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A Photojournalist’s Field Guide: In the Trenches with Combat Photographer Stacy Pearsall

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Photographer Mark Edward Harris interviews photojournalist Stacy Pearsall about her role as a combat photographer, her new book, A Photojournalist's Field Guide, and why being prepared is critical for any photographer.
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The history of civilization is sadly linked to man-made catastrophes. As historians William and Ariel Durant calculated in their book, The Lessons of History, "In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war." In the 45 years since the book’s publication, we have not added any numbers to the peace side of the equation.

So as long as there is war, there will be a need to record it. Roger Fenton and Felix Beato are considered among the first combat photographers for their coverage of the Crimean War in the 1850s. American combat photography began the next decade when President Abraham Lincoln commissioned Matthew Brady and his team to document the Civil War with their camera. In World War II Edward Steichen put together a band of photography brothers and sisters to document the global carnage.  David Douglas Duncan took us inside the lives of the soldiers during the Korean War in an unfiltered way as evidenced in his book, This is War. Vietnam had its share of photographers—Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, and Larry Burrows among them.

South Carolina-based former Air Force combat photographer Stacy Pearsall’s war was Iraq. To document it, she not only had to deal with ISOs and f-stops but also contend with IEDs and RPGs, the latter two having ended her active military service, but fortunately not her life or photography career.

These days, Pearsall is the Director of the Charleston Center for Photography in addition to her editorial and advertising assignments and multimedia productions. Her Photojournalist’s Field Guide gives the reader insights into her award-winning career and offers valuable tips that can be applied in war and peace across a variety of photographic genres.

Mark Edward Harris: What’s the idea behind your new book?

Stacy Pearsall: I developed the guide for photographers who are operating in everyday photojournalism environments as well as those who work in high-risk environments. I focus on the things that you don’t necessarily learn in school or on the job: Preparing for assignments, selecting suitable attire for different environments, assembling essential camera gear, developing the right approach for a story, honing your shooting technique, and business practices for both the staffer and the day-to-day grind of a freelance photographer operating from home.

When you’re generating a story you have to think about all the different challenges you might face and having what you need to overcome those obstacles, so I’ve included checklists in the book. It’s one thing if you’re in the middle of a modern city where you have access to things; it’s quite another when you’re in a remote or hostile environment. Photographers are problem solvers, and we need the right instruments in our hands to do the job. You have to think about all the possible eventualities. Not just about the camera equipment you are going to need, but also the travel gear. For instance, not having the right electrical adaptors can create a major issue, especially in this digital age.

Mark: You’ve also included exercises in your book. I can’t think of another photo book to date that’s addressed the physicality of being a photojournalist in such detail. Many photographers have had their careers cut short by a bad back.

Stacy: Physical aptitude is very important in this field. Being on the road takes a toll on your body.  Exerting yourself, especially in high-risk environments, is especially difficult. You might be wearing some level of body protection—body armor or a knife proof vest — that adds weight in addition to all the camera gear. If you’re carrying a night pack with all your toiletries, that adds additional weight. So I discuss how to be physically fit in advance of any assignment, and when you’re on the road I show exercises that you can do to stay in shape.

Mark: Your book is divided into eight chapters, each with intriguing names. Give us a glimpse into the one entitled “Preparation: Everything but the Camera.”

Stacy: I talk about everything from body armor and when that’s a necessity, to clothing, including fire retardant material, and a sidebar for women. There are things women have to deal with that are part of nature no matter where we are, and I hadn’t found much literature on that. For instance, there’s body armor made specifically for women. I had to learn a lot of these things on my own. I also address working in different cultures where the women aren’t as liberal as they are in most of the West. If you’re in the Middle East, for instance, how does a female photographer approach men in that environment to get the story you need without drawing attention to yourself.

In another chapter, “My Shooting Methodology,” I talk about how to approach a story photographically and how to pay attention to the subtletiesof light. I discuss how contrast in light evokes certain emotions. On the technical side I talk about exposures, especially in difficult lighting scenarios.

