11-13-2013 02:32 PM
In striking black-and-white portraits of veterans, retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall's subjects gaze directly at the camera, away from the camera or just past the camera — with eyes remembering things civilians have never seen.
Wrinkled or fresh-faced, male or female, from wars long past or battlefields last year, the subjects of Pearsall's Veterans Portrait Project have something in common with the former combat photographer. They all served their country. They all survived.
"Being a veteran — that is an instant connection," says Pearsall, a USAA member for 11 years. "The project is about more than just taking a portrait. It's thanking the veterans and getting to know them. That's really how it started."
Pearsall wondered about the veterans of all ages she saw in waiting rooms during the year she was recovering from a neck injury suffered in a 2007 combat engagement in Iraq, along with other battlefield wounds. She and the veterans talked, shared, bonded. And she wanted to take their photos — a way to get back behind the lens. Now their portraits hang in various Veterans Affairs hospitals, reminding everyone who sees them what courage and resilience look like.
Pearsall herself embodies those traits.
Finding the Road to Recovery
Along with the neck injury that sidelined her from working with the 1st Combat Camera Squadron , she struggled with cumulative brain trauma caused by two improvised explosive device exposures and post-traumatic stress. "I was feeling pretty low, trying to recover in the hospital," she says, recounting how the Veterans Portrait Project revived her spirits.
Unable to work while still recovering from her injuries, she missed being behind the camera — and with her unit. "The military meant everything to me, and suddenly I didn't have that anymore," she says. "What brought me back to life was the veterans community. I had lost my unit but became part of an even larger community."
As she photographed the veterans, she offered an open ear so they might share their experiences. "They were like me. … Knowing they made it through gave me hope," she says.
Drawing on her Military Heritage
Pearsall already knew something about past generations of veterans. "My whole family was military. My military heritage goes back to the Revolutionary War. Everybody served," she says, listing family members who fought the British, bore arms in the Civil War and World War I, survived Pearl Harbor, and served in the U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Steeped in a military legacy like that, it's no surprise Pearsall joined the Air Force at age 17. Creative since childhood, she eagerly pursued training as a military photographer. She learned how to handle the camera, with all its technical aspects, at the same time she learned combat survival skills.
During her time in the service, she traveled to more than 40 countries and studied military photojournalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
"I had to raise my technical capability to match my creative ability," Pearsall says.
She demonstrated her abilities in the most hostile environment — the war zone. Pearsall was one of only two women to win the National Press Photographers Association Military Photographer of the Year competition, and the only woman to have earned it twice. "[The judges] selected her because her work was the best. It stood out," says Ken Hackman, retired Air Force chief of photojournalism, who ran the photo contest for 25 years.
Hackman has long been impressed with Pearsall's work, serving as a mentor and friend and helping refer her to the Syracuse photojournalism program. "She won the NPPA Military contest before she went to Syracuse and again after she went," Hackman says. "She's very talented, very driven — in a positive way. I admire her for that."
Learn more about Sgt. Stacy Pearsall and see her online galleries at her website. She also has two books: "Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera" and "A Photojournalist's Field Guide: In the Trenches with Combat Photographer Stacy Pearsall."
Thriving in New Ways
When Pearsall was declared combat-disabled in 2008 and retired from the Air Force, she forged a new path as a freelance photographer, public speaker, author, educator, military consultant and owner of the Charleston Center for Photography in Charleston, S.C. — the city that's home to her former unit. She lives there with her husband, Andy Dunaway, who is also a retired Air Force combat photographer of 22 years.
Pearsall earned the Bronze Star Medal and Air Force Commendation with Valor for courageous actions under fire in Iraq. Honored as the Air Force Veteran of the Year by the Air Force Band and PBS, she also received the Trojan Labor American Hero Award and the Daughters of the American Revolution Margaret Cochran Corbin Award. The White House added Pearsall to the roster of Champions of Change. Plus, she holds an honorary doctoral degree from The Citadel.
But evidence of her legacy comes not from awards or gilt-lettered degrees, but from the photos she has taken in the heat of battle or the quiet of a studio stateside. Just as the veterans she met in stark doctors' offices inspired her, her work may inspire others. That's her hope: "Maybe the Veterans Portrait Project will inspire others to undertake their own charitable endeavors. The more we, as veterans, embrace each other, the better off we'll be as a community. And for those who aren't veterans, maybe it will help raise awareness.
"When you're doing something for someone other than yourself, life has more meaning."
Originally posted on Nov 11, 2013
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