By Jim Colton
“If your photos aren't good enough, then you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa
War Photographer; a designation that evokes the names of great photojournalists from Robert Capa to James Nachtwey who have produced iconic images that resonate in our collective visual history; Capa’s D-Day landing at Normandy, the flag raising at Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal, Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl and the execution of a suspected Vietcong member in the streets of Saigon by Eddie Adams to name a few.
All were taken up close and personal. All were taken by combat photojournalists. All were taken by men covering the war from the outside. But there are other combat photojournalists who are active military service members that are as close to the action as you can get. And some of them are also women. Enter Stacy Pearsall.
Pearsall is a retired Staff Sergeant from the US Air Force. During her many years of service she was only one of two women to ever receive the Military Photographer of the Year Award and the only woman to have ever earned it twice. She has travelled to over 41 countries including three combat tours of duties in Iraq where she was wounded twice. Of her many accolades, she is also the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, one of the highest individual awards issued by the military for acts of heroism, acts of merit, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
Pearsall continues to work as a freelance photographer, educator, public speaker, military consultant and is the author of two books; “Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera” and “A Photojournalist’s Field Guide: In the Trenches with Combat Photographer Stacy Pearsall.” She’s even been on the Oprah Winfrey show! (see link below)
But it is her most recent body of work; “Veterans Portrait Project,” that defines her and replenishes her heart and soul. While recovering from her combat injuries and waiting in a VA hospital, Pearsall struck up a conversation with a WWII vet that was part of an Army unit that was responsible for the liberation of one of the concentration camps in Europe. It was then and there she decided to photograph him and present the image to him as a gift…her own way of thanking him for his service. And it didn’t stop there.
Pearsall has now photographed over 3,000 veterans…honoring them in her own way…and on her own dime! And she has no intention of stopping, saying, “So long as there’s a pulse in these veins, I’ll continue this service for veterans.”
This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with Stacy Pearsall, the humble and consummate professional who has served our country and our industry and gets my Bronze Star for being a shining example of what is best about our profession.
Jim Colton: You enlisted in the US Air Force at the age of 17. Please tell us a little about your childhood and family history and what factors went into your decision to enlist. Was it then that you took an interest in photography or was it something before? Who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Stacy Pearsall: My mom, Susan, was a Sailor’s daughter and my dad, Steven, was a Soldier’s son. They married straight out of high school and my dad enlisted in the Navy. They had two girls while stationed at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station in Texas, my sister, Meggen, who is one year and four days older, and me. We moved to Bermuda right after my birth and lived there until my parents separated. From there, my mom took Meg and me to her parent’s house in Tampa, Florida, where she went to cosmology school.
With my mother busy in school, my sister and I spent our days with our grandparents. My grandfather, Charles O’Neill, was a tough man. He’d survived the bombing at Pearl Harbor and served another 30-plus years in the Navy. In his mind, there was little difference between my sis and me and some young Sailors who needed nothing more than good military stricture and regiment. For instance, his method of teaching me how to swim was taking off my flotation wings and throwing me in the deep end of the pool, or having white glove room inspections on Sundays after church. His tough upbringing actually made being in the service a breeze.
My earliest memory was seeing a bunch of anchors tattooed on my grandpa’s forearm. I asked him what they meant and he’d said they represented his friends who’d perished in the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Incredibly, I didn't know what that meant until it was too late and he was dead.
My mom and my dad both remarried in the early 1980’s. My dad lived in Alaska and my mom moved to a bunch of places. We moved from Florida to Chicago, Illinois to Sioux Falls, South Dakota then to Inwood, Iowa. For my freshman year of high school, I spent a year with my dad in Alaska. I moved back to my mom’s in South Dakota. At 17, I joined the Air Force, but only after my sister. She was the first active duty female A-10 crew chief. Between my sis and my great grandfather (WWI Marine veteran), they were my influences for joining the service.
I took a photography class in high school, but I really didn't have much interest in the medium until it became my career in the Air Force. I wanted to be in a field that would allow me to be creative. My options were graphics design, broadcasting, videography or photography. Since all of those fields were small and the positions hard to get, I decided to go with whichever had an opening. In the end, that was photography.
JC: What were some of your first photography assignments and duties when you enlisted? And when was your first "Airman's Bucket" (deployment)? How many "buckets" did you have and where were some of those destinations?
