DPP Home Profiles Stacy Pearsall: Boots On The Ground

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.

A U.S. Army soldier stands guard near a window while his buddy takes a break in front of the television, which is playing Iraqi cartoons, during a raid in Baqubah, Iraq.
Pearsall: As a military photographer, you’re going to have the time to build relationships because you’re there during the whole deployment and you’re under the same circumstances they are. You live with them and you fight alongside them. I think that gives you a different perspective and relationship. I met a number of great photojournalists while in Iraq. The length of time they spent embedded depended on the publication they were working with. When I met Eros Hoagland, he was shooting for The New York Times and I think he was there for a month. Yuri Kozyrev who shoots for TIME had been living in Baghdad for a couple of years. People say, “You’re in the military so you’re biased to one side.” I wholly disagree with that. While I did serve in the military and I did wear the uniform, I got a front-row seat of war. My goal was to show the reality.

DPP: You’ve said in the past that you’re still dealing with the issues of the possibility of having taken somebody’s life or seeing other lives taken. How do you and your comrades deal with this?

Pearsall: I think those thoughts will always weigh on your conscience no matter how much therapy you go through or how many people tell you, “It’s okay. On the battlefield, it’s either kill or be killed.” If you look at somebody’s life, it’s a shadow of your own. That’s how it will always be. No matter whether it was an American or an Iraqi, on either side, it was somebody’s loved one who died. I take that very seriously. Having seen war firsthand and having that weigh on my conscience, I would hope we could find peace through talking. I believe force is sometimes necessary for the safety of people with lesser means, but it should be a last resort. A lot of people say the cliché “Freedom isn’t free” without understanding the full meaning of it. I wish through my pictures, and the pictures of others covering the war, people would realize the gravity of what that statement really means.

After finding and destroying a four-man insurgent mortar team, Iraqi army soldiers take inventory of the mortar tube and rounds in Baqubah, Iraq. Right: Iraqi Army Lt. Col. Kahlil questions a foreign man during a combat operation.
DPP: You’re giving us a rare look at individuals who are seeing and feeling things no person should have to experience. What’s the story behind the photograph of the soldier having a cigarette, his face framed by the smoke?

Pearsall: That was taken in Buhriz in February 2007. That town was one of the hottest spots for fighting at that time. The photo was taken after my video partner Kathryn Robinson had been shot and my friend Captain Donnie Belser Jr. was killed. We were still encountering heavy fighting and we were doing our best to push the insurgents back. We had gotten up early that morning to go out to the streets and find out from the locals where the enemy was hiding and which buildings they had control of. We came under heavy fire. After a couple of hours of intense fighting, some of our guys had taken some shrapnel and some hits, so we drew back to the patrol base we had in town, which had been an Iraqi police station. When we came in, one of the soldiers just plopped down on his rack and lit a cigarette. Everybody smoked then. It reflected the mood.

DPP: How did you know when to use your gun vs. your camera?

Pearsall: I’m normally sent out with some really great Army guys and they know how to use their weapons well. I know that I need to start fighting when their guns are on the ground, meaning they’re incapacitated. That did happen.

Iraqi Army Lt. Col. Kahlil questions a foreign man during a combat operation.
DPP: How did you go about getting strong imagery?

Pearsall: Combat is very repetitive and unpredictable. I know those two sound contradictory, but it’s the monotony of clearing houses—you run up to the door, one guy breaches the door, you run in, clear the rooms, go all the way to the rooftop, come back down, then go to the next house. You learn from that monotony where to put yourself to get good pictures when the unpredictable happens—whether it be a house-born IED, a roadside bomb, mortar rounds, RPGs or enemy fire.

DPP: Did you use flash at all?

Pearsall: No. Flash could be a detriment to operations because you would be giving away your position. To offset the inability to use flash, sometimes we would use KEM lights, little plastic tubes that you break and they’ll glow. You can throw those in rooms at night if you’re trying to get some nighttime lifestyle sort of stuff. If there are mortar rounds, they have illuminating rounds and you could just wait until one of those goes off. I’ve taken night pictures with headlights. You learn to be resourceful. My pictures that won the Combat Picture of the Year the second time were shot at two in the morning in Baqubah at around ISO 800.


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