It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Stacy Pearsall!
Thank you, Scott, for the invitation to write a guest blog. I’m truly honored. I hope that I can hang with the rest of the amazing talent that have graced these pages. Also, a big thanks to Brad for helping me get my story to you.
When I was 17, I never imagined where I’d be today. I was young, naïve, energetic and optimistic about my future. I enlisted in the US Air Force as a basic still photographer. I went to basic training, also known as boot camp, and then to the Defense Information School. The brief photography course taught me how to process film of all types, black and white, C-41 and E-6. I learned to read light using a hand-held meter and make a manual exposure with my Nikon camera. After learning the basics of camera operations, I learned the concepts of composition, content and storytelling. The classes lasted six months in total, which also included a brief course on how to process U-2 reconnaissance aircraft large-format camera film. I loved the photography classes, but the film processing – not so much. As luck would have it, the Air Force sent me the Joint Intelligence Center to process thousands of feet of infrared spy plane film. If that torture wasn’t enough, I had a follow-on assignment to the Joint Analysis Center for more darkroom shenanigans. Needless to say, I spent four years tucked away in a vault, within a vault, within another vault.
I had to get out of the darkroom, so I plotted and planned my escape. During my research and scheming, I came upon one of the best-kept secrets, Combat Camera. I had not touched a camera outside of my own personal projects, since that wasn’t part of my duty description. I scrounged together some pictures that resembled a portfolio and submitted them along with my military evaluation reports and full-length photo of me in uniform. Combat Camera was made up primarily of very talented male photographers with years of experience. Furthermore, someone in that unit had to die or retire for a position to come available – they were coveted. At the time, I was 21 with moderately acceptable quality images and no technical background at all. The odds were stacked against me – or so I thought. After the tragic events of September 11th, I received word that I had been accepted into the premier Combat Camera unit.
Weeks later, as I was prepared to move from England to Charleston, S.C., I watched troops make their way into Afghanistan. My first few months at “COMCAM” were the most challenging both personally and technically. I learned how to ingest digital files from the camera and transmit them via satellite all over the world, how to take images from the open ramp of a C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft at 14,000 feet, how to fire a weapon on a target while moving, how to tactically drive armored vehicles and how to navigate terrain using only a topographical map and a compass. I felt the pressure to perform without error, because I had the critical eyes of my male peers watching me closely – ever ready for me to make a mistake. Whether that was reality or perhaps my perception of reality, it drove me to work harder and harder.
By the time I was considered to be combat ready, I was aerial qualified and had attended ground survival and evasion courses, prisoner of war training, water survival school and close quarters combat training. I was hammered with photography training and techniques as well as workflow and accessioning. I was certified on multiple weapons and knew just about everything there was to know about war… without the real war experience. Before sending me off to document the real thing, I was sent to South America and Southeast Asia. I also ran re-supply missions to the combat zone with a senior photographer. Basically, I had to prove that I could not only take pictures but also perform under fire when it really mattered.
My first combat deployment was Iraq in 2003 followed by a series of combat deployments, which included Somalia, Lebanon and a couple more trips to Iraq. I spent 280 days a year away from home covering Special Forces operations and humanitarian relief missions. It was a far cry from my think-less and thankless days in the darkroom processing film. My primary goal was getting real-time combat imagery from the battlefield to the Joint Combat Camera Center in Washington DC. The President, Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff used my pictures to make informed decisions on military tactics and maneuvers in the battle space. The photos were also disseminated to news agencies such as the Associated Press and Getty Images and were picked up by several newspapers, magazines and online newsgathering sites. All of the images I took while in the military are considered public domain, so you, the taxpayer, own them. As a sidebar, I’ve seen my pictures sold as posters, mouse pads, mugs and screensavers. I had no control where they end up. Actually, I’ve seen my pictures used by anti-war and anti-military websites – go figure.
As a general rule, combat photographers adhered to the National Press Photographers Associations (NPPA) rules, guidelines regarding the photojournalism’s code of ethics. I did my best to remain unbiased and document what unfolded in front of me without judgment or prejudice. Even though I wore a uniform, I strove to stay objective. As I gained more experience and grew more confident in combat, my outlook of photography began to grow and change. I was taking more risks and pushing myself photographically. During my basic courses, I was taught just that – the basics. I began to realize that there was so much more to understand in order to truly capture artful, colorful and memorable pictures. After losing several friends in combat, I also realized that there was more to my pictures than just news worthiness. In many cases, I was the last person to take their pictures. That was pretty heavy stuff.
Once I grasped that concept, my vision as a photographer changed immensely. From the age of 21 to the age of 27, I captured over 500,000 images from over 41 different countries. I was considered the best photographer in the military and was the first woman to have won the Military Photographer of the Year twice. I was giving the boys a run for their money. I was awarded one of the military’s highest honors, the Bronze Star, for saving the life of several soldiers during an enemy ambush in Iraq. However, I was wounded in action and my combat photography career came to a screeching halt. My life had changed in an instant.
I spent around 18 months recovering from my wounds, during which time I could barely lift a camera, let alone take a picture. It was determined I could no longer wear the 80+ pounds of body armor and tactical gear, which meant that I could no longer deploy to the combat zone. The Air Force retired me from service in August 2008 – I was only 28 years old.
Simply because I was disabled did not mean I was unable. I didn’t give up. I figured if I could survive six straight years of combat, then I could survive this transition in my life. I brought my skills as a seasoned combat photographer to my photography assignments stateside. Specializing in the armed forces, I began to shoot commercial and editorial assignments related to police, fireman, soldiers, sailors, airman and marines.
I advocate on behalf of veterans and concentrate my personal projects around raising awareness for disabled veteran’s groups. During my rehabilitation, I started a portrait project, which featured veterans from South Carolina. I photographed vets from WWII all the way to Vietnam and the current conflicts. I’m continuing this project all over the U.S.
VETERANS PORTRAIT PROJECT – Images by Stacy Pearsall
My time on the battlefield has provided me an appreciation for life and an infatuation with photography. No matter what happens, I’ll continue to push myself.