SP: After I completed the Basic Photography Course at DINFOS (Defense Information School) I was sent to the US Strategic Command to process 5.5” IR (Infrared) film. Since my TSC (Top Secret Clearance) had not yet cleared, I was sent to the Offutt Air Force Base newspaper in Nebraska. My first assignment was photographing a mass casualty plane crash exercise. I shot it on slide film. What a hoot!
I was terrible. I remember thinking the pictures were fun to take, but could have been better. I suppose that’s why I was surprised that my story ran on the front page above the fold. It was my first shoot and I did well. Unfortunately, my TSC had come through and I was sent back to intelligence. Then I got another TSC Intel assignment to the Joint Analysis Center in the UK. The only camera I used was the Pentax film camera my dad had given me and the medium format Bronica we used for official military portraits.
I applied for Combat Camera and was accepted in the fall of 2001. I reported to the 1st Combat Camera Squadron in January 2002. From there, my first assignment was to document the DoD Women’s Soccer Championship. Sports were definitely not my strong suit, but it was an eye opener for me. From there, I’d done a lot of assignments in the Charleston area and went on several international exercises. I also began to train as an aerial photographer. Later, in the fall of 2002, I became certified as an Aerial Combat Photographer. In the spring of 2003, I flew my first combat sortie into Baghdad, Iraq.
Off the top of my head, I couldn't possibly know how many temporary duties I had during my tours at Combat Camera. However, I had three combat deployments.
JC: Your role as a combat photojournalist was different than those of civilians covering the various wars. As an active member of the military, you also had to carry a weapon. Although you say your "real" weapon was your camera, how often did you have to put down the camera and raise the weapon?
SP: I’d have to say I spent the majority of my time thinking like a journalist – that’s what I was trained to do. In fact, I rarely carried a long rifle because I felt it distracted me from my real job. I kept a pistol on my hip for “oh shit” moments. I was of the mind that if the situation got bad enough, I could probably find a rifle not in use. This was the case only a couple times for me. Even during the most intense gun battles, I forced myself to stay behind my camera and not get behind the gun.
JC: How do you switch gears, or is the active service member the gear that is always engaged?
SP: Every photographer’s threshold for “fight or flight” is different I suppose. I knew if I’d succumb to the fear, I wouldn’t be in the place I needed to be to capture the story – out front. Therefore, I kept my blinders on by keeping my face behind my camera. As best I could, I wouldn’t let my instinct to run or engage take over. By that I mean I did my level best to only use my military instincts to document the battle, not engage in it.
JC: In your book, "Shooter; Combat from Behind the Camera," you said, "Being an Airman, a woman, and a photographer gives me a triad of military challenges." Can you tell us what those challenges were...and specifically, did your "brothers in arms" accept you as a sister?
SP: There’s a distinct difference between Airman and Soldiers. I equate it to two pro ball clubs who both play the same sport, but for different teams. Some think of themselves as slightly superior and occasionally have contests to prove their point. At the end of the day, the best players from each team will unite against a common enemy – as athletes do during the Olympics. Such is the case with every military branch of service.
As an Air Force member, I had to work extra hard to prove to the Army soldiers that I had decent training to be alongside them in combat. I also had to prove that I wasn’t going to be a liability to their already dangerous missions. Of course they had their doubts at first. I had to set about showing them verses telling them.
I suppose the woman part is simple. At the time, the infantry were all males. To throw a woman in the mix changes the dynamic, or so I was told. With every infantry unit I was attached to, there was always that initial shock of my being a female. Then they realized I was just one of the boys and soon forgot about my gender. However, that was always something I worried about – what they thought of me (my gender that is). I think I psyched myself out more than they ever did.
As for the photographer part, no one wants to have their every move documented. Many of the soldiers had multiple deployments and had media covering their operations. Unfortunately, reporters had burned some of them. By that I mean they released images of their friends dying and so on. When the soldiers saw my cameras, they immediately went on the defensive. That made my job of earning their trust doubly hard. I essentially had to rebuild bridges every time.
JC: You were wounded in action while in Baqubah, Iraq. What happened that day?
SP: The first time I was wounded was February 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq. I was riding in a tactical vehicle with no doors on and it was struck by an IED. I’d sustained head and neck trauma and blew out my right eardrum.
