Photos: Life as a combat photographer
'In our opinion, the camera is the most powerful weapon in war'
By Stacy Pearsall, special to HLN
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Fri June 28, 2013
Editor’s note: Stacy Pearsall is a former Air Force combat photographer. She is featured in the HLN Independence Day Special, “Stories of Courage: Soldiers' Songs.” Tune in for this special presentation at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, July 4.
Like many other typical couple, I met my spouse, Andy Dunaway, at work.
As photojournalists assigned to the elite 1st Combat Camera Squadron, we traveled the globe documenting military combat operations, humanitarian relief efforts and joint exercises. Our work was primarily for news purposes, but it also served as visual situational reports for the White House and Pentagon. In some ways, we were also historians -- often the only journalists on-site for some of the fiercest battles in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
In our opinion, the camera is the most powerful weapon in war. As combat photographers, we faced the complicated challenge of finding a balance between our roles as photojournalists and our dedication to military duties. After all, there wasn’t a manual with the answer to every possible scenario regarding when to shoot our cameras, and when to shoot our guns. We had to rely on gut instincts, closely assess each situation and act as our consciences dictated. Our decisions were largely based on how dire the situation was, and whether our contributions behind the gun would help save the lives of military men and women.
To best keep our occupational priorities in perspective, my husband and I carried the Beretta M9 handgun vs. our longer issued M4 rifles. By having our handguns holstered on our thigh, we had our hands free, and our minds clear enough to concentrate on camera operations and documenting the combat instead of engaging in it. Our job was to photograph the soldiers doing their job. And in many ways we entrusted our lives into their hands to do the same.
When the camera was to our face, we couldn’t see anything except what was in our lens’s field-of-view; we had no idea what was left, right or behind us. That in mind, it was even more imperative that we were aware of our surroundings so as not to put anyone else at unnecessary risk. We’d drive down the fear of death, focus on our mission and put all our effort into photography.
When the bullets weren’t flying, we endeavored to show what life was like during the lull. Since we lived, slept, ate and worked in the same places as the soldiers, it wasn’t too difficult. Perhaps the biggest challenge in that regard was breaking down their proverbial barriers, so they’d just be themselves. Over time we’d get past the tough-soldier persona, strip away the uniform and expose the vulnerable human being the lay underneath. It became as though we weren’t there; they’d shed their clothes for a shower, spoon each other at night to stay warm, cry freely over the loss of a comrade, and hug each other during their moments of bereavement.
We wanted to show the world what happened so that it didn’t go unrecognized. Ten or 20 years down the road, people will look back, and our pictures will be there as evidence of these wars and the soldiers who fought them. There’s satisfaction in our profession as combat photographers because we’ve had the distinct honor of immortalizing the heroism exhibited by young American men and women in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Plus, we’re both equally as proud to have honorably served a combined 32 years in the military ourselves.
Though both retired from service, we’re still dedicated to each other, photography and the military. We own a small business in South Carolina called the Charleston Center for Photography where we teach photography to amateurs, enthusiasts and professionals; we document veterans nationwide through still photography, audio and video with the Veterans Portrait Project; and we continue awareness campaigns through live speeches, public service announcements and news outlets regarding the struggles faced by combat veterans today.
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