Mark: You also cover your “10-Frame Methodology.” 

Stacy: In high-risk environments there’s a tendency toward kneejerk reactions. You’re moving really fast and you have adrenalin pumping.  I talk about my method of slowing down and watching when the action is happening and putting myself in front of it and letting it come to me instead of chasing it all the time. You could spend all day chasing moments and never capturing one.  By ten frames I mean ten different moments. Photographers tend to take one photo and move on. If you just wait, maybe something magical will happen. Throughout this book I reference my military background. This is where a lot of my experiences come from. In terms of my 10-frame methodology I discuss being a sniper rather than a machine gunner. Learn to be patient and get into a position to make a good photograph and wait for the right moment.

Mark: The great French street photographer Willis Ronis told me that he detested the machine gunner approach to photography using a motordive. He felt that you had to earn the photograph. There are moments for the motordrive, but it should not be the default setting. So much of being a professional photojournalist is not about clicking the shutter.

Stacy: Maybe as a photographer only ten percent is behind the camera. Most of the time it’s generating story ideas, finding subjects that would be applicable, finding which publication would be the best home for the story. The financing of projects and keeping up with technology are important subjects that I cover.

Mark: In addition to sharing the camera techniques that have served you well on the battlefield, you have a chapter that is devoted to techniques that can be applied in non-life-and-death photographic fields ranging from travel to sports photography.

Stacy: My background is straight storytelling photojournalism—especially combat documentary work—so I have referenced some really wonderful photographers including Joe McNally, who is a magician with location lighting; Bill Frakes and Al Bello in the sports section; Michael Clark on adventure sports on the editorial/commercial cusp; and Carolyn Cole, one of the greatest photojournalists working today. I interviewed Bruce Strong for his input on multimedia. I reference those who really excel in their fields.

Mark: In a sense all photographers, all professions for that matter, have their own battlefields full of mines to cross to make it to the tops of their professions.

Stacy: Everything that a combat photographer faces can be applied to photographers working in other fields. Sports photographers are going to be dealing with fast paced, not always predictable action.  Photojournalists working on Capitol Hill have to learn how to maneuver around the bureaucracy and all the different personalities.

Finding the type of photography that makes an individual happy is going to make the job so much easier. Too many aspiring journalists come out of college thinking they are going to go into combat and make a name for themselves; that’s the wrong motivation for wanting to pursue a career like I did. It’s important to take an introspective look at why you’re doing what you’re doing. 

Mark: How did your photography career evolve?

Stacy: In high school I liked to draw and paint and wanted to go to an art school, but couldn’t afford it and didn’t want to burden my mother financially. My family is pretty much all military, so when I was 17 I enlisted in the Air Force with the guaranteed job of being a still photographer. It seemed like the logical thing to do.  I went to basic training in San Antonio, Texas, then to the Defense Information School in Washington, D.C., where I had a basic three-month photography course, which included processing and printing. When I came back from my first tour in Iraq, I went to the military photojournalism program at Syracuse University for the 2004-5 term.

Mark: When did you first put your photographic knowledge to the test in combat situations?

Stacy: My first real operational experience was aerial combat operations during my first tour in Iraq in 2003. Our job was to take supplies downrange and then pick up the wounded and fly back to Germany. Later that year I received orders to go into a ground position. I was mostly flying in Black Hawks but I did participate with Army Task Force units, Psychological Operations, Civil Affairs, and Special Forces. The lines are blurring between the military services these days. Staffing was hurting in some areas and the Army asked the Air Force to augment some positions, and Combat Camera was one of them.

Mark: What equipment did you work with?