The second time I was hit by an IED was in 2007 just outside Baqubah, Iraq. That’s when I re-injured my neck, but I kept going. One evening during a firefight, I ran to get a wounded soldier and was knocked off my feet when the communications cable to a Stryker helmet I was wearing pulled tight……thus, clothes-lining me. I came down hard on the edge of the Stryker ramp and hit my C-5 and C-6 vertebrae….right where my 2004 injury had been sustained.
JC: How has your experience covering war affected you now as you go about your daily responsibilities? Has it changed your perspective on life and do you suffer from any "after effects?
SP: When I’d returned home after my last deployment in 2007 I struggled immensely. I believe my PTSD was exacerbated by the fact that the military was talking about discharging me over my injuries. Not only was I dealing with the deaths of many friends, but also the death of my career as I knew it. I’d defined my entire life around being a combat photographer. What was I supposed to do now?
I wasn't ready to face my demons from war yet, and I had a few I assure you. Had I done all I could to save that soldier? Was I right to take pictures as that soldier lay dying? I suffered from a major case of “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve”. I've come to grips with a lot of my trauma since then, but admittedly one is never cured from PTSD. I will always live with what I saw, with what I lived. It is part of who I am, but it is not all I am.
JC: You are one of only two women to have earned the Military Photographer of the Year Award (2003 and 2007) and the only woman to have won it twice! You were also the recipient of a Bronze Star Medal, one of the highest individual military awards. What do those distinctions mean to you?
SP: Honestly I felt like I didn't deserve the MPOY the first time I won the award. I felt I was too young, too inexperience and too terrible a shooter compared to the competition. However, that was the motivation I needed to make myself as good as others thought I was. Even after winning the MPOY the second time, I felt like there was room for improvement. Actually, I will always think I could be better.
The Bronze Star…well that’s the type of medal that’s earned during circumstances you wish never took place. When I think about my Bronze Star, I always think about those brave few who laid down their lives, who didn't make it. They were the heroes; I just took pictures.
JC: You are married to an Airman and photographer Master Sergeant Andy N. Dunaway II. How did you two meet and what is that dynamic like having two shooters in the house?
SP: Yes, I married a career military man. I have to admit that I didn’t care for him at all upon first meeting. I thought he was arrogant and a member of the “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” He walked around the office like he owned the place. However, I never really knew who he was outside the uniform. It was three years before we had a normal conversation about stuff other than war and photography. Perhaps I was a bit intimidated, or maybe just had the wrong overall impression. Fortunately for me, he wasn’t who I thought he was at all. I’m glad too because I married him in 2006!
We are two very different photographers in every respect. That’s probably why you’ll rarely find us offering on-location shooting advice. We do talk shop every day and bounce ideas off each other. We seek advice daily and get feedback from each other as often as possible. However, our approach to photography is polar opposites.
In my eyes, I’m very artistic and he’s very clinical. I learn on the fly and he reads the manual. I approach each situation in the moment and he preplans every detail. Together we’re pretty dynamic. In reality, there’s no right or wrong approach and I feel we’re both decent shooters. Our pillow talk to start with ISO’s and F-Stops though…just kidding!
JC: Since your medical retirement from the military you have been busier than ever. Please tell us a little about these following projects you've worked on.
Book One: Shooter, Combat from Behind the Camera. Globe Pequot Press (see link below)
SP: Shooter was an opportunity for me to purge that time in my life; to finally get the thoughts that were bouncing around my brain on paper. I hid from the pictures I made so I didn't have to face the memories. Shooter was my therapy. Shooter helped me close a chapter in my life. Not only for me, but others who were there too.
Book Two: A Photojournalist's Field Guide: In the Trenches with Combat Photographer Stacy Pearsall. Peachpit Press (see link below)
SP: I’d been asked a number of times if I was going to write an educational book about high risk environment photography – specifically combat. I had no intention of doing so. Finally, after the billionth email from yet another young photographer asking me what it would take for them to become a combat journalist, I decided it was time. The PJ Guide was everything I wish I knew before becoming a combat photographer, and all I’d learned during my time as one. I even made sure to put some specialty tips in there for women as we’re often looked over in the industry.
The Charleston Center for Photography (see link below)
SP: CCP was something I fell into really. The former owner was a Marine, Jack Alterman, who’d asked if I’d come onboard to help beef up the photography classes and workshops. I started with just a few hours a week, which grew into 20, 40 and 60 hours. Eventually, Jack asked if I’d like to buy the place. I had doubts because I didn’t have a shred of business experience, but something told me to go for it.
