Obama, "honor," and war photography
I had the pleasure of interviewing the only woman to be named twice combat photographer of the year by the U.S. Department of Defense. Stacy Pearsall has seen two tours in Iraq, been wounded twice, and seen many close friends killed. She believes in duty. She loves her band of brothers. But it’s time to leave, she says.
At the same time that the Obama Administration is poised to set a timetable for withdrawal, Pearsall offers a showcase of her war photography at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, here in Charleston, called War on Terror: Inside/Out.
We wrote a cover story about the exhibition, but mostly we talked about Pearsall, an exceptional woman whose frames captured hidden and intimate moments between soldiers. More importantly, her portfolio conveys emotions felt by her subjects, men who are ordinarily self-conscious and mindful of appearing (and feeling) tough.
Stacy Pearsall has never been good with words. What she saw in Iraq during two tours only makes them harder to come by. She knows what John McCain meant by leaving “with honor,” but feels Vietnam has little bearing on the War on Terror.
We sent volunteers to Iraq, for one thing, who didn’t know who the enemy was. Her friend Donny lost his head to a sniper. Her friend Katie lost most of her right hand to one. Soldiers feared their throats would be slit in their sleep. Food was often poisoned. Pearsall herself was wounded twice in combat, once while carrying a man to safety.
Pearsall is proud of doing what her country asked of her. A soldier doing her duty, and leaving Iraq in decent shape, defines “honor.” But she has doubts, perhaps the deepest wound of all. Right and wrong get lost in the fog of war, as when an 8-year-old girl tried to give her a live grenade. It’s hard to sleep when memories of what she experienced in that country keep her up at night.
“I hope I left with honor,” she says.
A former combat photographer who retired from the Air Force in August, Pearsall is now director of the Charleston Center for Photography, a new local nonprofit. Her work has been used by The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ, and CNN. And she was twice named military photographer of the year, the only woman to achieve such distinction.
Words aren’t her forte, but Pearsall has her pictures. She hopes the work on display at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, one of Charleston’s most high-profile venues, will tell the story of what it felt like to be “down range.” There’s no better time than now.
One of the campaign promises of President Barack Obama was to set a 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. The Halsey show, called The War on Terror: Inside/Out, has been timed to open with the ascent of the Obama administration. She shares the show with documentary photographer Christopher Sims, a professor at Duke University.
Pearsall comes from a military family. She was 17 when she joined the Air Force. She broke into an elite corps of combat photographers, a macho bunch where chicks are suspect. She loves her band of brothers. They fought for her; she fought for them. She thinks the invasion was a good thing. She saw how badly Iraqi women had it. But the time has come, she believes, to leave Iraq. That’s why she cautiously voted for Obama.
“I hope he keeps his promise,” she says.
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