Stacy: I always wore a photographer’s vest over my armor. In that I could put 
a load of ammo and camera gear. Normally I would carry two camera bodies. At that time I was shooting with a Nikon D2X mostly with the 17–55mm attached because I was in such close proximity to what I was photographing, especially on my last deployment in 2007. We were doing mostly house-to-house clearing and operations, so I really wouldn’t have to go out and touch somebody. My second lens was an 80-400mm. I would try to take two cameras, one with a long lens
and one with a short lens, and not change them during the operation. 

It’s really hard to combat dust there. We didn’t have time to shoot RAW because the whole point is to document the day and then that night caption and transmit, so I would shoot JPEG Fine.  Sometimes I would be out on a two- or three-day or even a weeklong operation, and transmission would have to wait until I came back. We had MR SATS, which is a satellite transmission system then—a specialized system that was made for the Department of Defense. Depending on the type of operation I would carry either a 9mm pistol or a long weapon. That’s what we call a rifle such as an M16 or an M4. It’s much easier to concentrate on photography when just carrying the side arm.

Mark: Did you use flash at all?

Stacy: No. Flash could be a detriment to operations because you would be giving away your position. To offset the inability to use flash sometimes we would use KEM lights, little plastic tubes that you break and they’ll glow. You can throw those in rooms at night if you’re trying to get some nighttime lifestyle sort of stuff. If there are mortar rounds, they have illuminating rounds and you could just wait until one of those goes off. I’ve taken night pictures with headlights. You learn to be resourceful. My pictures that won the Combat Picture of the Year the second time was shot at two in the morning in Baqubah at around 800 ISO.

Mark: You twice have been named the Military Photographer of the Year (in addition to being awarded a Bronze Star, two Air Medals and Commendation with Valor for actions under fire).  What was your approach that made your photographs stand out?

Stacy: I tried to show the viewers something unique as to what life is really like out there. So I did a series of photographs trying to convey more about what the soldiers were feeling than what they were doing. One particular picture story I called Band of Brothers. I was really lucky to live and operate with them so that I became like a sister. Eventually I was like a fly on the wall and they ignored me. So when those terrible things happened like one of our friends died, they didn’t think twice when I brought my camera up to my face to take those emotional pictures. I think it’s those photos that made the story hit home for the viewers.

Mark: You were wounded on several occasions, which eventually led to you having to end your active service. What happened?

Stacy: A series of IEDs weakened my neck and led up to my final injury. Toward the end of my third tour in Iraq we were ambushed in a small town called Buhriz, which was overrun with al-Qaeda forces. We were traveling in a line of strikers along a very narrow road, and when we headed around this 90-degree turn an IED blast went off, which incapacitated the first striker. So the engineers from another striker deployed out to go help recover the downed striker. We were funneled in by the enemy forces on the rooftops. Then an RPG struck the recovery team. So the recovery team became the ones that needed to be recovered. The guys in my striker deployed out to retrieve the wounded. I stayed in the striker to man the M240 machine gun. All during the firefight they were dragging the wounded toward my striker. I saw one guy with a really bad neck laceration was unconscious, so I dropped my ramp and ran out to get him but I still had my striker helmet on, which had a communications cord attached to the inside. So when I ran, the cord went tight and I was yanked off my feet and slammed down on my head and neck. It was ultimately the last thing my neck could take. I got up and carried the guy back to the striker and performed medical 
aid on him and some of the other wounded until we got back to FOB (Forward Operating Base) Warhorse where we were stationed.

I had X-rays done, which came back pretty bad, so they airlifted me out to Balad Air Base for a CAT Scan. After viewing the results the doctor said, “You can’t go back. One more hit could sever your spinal cord.” So that was it.

Mark: Back home you continue to create dynamic photographs in addition to disseminating information on photography through your workshops in A Photojournalist's Field Guide. What do you hope people will take away from this book?

Stacy: I had to fall on my face many times and get back up. It wasn’t the easy way to learn my craft. No matter what the photographer’s goals are, my hope is I can save them some of those skinned knees and give them some ideas of how to approach and find success in this wonderful profession of ours.

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