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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Stacy Pearsall: Boots On The Ground

As a member of the U.S. Air Force, Stacy Pearsall’s job in Iraq was to show the reality of combat and to tell the stories of her fellow soldiers. She carried a camera and a firearm, and her photographs give us a unique and rare glimpse of the war.

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Stacy Pearsall put her life on the line numerous times over the course of 12 years, documenting the Iraqi War as an official U.S. Air Force combat photographer. Above: Before going on patrol, a U.S. Army soldier smokes a cigarette on his cot at a remote combat outpost in Buhriz, Iraq.

Iraqi Army soldiers from the 4th Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 5th Division, conduct a foot patrol and house searches.
Roger Fenton and Felix Beato could be considered the first combat photographers for their coverage of the Crimean War in the 1850s. American combat photography began the next decade when President Abraham Lincoln commissioned Matthew Brady to document the Civil War with his camera. Sadly, the history of civilization is linked to armed man-made catastrophes. As historians Will and Ariel Durant calculated in their book The Lessons of History, “In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.” In the 42 years since the book’s publication, we haven’t added any numbers to the peace side of the equation.

So as long as there’s war, there will be a need to record it. During World War II, Edward Steichen put together a band of photography brothers and sisters to document the global carnage. David Douglas Duncan took us inside the lives of the soldiers during the Korean War in an unfiltered way as evidenced in his book This is War! Vietnam has its share of photographers—Eddie Adams, Nick Ut and Larry Burrows, among them.

Air Force Combat Photographer Sergeant Stacy Pearsall’s war is Iraq. To document it, she not only had to deal with ISOs and ƒ-stops, but had to contend with IEDs and RPGs, the latter two having ended her active military service, but fortunately not her life or photography career. Pearsall credits photography for its role in her mental and physical recuperation.

These days, the South Carolina-based photographer is the director of the Charleston Center for Photography in addition to her editorial and advertising assignments and multimedia productions.

As the sky fills with rain clouds, an Iraqi army soldier searches a courtyard during an assault against anti-Iraqi forces.
DPP: How did your career in photography evolve?

Stacy Pearsall: In high school, I liked to draw and paint and wanted to go to an art school, but couldn’t afford it and didn’t want to burden my mother financially. My family is pretty much all-military, so when I was 17 I enlisted in the Air Force with the guaranteed job of being a still photographer. It seemed like the logical thing to do. I went to basic training in San Antonio, Texas, then to the Defense Information School in Washington, D.C., where I had a basic three-month photography course that included processing and printing. When I went through, it was shooting film using a Nikon N90. Now, it’s digital. I then had a one-month follow-on course that involved processing roll film used on U2 spy planes. It’s an extremely sensitive Kodak IR film that’s 500 feet long and 5½ inches wide. We would use a big machine from the 1940s called a Versamat. When I came back from my first tour in Iraq, I went to the military photojournalism program at Syracuse University for the 2004-2005 term.

DPP: When did you first put your photographic knowledge to the test in combat situations?

Stacy Pearsall: My first real operational experience was aerial combat operations during my first tour in Iraq in 2003. Our job was to take supplies downrange and then pick up the wounded and fly back to Germany. Later that year, I received orders to go into a ground position. I was mostly flying in Blackhawks, but I did participate with Army Task Force units, Psychological Operations, Civil Affairs and Special Forces. The lines are blurring between the military services these days. Staffing was hurting in some areas, and the Army asked the Air Force to augment some positions, and Combat Camera was one of them.

DPP: How does the role of a military photographer differ from that of an embedded civilian photojournalist?


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