As the sky turns ominous, U.S. Army Sgt. Kyle Ellison searches the roof of a locals house for weapons during an assault against anti-Iraqi forces in Buhriz, Iraq, on April 11, 2007.
There’s a good reason why I do what I do. I’m living proof there’s truth in the old cliché “when one door closes another opens.” Although I didn’t always identify as a portrait photographer, I’ve been traversing the United States taking portraits of veterans for the past several years. It’s quite a change from my time as an Air Force combat photojournalist, days when shooter was a double entendre.
I was a uniformed combatant, and a formally trained photojournalist, armed with two weapons—a gun and a camera. My job was to document stories in countries across the globe, get the story objectively, download the imagery, and caption and transmit the images back to the U.S. in a timely manner. From there, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and the President used my photographs for internal purposes. In some instances, my work was pushed on the wire and picked up by media outlets nationwide. You may recognize my pseudonym byline, DoD Imagery.
My jump from combat photographer to portrait journalist isn’t so far afield if you know how it came about. It was my time in war that brought me to this point. Humor me. Here’s the abbreviated version.
In The Combat Zone
It was nearly 10 years ago; the Surge in Iraq was well underway, and this was my umpteenth operation in my ninth year of military service. We were in an Iraqi house we’d appropriated and it was pitch-dark, so I prepped for the predawn patrol by the dim glow of my tiny red LED keychain flashlight, which I had clutched between my teeth. I began my morning ablutions with a cold moist baby wipe that sent shivers through my body from toe to sternum. The desert nights were frigid in the winter, and I couldn’t get warm. Every layer of my clothes was soaked through with sweat from soaring desert temps the day before. On a scale of one-to-dead, this unpleasantness barley registered.
“Are you ready, Sgt. Pearsall?” asked the squad leader while picking up his rifle and slinging it across his chest. As the only woman on the operation, I was keenly aware that my every move was being examined. I worked very hard to build up my “tough-girl wall,” and I’d since grown accustomed to the undercurrent of sexual innuendo, profuse profanity and incessant browbeating that went along with infantry cohabitation. I never demanded respect from anyone, either—I earned it.
I could feel the squad leader’s eyes on me, so I yelled, “Just a sec,” without looking up. I grabbed my lens from my pile of gear and rotated it into place on my well-battered Nikon camera. It seated with a satisfying click.
I lifted my mud-caked, bloodstained shooter’s vest, simultaneously slapping the excess sand off with my free hand, and began my ritualistic inventory. I groped blindly through the pockets: batteries, lenses, second camera body, CompactFlash cards, notepad, pen—all there. I belted my M9 pistol drop holster and snapped the fasteners tightly around my waist and right thigh.
I wore a sidearm everywhere at all times in case things got really bad and, up to that point, I’d only drawn my weapon a handful of times. I always felt my primary focus should be taking pictures—my gun was just an unwanted distraction. That didn’t deter people from trying to kill me. I just wouldn’t see it coming.
I hoisted my sweat-stained body armor on, sealing it tightly. My breasts monopolized a lot of space inside the armor that was built for a man. I could scarcely breath. I could feel the hot spots where the armor rubbed me raw, and a painful burn where the salt from my sweaty shirt made contact.
Searching for any left-behind items, I flipped up last night’s bed, which happened to be a luxurious three-inch pad of foam that was approximately three feet wide by six feet long. Every Iraqi house had stacks of them, and they created an ideal buffer between you and the cold floor. I looked up and proclaimed, “Good to go,” with an indiscernible grin to the waiting squad leader. Another day in paradise begins. I didn’t remember yesterday ending.
After a quick mission brief in the house courtyard, the soldiers and I loaded into the waiting vehicles and made our way toward the new operation objective some 15 minutes away. We kept our minds off improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by filling the air with idle chatter. That was a hard task considering the bob-and-weave routine down the scorched, pitted, potholed road. I drifted off—until my chin hit my body armor, jolting me awake. Thank God, I had my helmet on as I clanked my nugget on the doorframe for the hundredth time. In an effort to stay alert, I took the opportunity to check over camera settings.
That had become “my thing”—taking portraits of the soldiers. Not good ones in every case, mind you, but something to remember them should the worst happen. I learned the hard way that I might not see them again, so I captured one portrait, good or not. It gave me comfort knowing I had something to gift to the families of those who gave everything. Something indelible.
I hit the camera’s playback button and began thumbing through the pictures on my LCD screen. So many young faces weathered, hardened by the burdens of war. Some of the guys couldn’t abide having their portraits taken alone, so they clung to their battle buddies and donned placid, stoic expressions in an attempt to disguise their true emotions underneath. I knew them too well, though, and the façade never lasted long. All I had to do was wait. In some cases, time wasn’t a luxury we could afford, and I had to make do with the surface-insta-snapshots. Better than nothing.
As the vehicle slowed to a stop a fair distance from the objective, I took another look over my camera. The soldiers prepared their guns, and my camera was at the ready. Before opening the vehicle door, I recited my usual prayer and relinquished my life into God’s hands.
We all exited the vehicle and the soldiers assumed their rehearsed positions. Enemy fighters got the drop on us. I could hear small arms fire coming from two directions. At a run, we made our way through the narrow, debris-riddled streets. I zoomed out my lens for a wide shot and held the camera over my head, pressing the shutter release button down for a rapid fire of frames. Maybe one would turn out.
