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Four years after her retirement from the U.S. Air Force, award-winning combat photographer Stacy L. Pearsall recounts her experiences during three tours of duty on the battlefields of Iraq and missions around the world in Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera, a collection of compelling wartime images and essays due out this month. Meet the retired staff sergeant as she shares moments both harrowing and hopeful and discusses finding her artistic vision against the backdrop of war
If eyes are the windows to the soul, then light serves as messenger. It illuminates the small and large moments of our lives, often beautifying them for all to see. Maybe that’s why former combat photographer Stacy Pearsall prefers shadows, with their quiet power to lure and subdue and develop nuance between the obvious and the hidden. “Shadows create dimension and evoke a response. They define a mood. Lighting is important to a photographer, but I think shadows are more important,” explains the only woman ever named Military Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association—twice.
Pearsall didn’t earn her accolades through the lens of blood and gore. Her images depict trust and camaraderie among soldiers more than the terror that still haunts her and many others. Sometimes, that was intentional. Other times, amid the worst of combat, she dropped her camera to do the sorts of things—like rescuing a wounded soldier under enemy fire—that earned her a Bronze Star Medal and Commendation with Valor. Now 32 and medically retired from the U.S. Air Force due to injuries sustained during three combat tours, Staff Sgt. Pearsall directs the Charleston Center for Photography, which she bought in 2009 to share her creative vision with students and fellow photographers.
It’s a quiet weekday morning at the center on King Street near the Crosstown, where Pearsall and combat buddy Tech. Sgt. Katie Robinson banter with the arid humor of soldiers. Pearsall heads for a private lounge to talk. When the conversation turns to her combat memories, she shuts the door, although a window still overlooks a studio being used for a fashion shoot. A stylist arranges models and jeweled accessories as Pearsall describes a terrifying ambush in Iraq, underscoring the divide between her former life and her current one.
Though she deeply misses that previous life, she’s quick to note that she, at least, has a new one. Too many of her combat friends, those lost to bullets and I.E.D.s (improvised explosive devices), lack that singular luxury. Yet her retirement in 2008, at the apex of her career, came not at her own preference but rather at the counsel of doctors alarmed by her degenerating neck injuries. She also suffered a traumatic brain injury that leaves her, every now and again, grasping for words that tease from the recesses of an otherwise sharp mind.
“My brain sucks,” she shrugs. Perhaps in her own critical mind’s eye, but listening in from the outside, that’s not the case at all. She shares what is, in fact, the fascinating terrain of her mind in her forthcoming book, Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera, a collection of her essays and photographs due out this month that reveals her experiences to veterans who want to remember—and the rest of us who simply want to understand.
An Artist’s Vision
Pearsall’s career as the most lauded female combat photographer grew from her girlhood love of painting and drawing. As she rattles off the names of family members in military service, she notes that she never planned to join them: “I wanted to blaze my own path,” she says. “I was an artist!” Her older sister joined the Air Force (and became the nation’s first female A-10 crew chief). “They put her through hell. They really wanted her to drop out,” grins the South Dakota native. “That inspired me.” In 1997, at age 17, she enlisted.
At first, she processed film from U-2 spy planes. But when she met a combat photographer, she became intrigued by the potential for artistry—not to mention shooting humanitarian and military missions in exotic overseas locales. It was 2001, a few months before 9/11, when she heard of an opening at Combat Camera and applied. Spots on the Air Force’s active duty squadron of photographers were highly competitive, and she was just a young airman—a young, female airman. Though history tells us otherwise today, she worried her gender and lack of experience would hurt her. She re-enlisted to boost her chances. A week later, terrorists hijacked four airplanes, and America went to war.
Combat Camera’s shooters and senior staff chose Pearsall to join their elite ranks. She reported to the Charleston Air Force Base and was issued combat and photography gear. Her camera had just returned from Afghanistan. Sand clogged its pathways; buttons were missing. “Even worse, my photos were horrendous,” she recalls. “People would say, ‘Stacy, you have a real artist’s eye.’ But photography is also technical. I could see pretty things. But I couldn’t record them.”
During a stop in South America, her technical skill met her artistic vision, strangely enough as an airman was getting a haircut. “As the barber cut across his bangs, the airman looked up at the sharp instrument with a funny expression, and it was then that I realized the power of expression in what otherwise could have been a pretty dull picture,” says Pearsall.
In 2003, the ambitious young photographer was deployed to Iraq, where she honed those skills—a combination of observation and an unlikely patience while under the duress of battle. Combat photographers tend to value speed—get in, get out. Get a shot and go. Stay alive. Pearsall preferred to hang back, to linger, to wait until the light created shadows, until a moment quieted and came to rest before her aperture, like that of a wounded soldier on a stretcher being loaded onto a C-17 with a glorious, fiery sunset behind the massive plane. “He was loaded very quickly, and I had only a split second to get the perfect shot with his silhouette centered under the plane’s tail. It was then I learned I’d have to develop patience to capture that perfect moment,” she says.
While in Iraq, she documented missions such as the rebuilding of an elementary school in which Saddam Hussein’s wife had once taught. Students came to celebrate. Dateline NBC showed up. Pearsall shot the hoopla and left in a Humvee with fellow soldiers. Then, as they were turning around to leave, an I.E.D.’s concussive blast hurled Pearsall into the seat in front of her. Their translator was knocked unconscious. The Humvee wouldn’t start. Disoriented, her neck and head throbbing, bleeding from her ear, Pearsall leaped out and took up her position. “It was the first time I found myself in a situation where I had my gun and not my camera,” she says.
