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.

As the sky turns ominous, U.S. Army Sgt. Kyle Ellison searches the roof of a local’s house for weapons during an assault against anti-Iraqi forces
DPP: Twice you have been named the Military Photographer of the Year, in addition to being awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and Commendation with Valor for actions under fire. What was your approach that made your photographs stand out?

Pearsall: I tried to show the viewers something unique as to what life is really like out there. So I did a series of photographs trying to convey more about what the soldiers were feeling than what they were doing. One particular picture story I called “Band of Brothers.” I was really lucky to live and operate with them so that I became like a sister. Eventually, I was like a fly on the wall and they ignored me. So when those terrible things happened, like one of our friends died, they didn’t think twice when I brought my camera up to my face to take those emotional pictures. I think it’s those photos that made the story hit home for the viewers. It wasn’t the obvious military funeral. There wasn’t a body there. It was just honoring a memory. So how do you convey that? I think by looking at some of those pictures, you can feel that sense of somebody who was there the day before and isn’t now. The photographs that stick with me the most are the ones of my friends that have died. I could lose all the other ones, but those are the ones that mean so much to me.

DPP: You were wounded on several occasions, which eventually led to you having to end your active service. What happened?

Pearsall: I’ve been medically retired. I had been in the service already 12 years and I had my plan to stay in 20. It was tough. I had to make an attitude adjustment and a life adjustment. A series of IEDs weakened my neck and led up to my final injury. Toward the end of my third tour in Iraq, we were ambushed in a small town called Buhriz, which was overrun with al-Qaeda forces. We were traveling in a convoy of strikers along a very narrow road, and when we headed around this 90-degree turn, an IED blast went off, which incapacitated the first striker. So the engineers from another striker deployed out to go help recover the downed striker. We were funneled in by the enemy forces on the rooftops. Then an RPG struck the recovery team. So the recovery team became the ones that needed to be recovered. The guys in my striker deployed out to retrieve the wounded. I stayed in the striker to man the M240 machine gun. All during the firefight, they were dragging the wounded toward my striker. I saw one guy with a really bad neck laceration who was unconscious, so I dropped my ramp and ran out to get him, but I still had my striker helmet on, which had a communications cord attached to the inside. So when I ran, the cord went tight and I was yanked off my feet and slammed down on my head and neck. It was ultimately the last thing my neck could take. I got up and carried the guy back to the striker and performed medical aid on him and some of the other wounded until we got back to FOB [Forward Operating Base] Warhorse where we were stationed.

U.S. Army trainees sing songs together during a field-training exercise. U.S. Army basic combat training is nine weeks in length and is located at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C.
DPP: Leaving the military led you to taking over the Charleston Center of Photography, so now you’re able to share your photographic knowledge and experiences with a lot of other people and enhance their lives. Is this latest chapter in your life as rewarding as being a combat photographer?

Pearsall: It’s very rewarding. I still try to be heavily involved with the military-related stuff. I did a portrait series called “The Veterans Portrait Project” about the veterans of South Carolina. It was born out of going to all my medical appointments at the VA and meeting all these great people and hearing their stories. These are the unsung heroes. So I started bringing my camera and a backdrop and a couple of lights to the VA. I also went to a homeless center for veterans and a retirement home for veterans. I did 350 portraits of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan vets. I also just did a multimedia piece on a new Army basic training course that I shot with the Nikon D3S.

DPP: Would you go back to Iraq as a civilian photographer?

Pearsall: I would go back to cover humanitarian stories. There’s a lot going on there in terms of women’s rights and getting good prenatal care. I had the opportunity to visit the women’s prison there in 2003 during my second tour. I carried a Marantz recorder. Some of these women were being pimped out by their husbands to do prostitution, and then when a man would pull over to pick them up they would rob them. The men were never held responsible. It was the women who would always go to jail. The women don’t have a choice. If their husbands say go do this, they have to. Their other options are to get beaten, disowned or put out on the street, and then where are they going to go? They’d die anyway. To hear these women’s stories, I would think, “Where are the advocates for these women?” We’re talking, in some cases, about 12-year-old girls, not even women yet. Those pictures weren’t for public release. I think eventually they’ll be cleared. So if I were to go back to Iraq, it’s that kind of stuff that I would want to cover. I shouldn’t say “cover.” I want to uncover it.

To see more of Stacy Pearsall’s photography, visit www.f8pj.com.


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