Combat photographer shares her story in SURC
Landan Garcia, Copy Desk Chief - November 14, 2012
Last Friday, two-time Motion Picture Association of America photography winner Stacy Pearsall brought her work and experiences to the SURC Theatre.
Ten audience members quietly rose when Pearsall asked if there were any veterans present.
She then began a slideshow presentation, starting with a picture of herself as a chubby youngster alongside a picture of her military ID. She joked that her training transformed her from a “baby-face to a stone-cold killing machine.”
Pearsall explained how her family has a strong military background, filled with veteran relatives spanning all the way back to the Revolutionary War. She also mentioned how her husband, who was present in the audience, is also a military photographer.
Photos from combat photographers such as Pearsall are sent to Washington D.C. for newswires, used by commanders to gauge military progress and serve a historical purpose as well, appearing on programs such as the History Channel.
Combat camera is an extremely difficult position to get into, with only a very small segment consisting of women.
“Someone basically has to die or retire in order to get into combat camera,” Pearsall said.
She is one of only two female combat photographers to ever receive an MPAA award, and the only female combat photographer to receive it twice.
“I’ve never demanded respect,” Pearsall said. “I’ve always earned it.”
She began her career in photography at 17 after joining the Air Force. Upon entering the service, she worked for Intelligence reviewing spy plane film. While in Iraq, she flew resupply missions from Germany to Baghdad.
During her deployment, Pearsall suffered a roadside bomb injury near a high school in Iraq, the same high school Saddam Hussein’s wife attended. She presented the news clip of the bomb going off in the background, and described how it wasn’t until months later after receiving an MRI and a CAT scan that she realized the extent of her injuries—she suffered a traumatic brain injury that went unaddressed.
“I didn’t want anyone to look down on me or see me as weak,” Pearsall said.
Women in Iraq were usually surprised to discover Pearsall was a woman, as her short hair and combat gear gave her an androgynous look. Getting to bond with other women and see that part of their lives was a unique advantage over other military photographers, which she modestly argued had been the key to her winning her first military photography award.
“I liked all the photos in the presentation,” freshman biochemistry major Dani Eggleston said. “I like how she opened up about everything, because that’s hard to do. She didn’t hide her emotions.”
She spoke about many disturbing situations that occurred during her deployment, including prisons for women in which their husbands abused them or prostituted them out.
“The camera was a shield from developing an emotional tie, Pearsall said.” “Document, but don’t relate. It helped me get through the situation not knowing who they were. It was a coping mechanism early on.”
Slides of a friendly football game that broke out on Superbowl Sunday between deployed Air Force and Army personnel were shown next. She explained the brotherhood that is ever-present during deployment, as any moment could be the last. She jokingly added that the Army slaughtered the Air Force at the game.
Pearsall’s true revelation for her photography work occurred during a difficult situation, in which she and her crew were forced to decide whether to wait until morning to airlift a badly wounded soldier to safety. After morning, the chance of an enemy RPG being shot at their helicopter was much higher. The crew unanimously voted to wait for the soldier to arrive, putting all of their lives at risk to save his.
“That is what I need to be photographing – that relationship” Pearsall said.
Her work has appeared in Popular Photography, Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, the New York Times, CNN, BBC, USA Today, Soldier of Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and Bahrain Times. She has also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Despite winning national acclaim for her photography, however, Pearsall maintains her own opinion about which photos are the best.
“My favorite pictures aren’t the pretty ones; they’re of my friends,” Pearsall said. “They mean the most and hit closest to home.”
She spoke about advocacy work she’s been involved in, citing it as a “healthy closure” to her experiences as a combat photographer. Veterans return from deployment with physical issues and unaddressed mental issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, making it difficult to function in the civilian world.
“I liked the realness of her presentation,” said sophomore biochem major Brittany Carterby.
“She wasn’t trying to mask what happened, it was just all real.”
During her time in the military, Pearsall found herself giving pictures to soldiers, asking them they could give them back to the families so she wouldn’t have to visit the widows of the deceased.
“I’m in ROTC and I haven’t been deployed yet,” said sophomore economics major Jonathan Belveal. “I appreciated her honesty about her experiences.”
Pearsall encouraged audience members to support veterans, if only by offering them an open ear.
“My job as a combat photographer was so much more,” Pearsall said. “Being the last person to really journal or document what they did for our country and their last sacrifice.”