I purchased CCP in May 2009, just a few months after being temporarily retired from the Air Force. During my time as the owner of CCP, I managed a staff of eight instructors and taught 25-plus students per term. I hosted a number of wonderful workshops, offered free community lectures, opened a number of galleries and had a blast doing it. Eventually I had to choose between the Veterans Portrait Project and CCP – both were taking up a lot of time and both were suffering for it. Ultimately, I chose to pass the CCP baton into the hands of one of the longtime instructors in Sept. 2013. It still goes strong today.
F8PJ, LLC (see link below)
SP: There’s this old saying, “F-8 and be there.” That’s where my husband and I came up with the name for my first business, which is still in operation today. Under F8PJ, LLC, I freelance as a photojournalist and commercial photographer. In fact, my first commercial assignment’s revenue from F8PJ, LLC was the seed money I needed to buy CCP from Jack Alterman.
JC: You are currently working on a self-funded "Veterans Portrait Project." (see link below) Please tell us a little about it and how it all started?
SP: I began the Veterans Portrait Project during my recovery from combat injuries. I was sitting in the waiting room at the VA when a WWII vet leaned over to flirt. He asked, “Are you here to bring your grandpa to his doctor’s appointment?” I laughed heartily and began what turned out to be a 45-minute conversation. During our chat, I ascertained that he’d been part of an Army unit that liberated a concentration camp in Europe during the war. He was missing a ring finger, but insisted he didn’t need that finger to fire a rifle. I found him to be one of the most interesting people I’d ever met. That’s why I decided to take his portrait.
It had also occurred to me that there were thousands of other veterans just like him who were equally as extraordinary. I then set about taking portraits for veterans and giving them as gifts to them and their families. It was my way of thanking them for their service – honoring them in my own special way. From there, it just kept growing. I started with one and now I’m in the 3,000-plus range! I have no intention of stopping the project. So long as there’s a pulse in these veins, I’ll continue this service for veterans.
JC: You are also very involved and volunteer your time to things like the Eddie Adams Workshop as well as speaking engagements around the country. How important is that aspect of what you do? Why do all these things at your own expense?
SP: When I do something for others, I find my life has more meaning. I’ve never asked, “What’s in it for me?” That’s just not in my nature. My love language is giving – it’s what makes me whole.
I don’t have a lot in my life, but what I do have I’ll always share (except my husband – he’s off limits) Hahahah! I've learned you can’t take “stuff” to your grave, nor is it fair to not share the knowledge you've gained from others who came before you. A mentor of mine, Chip Maury, once said, “Give it as freely as you got it.” That’s what I intend to do.
JC: What's on the horizon for Stacy Pearsall?
SP: I've got a lot of ideas rolling around in my nugget. I’d like to do a book about the Veterans Portrait Project and perhaps a documentary too. I plan to continue my volunteer service work with veteran-related non-profit organizations. Most importantly, I plan on spending quality time with my husband and family.
JC: As someone whose "been there, done that," what sage wisdom can you impart to any aspiring photographer who might be considering conflict coverage?
SP: Please be sure that you’re getting into this profession for the right reasons. I assure you that the experiences you’ll live through will have a lasting impression.
JC: Any final thoughts on our industry or life in general?
SP: I have no regrets about joining the service, or choosing the path I walked. It has led me to this very point. I am truly blessed to have the mentors I have had. My success cannot be attributed solely to my actions because many have crafted me into the photographer I am. I am forever thankful to them.
I will never think I’m as good as I can be, because I never will be. I will remain humble.
The amount of my paycheck is not a measure of my ability as a photographer. Often the most rewarding payment is a hug from a veteran.
Editor's Note: To contribute to the Veterans Portrait Project, click here: https://www.crowdrise.com/VeteransPortraitProject/fundraiser/stacypearsall
Pearsall’s website: http://stacypearsall.photoshelter.com
Book One: Shooter: http://www.globepequot.com/shooter-9780762780181
Book Two: A Photojournalist’s Field Guide: http://www.peachpit.com/store/photojournalists-field-guide-in-the-trenches-with-combat-9780321896612
The Charleston Center for Photography: http://ccforp.org/
F8PJ, LLC: http://www.f8pj.com/
Veterans Portrait Project: http://www.veteransportraitproject.com/
Veterans Portrait Project Donations: https://www.crowdrise.com/VeteransPortraitProject/fundraiser/stacypearsall
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