As we came upon the objective, the soldiers made ready to break the front door down. I stepped back a safe distance to capture the initial entry, which often involved flying leaps, kicks or shoulder slams. I lay on the ground to separate my subject from the cluttered background and snapped away as kicking quickly became exhausted and futile against the impassable bolted metal door. Other than the surrounding external small arms fire, it seemed eerily quiet inside the house. The squad leader sent two soldiers to an alternate entrance while we waited in the courtyard. After a brief moment, the soldiers returned to inform us they’d gained entry but spotted a trip wire.
My heart skipped. My mind instantly thrust back three months at the moment I found out my friends were killed in a house-bourne IED explosion. They were my favorite guys. I didn’t tell them. I should’ve. I was supposed to be with them that day. I should’ve been. As my consciousness straddled the present day and memory, the faces of the fallen materialized and vanished. The familiar pain of regret rushed over me. Suddenly, I was overcome by the image of my best friend and battle buddy who’d been shot and wounded by a sniper in a courtyard similar to the one before me. The hair on my neck stood erect. I got an instinctive urge to run and moved with the squad toward the alternate entrance. As we rounded the side of the house, a tremendous rocket-propelled grenade explosion impacted where we were just standing. Thank you, I say under my breath, acknowledging the divine intervention.
As one soldier after another filed into the house, I took note of the dark room and again adjusted my ISO. Since I’d be in closer proximity to my subjects, and under less strenuous pace, I switched to Single Servo focus and readied myself for room-to-room clearance. I’d photographed scenarios such as this many times before, so I anticipated where to be in order to capture the best images. Always staying ahead of the action. Shooting into the shadows. Waiting for the right moments. Making 10 frames of each composition with varied action, if possible. Moving on to the next room. This all happened in a matter of minutes.
The soldiers systematically cleared each room and eventually made it to the rooftop, where a firefight ensued. A cacophony of rifle fire was exchanged at a deafening decibel over the rooflines. Damn. I’d forgotten my earplugs again. A whistling high-pitched tone began ringing in my head.
Despite having a limited angle of view, I made the most of my position and covered the events as I witnessed them. The enemy fighters were just one or two houses over, nearly face-to-face. It took helicopter support to neutralize the nearby fighters. I saw the sunrise from that rooftop. I saw sunset, too. Like every other operation I went on, I documented the hell out of it. We made that house our home for the night, which meant another foam bed on the floor, another shift on the rooftop over watch position, another beef jerky dinner and then it all started again in the morning. Or you could say the day just continued to the next.
Veterans Portrait Project
This was my life as a combat photographer—every day somewhat the same, but no day identical. This went on and on until one day I found myself at a military hospital in Balad, Iraq. Too many hits to my head and neck left me crippled. Begrudgingly, I was sent home. Not only was my Iraq tour cut short, so was my entire military career. The severity of my neck injury disqualified me as a combat photographer, and I was faced with the ultimatum of reclassification or retirement.
I couldn’t see myself as anything else but a photographer, so I took the medical retirement and began the long road to physical rehabilitation. Though I was surrounded by people who cared for me, including my amazing husband, Andy Dunaway, I felt isolated and alone. I grappled with survivor’s guilt and my thoughts began to darken more and more. One day I’d hit an all-time low in my life. I found myself waiting for a doctor’s appointment at the local VA hospital. The older veterans were scrutinizing me. I could hear their thoughts, “Is she a nurse, a spouse or a volunteer?” I wanted to scream, “I’m a veteran, now leave me alone!”
I could see in my peripheral vision that one veteran nearest me was blatantly staring. Instead of giving him a piece of my mind, I asked him if there was something I could help him with. His face drew back in surprise and then a beaming smile. The man had to be in his 90s. He lifted his right hand and showed me his missing ring and pinky fingers, and explained that his impairment disqualified him from enlisting in WWII.
He made his hand in the shape of a pistol and bent his index finger to gesture pulling the trigger. “I don’t need these two fingers to pull the trigger, see,” he demonstrated animatedly. I nodded.
He went on to explain that as the Army increased its manpower in preparation for war, they needed more men. They loosened the restrictions on soldiers with finger amputations, which meant he could finally enlist. That he did. His tours included D-Day and the eventual liberation of a concentration camp. After the war, he came home and started a new life.
I was gobsmacked. I was sitting next to a national treasure and didn’t know it. Then the thought occurred to me. There are over 22 million veterans in the U.S. How many of these men and women have extraordinary stories that go untold?
Unexpectedly, the door I’d been waiting for swung wide open before me, and my new mission came into sharp focus. I’ve walked in their shoes, so I can relate. I feel the same emotions, so I can be sympathetic. I speak the language, so they can speak freely. Who better to tell their stories than me?
So began the Veterans Portrait Project. It has been an emotionally cathartic and physically healing tool, and blossomed into a full-time endeavor. Since taking my first portrait in late 2008, I’ve conducted more than 100 portrait engagements, traveled to 65 cities in 27 states, and captured over 6,000 veterans’ portraits, to date. In an extraordinary way, it’s an extension of the soldiers’ portraits I took while in Iraq—ensuring everyone’s stories endure.
An independent photographer and founder of the Veterans Portrait Project, Stacy Pearsall won the National Press Photographers Association Military Photographer of the Year competition twice. During three combat tours, she earned the Bronze Star and Air Force Commendation with Valor for combat actions in Iraq. Her work has been featured in a joint exhibition, “The Face of Battle, Americans at War 9/11 to Now,” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Visit stacypearsall.com and follow Stacy on Instagram @slpearsall.