Pearsall, director of the Center of Photography, strives to replace the irreplaceable
Stacy Pearsall has reached an accommodation with her new life, in which the old intensity has been replaced by a new one. But the transition did not come easily, nor quickly.
Pearsall, owner and director of the Charleston Center for Photography, had grown up in the Air Force from the age of 17. Her high-risk, high-adrenaline career as a combat photographer had taken her to more than 40 countries, including deployments in Iraq.
Suddenly, at 28, she was told that career was over, the result of severe head and neck injuries suffered in the field. No longer could she wear body armor. No longer would she chronicle the human face of servicemen and women engaged in battle and its aftermath.
No longer could she wear the uniform.
Medically discharged in 2008, albeit as one of the most honored military photographers of her era, the two-time National Press Photographers Association’s Military Combat Photographer of the Year soon faced the daunting challenges of adjustment and of replacing the irreplaceable.
“I compare it to waking up one morning and the spouse you’ve been married to for 20 years says ‘I’m leaving now,’” Pearsall says. “It’s so abrupt, like a knife in the heart.”
Pearsall wondered how she would transfer her skills to civilian life, and in what capacity, especially since her husband, recently retired combat photographer Andy Dunaway, was still on active duty in the Air Force at the time.
Enter Jack Alterman, founder of the Center for Photography.
“I had met Jack when I was still in the military and had come down to some of his free lectures and photography events. He tried to get me involved, but I just didn’t have the time. Yet when I was transitioning out of the service, it just made sense that I would come and help Jack with the educational part of the center.
“I took that program over, and it was a good fit for me.”
Alterman wanted the freedom to focus on his photography again. Pearsall wanted something that utilized her hard-won skills and fostered new ones.
“Me buying the center and running it made sense for both of us,” says Pearsall, whose large-format book “Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera,” will be published by Globe Pequot/Lyons Press in October. “We started having conversations about it in December of 2008 and I became an official business owner on May 1, 2009.”
Meanwhile, Pearsall had been finding other areas of photography that were fulfilling. For someone accustomed to traveling up to 280 days a year, and who still does travel extensively on freelance assignments, the source was surprisingly close to home.
“I definitely enjoy sitting with other veterans and talking to them about their sacrifices. When I transitioned into the VA health care system as a patient, I had conversations with a lot of these World War II, Korea and Vietnam-era guys. I thought, ‘If I’m sitting here for hours waiting to see a doctor and doing nothing, why am I not taking photographs?’ And so I started bringing a camera, and not only would I go there when I had a medical appointment but when I just wanted to spend the day with veterans. Through this whole organic growth in my photography and the healing process, the mental healing process started.”
Among other things, these encounters were instrumental in Pearsall undertaking the Veterans Portrait Project, an ongoing series of black-and-white images in keeping with the photographer’s journalistic insistence on telling the individual’s story.
“As a combat photographer, it was never about telling the story of the military at large; it was about telling the stories of individuals,” says Pearsall, who will receive the Margaret Cochran Corbin Award from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution on Friday. “I knew they were putting everything on the line for each other, and for me. I was never going to view the job as one where you just punch in and punch out.
“I believe that each person has a story, and it’s amazing what something in a face can tell you. That’s the philosophy behind the portrait project and all I do.”
Trial and error
Still, it’s not like Pearsall didn’t go into business ownership without some trepidation. And it was a concern shared by her brother, Chad Mercer.
“I have to admit I was worried about Stacy making the transition from combat photographer to civilian photographer, as I know she loved the military and thrived in the combat environment. But she has grasped every opportunity since being discharged and has excelled.”
Pearsall says she wasn’t especially “business minded” before taking over the center. But she has learned through trial and error, augmented by solid advice from people who showed her the ropes.
“One of the most rewarding things is having learned I had abilities, skills in other departments I didn’t know I had. As far as the center is concerned, and the people who come here and contribute to it, one of the big paybacks is bringing photography to people who have never experienced it on this level before.
“Photography is more accessible than ever. Everybody has the ability to take a picture and we’re trying to help polish that.”
The intensity and pace of the combat zone has given way to the exhilaration of operating a business. And the duress.
“That’s the ‘combat stress’ of this part of the world,” says Pearsall. “There are people who work for us — two full-time, one part-time and seven contract workers — who depend on me keeping this business functioning properly. I want to do right by them, and feel like I’m moving and shaking all the time.
“There are often extenuating circumstances, but my feeling is that if you fail, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. And I don’t like to fail.”
Composing the book “Shooter” and writing its text also involved a set of reservations.
Pearsall recognized that the images in such a book, though they would reveal combat from the soldier’s perspective, could be disturbing and that she would not be the only one affected.
“At what stage in the healing process are the people I photographed? Also, the widows whose husbands would be featured in the book; where are they in their lives? And their children? I wanted to be sure I was ready, as well. When you put a book like that out there, you’re putting everything out.”
Pearsall says “Shooter” represents a way to bookend everything she has experienced in the military, the people she met and all the emotions involved.
“It is a way of releasing that in some respects. And I hope that by doing this it will give the soldiers who served in Iraq with me the same opportunity. I’m really excited about it.”
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.