Unless you or someone in your family is a veteran, chances are you haven’t seen the large black-and-white portraits that hang in the Ralph A. Johnson VA Medical Center on Bee Street, right near MUSC. The images are big, bold, and arresting, but not because of any harshness or shock value. Rather, it’s the portraits’ intimacy and sensitivity that keeps you looking. Each man and woman seems captured in a singularly vulnerable moment, whether they’re smiling, lost in thought, or looking sternly off to the side.
The portraits are part of the Veterans Portrait Project, which Stacy Pearsall, an Air Force military photographer and owner of the Charleston Center for Photography, started a few years ago. The project began during a fairly dark period of Pearsall’s life, when her military career had just been cut short by a traumatic brain injury. From 2001 to 2008, Pearsall was part of the Air Force Combat Camera program, an elite program of enlisted photojournalists who document combat operations around the globe. During her time with Combat Camera, Pearsall traveled to 41 countries and served three combat tours. It was on two of those tours, both in Iraq, that she was injured by bomb blasts.
The second and final blast happened during the Battle of Baqubah, which was the last major offensive in the Iraq War. While Pearsall was receiving medical care for her blast injuries, she found out that she had a traumatic brain injury and damage to her cervical spine, both of which she’d sustained a full three years earlier — the first time she was hit by a bomb — and had never had treated. “[After those injuries] I went out on a mission the very next day,” she says. “There is this military mentality that if you’re not missing a limb and you still have a pulse, then you just better man up until the mission’s complete.” Somehow she was able to continue functioning at the highest level of her profession for those three years, despite intense headaches, endless neck pain, and occasionally losing her balance and falling for no reason.
When she finally did begin treatment, it started her on a long, hard road. “I spent a year in recovery,” she says. “I went through about 30-something procedures not only to fix my neck, but also seeing a neurologist about the traumatic brain injury.” After that year of surgeries and physical therapy, the Air Force put her on temporary medical retirement, meaning she could no longer serve active-duty. “That was really, really heart-wrenching, heartbreaking,” she says. “I’d won Military Photographer of the Year for the second time, and to see everything I’d worked toward disintegrate in two seconds — that was worse than any of the physical pain I’d been going through up to that point.”
During this time she was transitioning over to the VA Medical Center, where she would continue to receive care. That’s where the Veterans Portrait Project began. “I would be sitting there surrounded by mostly older gentlemen, mostly Vietnam-era or World War II, and they would say, ‘Are you here with your grandpa? Are you taking your grandpa to his appointments?'” Pearsall laughs. “I would say, ‘Well, no, I’m here for myself,’ and that would spark a conversation.”
Despite her doctors’ orders not to lift anything heavier than five pounds — camera equipment weighs significantly more than that — Pearsall decided to start taking portraits of the people she met while waiting for her medical appointments. It was completely different from her work in the military, yet incredibly fulfilling. “As a combat photographer, I’d stay like a fly on the wall, not really engaging with people, although I did on a personal level,” she says. “I guess I just carry that idea over to the Veterans Portrait Project, getting to know them and also honoring their service … In the process, it was cathartic for me and therapeutic. It got me back to being a professional photographer again and was really my transition back to a more healthy well-being.”
To date, Pearsall has photographed veterans in Charleston, Beaufort, Raleigh, and Nevada, and in the fall she’ll spend two days in Kentucky for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention. Judging by her portraits, she seems to connect on at least some level with everyone she photographs, but there’s one man in particular who is especially memorable for her. “I went to the homeless transitional program here in Charleston, at the Naval Base, and there was a gentleman there who had not talked to anybody for two months. I took his picture and he said thank you afterward. The first words he’d said in two months, and he said them to me. I mean, how honored could one person be?”
And soon after she started working on the Veterans Portrait Project, Jack Alterman, the then-owner of the Charleston Center for Photography, asked her to help out at the Center. “I said ‘Well, I could always give a few hours here and there.’ What started as 10 hours turned into 20, which turned into 30, which turned in to 40, and all of a sudden I owned the place,” Pearsall says. “The Veterans Portrait Project was not only the inspiration I needed to get back behind the camera, but also the motivation I needed to get back into the workforce and become a part of society again.”
Although Pearsall originally saw herself as a military photographer until the day she retired — by choice, that is — nowadays, she positively lights up when she talks about the Center and all of its offerings. And they are extensive. The organization hosts classes for all levels of photographers, free public lectures, family photo excursions, and teen summer camps. Photographers and videographers can rent the Center’s studio space or purchase a $100 yearly membership, which allows them to use the space to meet clients, conduct business, and receive discounts on printing, including archival quality. “My ultimate goal for the Center is to let people know we’re here and find out what we can do for you,” she says.
It may not be combat photojournalism, but it’s allowing Pearsall to share her expertise with other photographers and keeping her happy. And that’s really all that matters.