faculty, staff or student portraits, induction ceremonies; and a lot of happy ‘last’ moments, such as retirement receptions and 30-year portraits.”
As families, students and faculty start lining in, Kinonen is there to answer questions on how the event will flow and where people will need to stand before and after getting pinned. He moves seamlessly around the auditorium with his camera, using his skillful eye to catch every moment and create artistic compositions.
The ceremony ends with a photo of all the PT students together. He admits that big group photos can be a little like herding cats but manages to work his magic and get everyone lined up and smiling at the same time.
His night ends at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday. By now, the caffeine has worn off and Kinonen acknowledges the irregular hours, but says it comes with the territory. He just hopes to make it home in time to tuck his four kids into bed.
“I love my job. I’m literally capturing UTMB’s history and get to be a part of the institution’s greatest moments, but going home to family is the best feeling in the world.”