A self-portrait of my Veterans Portrait Project location studio set-up
Howdy Scott, Brad, Kelby-crew and readers! Can you believe it's been just over four years since my last guest blog post? So much has happened since then I'd like to share with y'all. But first, I need to extend a thank you to Scott and Brad for inviting me back for a follow-up.
Okay, let's get to it! As you know from my previous post, I began a personal endeavor, the Veterans Portrait Project, while recovering from combat injuries I sustained in Iraq while documenting the war as a military combat photographer. After spending hours in Veteran Administration hospital waiting rooms surrounded by veterans from every generation and branch of service, I felt compelled to honor and thank them in the only way I knew how, photography. The Project became my new mission. In a way, it was my therapy too, and over time I began to heal both physically and mentally.
The journalist in me felt compelled to take my personal project public, to share the unique stories of these extraordinary citizens. Eventually it became a way to raise awareness too. I wanted to show what veterans really look like: Black, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, Native American, male, female, homosexual, heterosexual, young, old, homeless, married, single, disabled, and everybody in between. After all, everyone has his or her own idea of what a veteran looks like, about their background, and their reasons for serving. Admittedly, I did tooâ”white, male, middle-aged combat veteran. And, yes, 92.5 percent are male and 79.2 percent are white, but what's interested me most throughout my experience with the Veterans' Portrait Project has been the smaller groups of veterans, including those like myself, who don't necessarily fit the iconic veteran image.
A self-portrait for my Veterans Portrait Project archive
With the current popularity of war hero movies, such as Lone Survivor and American Sniper, people are inundated with images of Special Forces operators creating a misconception that all veterans fit the aforementioned attributes - young and chiseled. These portrayals, while compelling and worth our attention, are just a small representation of the veteran community. Through the Veterans Portrait Project, I strive to showcase all who've served and to educate and entertain the general public with real American military veterans' stories and to archive the military histories of all service men and women.
Veterans Portrait Project by Stacy Pearsall
Since starting the Project in 2008, I've photographed thousands of veterans in countless cities nationwide, hosted community-based exhibitions, and conducted numerous public speeches and town hall style discussions on veterans' issues. I continue working worldwide as a photographer, educator, military consultant, and public speaker, but the Veterans Portrait Project is my heart and passion. It has been fuel for my soul.
After every WWII veteran's portrait session, I take a selfie-smooch-picture and post it to Instagram. I've amassed quiet a distinguished collection. I have to say, my heart flutters with every stolen kiss. I'm a lucky gal for sure!
On top of conducting portrait sessions across the U.S., I've been active in organizations such as Songwriting with Soldiers, Fatigues to Fabulous, Defense Centers of Excellence, Veterans of Foreign War, and American Legion. Can you believe it? I've been given awards for what I'm doing - and doing what I love, no less! Yes, the Daughters of the American Revolution presented little ole me with the Margaret Cochran Corbin Award and The White House declared me a White House Champion of Change. Whoa.
Despite the accolades however, I still believe those most deserving of awards are in front of my camera, and not the gal behind it.
Communities nationwide have received the Veterans Portrait Project positively and it's gained so much momentum in just the last three years. My head is reeling.
The Veterans Portrait Project has been fortunate enough to gain a wide breadth of media exposure both nationally and abroad. A documentary series by PBS titled, Coming Back with Wes Moore, included a bit about me, and the work I'm doing with the Project. There have been print and online articles that have reached halfway around the world.
One day I received an email from a retired British Army soldier, and combat veteran, by the name of Stephen Porteous. Here's an excerpt from his correspondence dated December 11, 2014.
"When the funeral corteges and repatriation ceremonies of our service personnel who'd been killed in Afghanistan began appearing on British TV it struck a cord with the general public. However in the short space of time since we've left Afghanistan it is evident we [veterans] are becoming less newsworthy. In a bid to give something back, and play my part in keeping British Forces and veterans on the public radar, I decided I would act on the inspiration you provided through photography. My plan would be to mirror your project for UK veterans. It will be completely non-profit and, for the most part, self funded. Would you be prepared to endorse such an endeavor?"
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I was truly humbled by Stephen's missive. However, I was also hesitant to relinquish my Project, albeit a separate division, into the hands of someone else. That required faith they'd treat the Project, and the veterans involved, with the same admiration and respect I have for so long. I took a few days to consider the proposal and did some soul-searching within. Ultimately, I decided to give Stephen a chance under the condition I'd fly to London to train him. Only then would he have my endorsement.
We decided upon the first week of May 2015, which happened to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day! You can watch a video from our day with the amazing Royal Hospital Chelsea Pensioners HERE.
The Chelsea Pensioners
In the end, it felt amazing empowering Stephen with the tools he needed to stand up the Veterans Portrait Project UK, and to share the healing powers of photography with someone else. I'm encouraged by Stephen's enthusiasm and passion - I recognize myself in him quiet a bit. Truly, it was meant to be and I believe he'll do very well. He already is.
So what's next for me this year? Well, I've got 20+ more Veterans Portrait Project engagements on the calendar, six or so exhibits, a few more speeches, and I'm also teaching a class called Starting a Personal Project (08/11/15 from 3:14-4:15 p.m.) and giving a presentation about my career titled, Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera (08/12/15 from 8:15-9:15 a.m.) at Photoshop World 2015! If you're attending, I'd love to meet you! If you can't make it, please be sure to follow the Veterans Portrait Project Facebook page to see if I'll be in your neighborhood.
Other than the growth of the Veterans Portrait Project, here are a few things of note that have also happened since I last blogged: wrote and published Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera, wrote and published A Photojournalist's Field Guide: In the Trenches with Stacy Pearsall, walked the runway during New York Fashion Week, judged the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, recognized by PDN in the Photo Annual 2015 for Personal Projects, ran the Marine Corps Marathon and celebrated my ninth wedding anniversary with my hubby, Andy Dunaway.
The best part of it all, being able to share my small victories with you! I've had so much encouragement and motivation from so many wonderful, amazing people like you. I couldn't have done any of these things alone either - from my dedicated assistants and supportive husband, to my stalwart sponsors and unfaltering cohorts, you've all had a hand in my success. For that, thank you!
Until next time y'all, salute!
If you would like to contribute to the continued success of the Veterans Portrait Project, you may do so by visiting our Crowdrise site HERE. You can see more of Stacy’s work at StacyPearsall.com, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.