That year, Pearsall was named Military Photographer of the Year, only the second woman to earn the prestigious honor. Winners tended to be men with decades of service. She’d been shooting for two years. “There was not one person in the room who wasn’t like, ‘What in the hell just happened?’” she recalls.
Among those who foresaw her talent: combat photographer Andy Dunaway, now her husband. Pearsall also soon met her aforementioned “battle buddy,” Robinson, a combat videographer with whom she would share the uniquely vivid post-traumatic stress that haunts those whose ordeals are recorded for posterity. The two women volunteered to return to Iraq in 2007. “I didn’t want to go out with anybody else,” Robinson recalls. “If I went to war, I wanted it to be with Stacy. She’s somebody I trust with my life.”
Graduating to Terror
Within 24 hours of landing in war-torn Baghdad under a protective blanket of pitch darkness, they were sent on their first mission. President Bush had ordered troop surges into Baghdad to clear out insurgents. And clear out they did—into places like Diyala province, where Pearsall was stationed. “You can’t think, ‘How am I going to die today?’ You have to focus. When the camera came to my face, I was in the zone,” Pearsall explains. “I was confident in the soldiers there to protect me and focused on putting all of my efforts into photographing. I’d slow down and let a situation come to me and drown out everything else.”
Then, Robinson was wounded, her thumb’s tip shot off. Another I.E.D. exploded near Pearsall. Soldiers died all around. Pearsall describes one of the worst days, how the sun was setting, taking with it the light needed for photography. Her convoy traveled down a narrow road when an explosion burst out. From rooftops, insurgents fired on them. “People always asked me, ‘When do you know to put the camera down and pick your weapon up?’” Pearsall recalls. “At that moment, I had no doubt.”
A surreal blanket of chaos enveloped the convoy. Her fellow soldier rushed out to rescue the dead and injured. Pearsall donned a helmet to hear communications and manned the machine gun. Bullets sprayed into the Stryker’s open ramp, ricocheting as the ambush narrowed into a single image, a soldier sprawled on the ground bleeding. Pearsall sprinted out to him. However, her helmet was still attached to the Stryker by a cord. It jerked tight. Her feet flew out, and her head and neck smacked the ramp.
Pearsall is no waif, but when she reached the unconscious soldier, he topped 200 pounds, was in full combat gear, and the enemy was firing. She grabbed him in a bear hug and dragged. Drag and fall back. Drag and fall back, foot by foot, until she hauled him up into the Stryker and collapsed, his head resting in her lap. A long gash stretched down his neck. She clamped the wound shut with her bare hand until a medic arrived. As far as she knows, the soldier lived. However, saving him ended her career. She was 27.
Healing Mind & Body
Pearsall learned the hard way that adrenaline is like a mask. The next morning, she could barely lift her head. She served in a haze of pain and psychological trauma until scans showed severe injuries to her neck. She’d also suffered a brain injury and partial hearing loss. The orders were clear: No more carrying cameras. No more wearing combat gear. No more war zone. “It was all of my worst nightmares come true,” she says.
A few months later, her signature images that blended the glare of reality with the shadows of artistry earned her the distinction of becoming the only woman in history twice named Military Photographer of the Year. From that summit, she careened into frustration. “They said, ‘You can’t do photography anymore, you can’t wear body armor anymore.’ And I said, ‘You can’t tell me that. It’s not your right.’ I wanted to change my career on my terms.” So she embarked on intensive therapy regiments that helped her to heal—body and soul.
Pearsall returned to Charleston, where she could remain close to the Charleston Air Force Base (husband Andy was still on active duty) and to an artistic, visually enchanting city. In stepped Jack Alterman, founder of the city’s Center for Photography, who invited her to teach there. She did, and while sharing her talent, a new future unearthed itself. In 2009, she bought the business and now serves as director, instructor, and creative mastermind. A huge civilian career test for the famed combat photographer: Learning to run an arts-based business in a dawdling economy.
“It’s a different type of challenge. It’s not life or death, but it keeps me creatively stimulated,” she says. Since then, her husband, himself a Bronze Star and Air Medal recipient who served as Donald Rumsfeld’s military photographer, has retired from the Air Force. Andy now brings his considerable talents to the center even as he travels the world freelancing.
They also embarked on a therapeutic journey that threw Pearsall into the world of veterans’ medical care. During endless hours in waiting rooms, her photographer’s eye couldn’t help but envision portraits of those she met. So was born the “Veterans Portrait Project,” whose 88 black-and-white images are on permanent exhibit at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. A similar exhibit will open in Savannah in the next year or two. Through this portraiture, she can settle into those quiet moments again to capture the memories revealed in a veteran’s expression, in the eyes, in the wrinkles of a smile, or the subtle downturn of a mouth. It’s also a way to ensure that people remember how personal war has been—and still remains—for many.
Through it all, Pearsall kept a journal that evolved into the essays that appear alongside her images in Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera. “What sells is blood and trauma. But in my mind, it’s more than that—it’s the soldiers’ relationships with each other and that inconsolable rage and what happened in the quiet moments,” she recalls. “I lived with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You don’t clock in and out. I really felt honored that they let me into their world.”
Meet Pearsall and get a copy of Shooter (Lyon’s Press, October 2012) signed at these events: October 18 at The Citadel and November 12 at the Charleston Center for Photography. For more info, visit www.ccforp.org/shooter-combat-from-behind-the-camera.