How Combat Photographer Stacy Pearsall Got One of Military’s Highest Honors

Between the ages of 21 and 27, military photographer Stacy Pearsall captured over 500,000 images across 41 different countries. She is the first woman ever to win the Military Photographer of the Year twice, “giving the boys a run for their money.”

Editorial – Images by Stacy Pearsall

Growing up with a love for photography and also born into a long line of military men and women, it was no surprise that when Stacy turned 17, she joined the United States Air Force, signing on to take photographs on the front lines of combat. She trained at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) outside of Washington, DC and then headed to Nebraska for four years working with the Joint Intelligence Center to process thousands of feet of infrared spy plane film. At only 21 years old, she was then accepted to the elite 1st Combat Camera Squadron based in Charleston, South Carolina.

That’s when my photography career really started,” Stacy said. “My first few months in the Squadron were the most challenging, personally and technically as a photographer. I learned how to ingest digital files from the camera and transmit them via satellite all over the world, how to take images from the open ramp of a C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft at 14,000 feet, how to fire a weapon on a target while moving, how to tactically drive armored vehicles, and how to navigate terrain using only a topographical map and a compass.”

Stacy admits that as a female, the pressures to succeed were real and challenged her to deliver without fail:

As a woman, I felt the pressure to perform without error because I had the critical eyes of my peers watching me closely — always ready for me to make a mistake. I suppose it was my perception of the situation, versus actuality. No matter what, It drove me to work harder and harder.

In 2003, Stacy was sent to her first combat mission in Iraq. In the years that followed, she traveled to the Horn of Africa, Lebanon, and back to Iraq. She spent an average of 280 days a year away from home covering a range of military operations from combat assault missions to humanitarian relief missions. But all the while, her purpose was clear:

My primary goal was getting real-time combat imagery from the battlefield to the Joint Combat Camera Center in Washington DC. The President, Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff used my pictures to make informed decisions on military tactics and maneuvers in the battle space. The photos were also disseminated to news agencies such as the Associated Press and Getty Images and were picked up by several newspapers, magazines and online newsgathering sites.

Stacy’s portfolio expanded to include hundreds of thousands of photos, which she put all on her hard-drive — all vulnerable to the dangers of her surroundings. As she headed off on her last deployment in 2007, she realized that if in harms way, her photos could be destroyed in an instant. That’s when she turned to PhotoShelter as a safe haven for her work. And it was a good thing she did.

During my last combat tour in Iraq, I was awarded the Bronze Star, for actions under fire. However, I was wounded in action too and flown to a field hospital, leaving behind my camera equipment and storage units. As I lay in the hospital bed, I began to wonder what was going to happen to all of my hard-earned images and would I ever see them again. Then I thought to myself, at least I have them saved on PhotoShelter.

Now far from combat zones, Stacy works as an editorial and commercial photographer, author, educator and consultant. She addresses influential military leaders, celebrities, former presidents, and Fortune 500 companies as a keynote speaker. She knows firsthand the importance of an effective online portfolio and website. She thanks PhotoShelter for the capabilities to present and showcase her work to people all over the world.

Commercial – Images by Stacy Pearsall

Her mission continues off the battlefield with the Veterans Portrait Project (VPP). Stacy began the VPP in Charleston, SC, while recovering from her combat injuries. While she sat for hours in waiting rooms, she couldn’t help but to notice the men and women around her. She reached out to hear the stories of veterans from every branch of service, generation and conflict and felt inspired to bring her camera and take their portraits, leading to the project that now fills the walls of a number of VA Hospitals across the United States.

Today, Stacy continues her project and has photographed over a 1,000 veterans from coast to coast. What started as Stacy’s path to recovery and healing has now grown into her personal mission to honor and thank her brothers and sisters for their service in the best way she knows how: photography.

Vet Portraits – Images by Stacy Pearsall

“I love PhotoShelter,” Stacy said. “I started really utilizing the website features and gave my clients, and the veterans I photograph, their images in a timely, easily-downloadable way — no more cd’s, dvd’s, hard drives and shipments. My site is a simple clean white background with a few featured galleries and a nameplate at the top, which I created independently with my brand colors and design. On my business cards, I’ve showcased my PhotoShelter site so potential clients and students may see my most up-to-date images and videos.”

Stacy also takes advantage of social media platforms to market her work and uses PhotoShelter’s sharing features to post new images to Facebook, Twitter, and her blog. “Like most folks these days, I’m into social media and I find it’s a neat way to showcase my work without having to upload my work directly to those sites,” Stacy said. “This also allows my clients to share their images with a simple click of the button.”

Aside from her professional endeavors, Stacy also donated her talents and raises awareness for disabled veteran’s groups including the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW), Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and American Legion. For her philanthropic efforts, she’s been lauded a White House Champion of Change by President Obama, honored with an Honorary Doctoral Degree from The Citadel, presented the Margaret Corbin Cochran Award by the Daughters of the American Revolution and recognized as Air Force Veteran of the Year by PBS and the Air Force Band.

About the author: Deborah Block is the Content Marketing Manager at the photography website provider PhotoShelter. This article originally appeared here.

  • Ryan

    She has some really good work.

  • Peter “Pots”

    I am glad I had the opportunity to become aware of her achievements…Thanks PetaPixel!

  • steve

    Think this is more a sales article for photoshelter.

  • Tobias W.

    Nice photography, but I question the relevance of her work in a greater context when in essence, she produces the sanctioned, shiny image the military wants to be seen in. This is by definition the opposite of what freelance war photographers working for the free press and media do at far greater risk, with far greater impact on society and politics. Her work on the other side, serves more or less one purpose: portray the work and actions of the US military as a good force and justify it visually. These images will probably also be used as a resource in recruiting marketing.

    Someone with her talent should think about putting her skills to better use and produce work, that doesn’t only serve the interest of the military. Her work promoting veterans is a great start. I wonder why no photography related to disabled veterans was shared with this blog post. I am pretty sure while she is enlisted and supposed to produce shiny, heroic images of the military, anything that portrays the vulnerability and dire consequences of being in the military is probably not too well received by her employer. When the coffins of US soldiers came back in air planes after the Iraq war, there were reports of the military censoring and sanctioning photographs of these scenes. It is in this context I look at the shiny, heroic images that make up her portfolio and I think to myself: “what a fake, make believe world she is showing there…”. War looks very different. The photographs of US soldiers in theaters of war by press photographers look VERY different from these “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” computer game characters she photographed.

    I am aware that my comment will be received as “not patriotic” and maybe over the edge when this site is just about good photography. But then again, I don’t need to be patriotic and it’s OK to make people think about what they’re looking at. I am from a different country with a very different history resulting in a very different view on the military in general. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the military. I am an officer of the reserve myself with two years of active duty in several places across the world. It’s just very easy to get allergic to marketing material like this that clearly only shows one side of the story in high gloss fashion. Yes, it’s really good photography. But it’s also very biased propaganda for very specific purpose.

  • Tobias W.

    And for joining the US military.

  • Mr Hogwallop

    Your last sentence say what it is. This is nothing new.
    Not everyone is going for the Pulitzer Prize. Working for the military most likely means she will do what they say as they have an idea of what point they want to get across. Gotta toe the company line.
    Do you think Pete Souza has a lot of freedom to show the ‘gritty side’ of the whitehouse…doubtful.If she worked for a a news agency the pictures would be alot different.
    The veteran images are nice.

    and like everything else on Petapixle these days, if it’s not TMZ like click bait its a plug for a company, like Photoshelter.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Wonderful images, but am I missing something, or does this at no point actually address how she got her star?

    Oh well. At least it lets us know what a great company PhotoShelter is. PhotoShelter is great! PhotoShelter PhotoShelter PhotoShelter!

  • flightofbooks

    She’s a commercial photographer. Her client just happens to be the military-industrial complex. It’s what it is.

  • Johnny

    I used to weigh 250 lbs. I had a hard time staying away from the snacks and desserts throughout the day. I suppose I had no willpower, and it showed. But thanks to Photoshelter, they were able to keep my raw images safe from disaster. Suddenly, I no longer worried about losing my precious photos, so the desire to snack just dissipated. And the pounds just fell off! I now have a purpose in life, and that’s to share the good news about Photoshelter! What a godsend!

  • meghan

    I totally agree with the fact that imagery released has to go through a public affairs team to get vetted before it’s considered for public consumption (ie no blood, nothing that shows tactics, etc); but as a medically retired videographer we document EVERYTHING. Good and bad.

    Some of the imagery is used for psyops in country to promote the locals to get involved with government, to turn in Taliban, attend medical events where the military provides immunizations and other small medical help, etc.

    Civilian media have similar standards when releasing imagery and also must go through public affairs if they want to be attached to a military unit at all. Their standards are a little less strict than ours though.

    But our greater mission was to document missions for company commanders to see what is really happening, enemy tactics, how much damage their weapons can cause, realistic conditions the locals are living in, even footage that could be used as evidence if there are suspected war crimes by our own people if escalation of force is not followed.

    Of course the military censors what is released to the public, so does any other company. They’re not going to release images of anyone (our guys or locals) that have been hit by an IED or have major trauma unless they’re in hospital. Same for other imagery including people rescued from Taliban torture camps because it would compromise those individuals and it’s extremely graphic. Plus they have to deal with trying to even out the coverage of everything via large news outlets that really only cover and play up negative news. How many good stories about Iraq or Afghanistan do CNN or FOX news show? Less than 1% if any. It doesn’t sell.

    Google Stacy Pearsall and you’ll read the same article and almost exact same wording to 50 different outlets. She’s made herself the poster child of women in combat. As much as I wasn’t a fan of her when she was active you have to give it to her for being shamelessly self promoting. It’s working.

  • meghan

    She’s a commercial photog now, but was active when the “combat” shots were taken

  • meghan

    Google Stacy Pearsall and she’ll tell you herself in about 40 different articles. She has the story pretty down pat now.

  • Randell

    The one thing I really noticed in these images – It’s difficult to tell the difference between the Police and the Army.

  • flightofbooks

    Take a look at her combat portfolio. It’s processed and edited to look like an ad shoot. Which, again, makes perfect sense since her job as a DoD combat photog is to be produce advertisements for the Pentagon’s mission.

  • meghan

    I am intimately aware of what she says happened. I was in her squadron

  • Francisco José

    Amazing work!