A behind the scenes look at Stacy Pearsall’s Veterans Portrait Project as she travels across the United States taking portraits of American military veterans.
[I start the shoot day with a self-portrait while visiting the VFW Post in Pleasanton, California.]
Black-and-white photos of WWII, Korean, Vietnam, OEF and OIF veterans make up just a portion of my Veterans Portrait Project (VPP). Some of my subjects are smiling, and others are gazing at a distant point, but in each, an unseen light catches the emotion in their eyes.
As a veteran of more recent wars, I try to capture the veteran’s character and the experience etched in their faces while listening to their recollections of war and their time in service.
Like most photographers’ personal projects, I’d begun the VPP without any intent of it getting so immense and far reaching. I certainly didn’t anticipate it would have such an enormous societal impact. Really, it started as a gift of my talents to my fellow veterans – a free portrait as my way of saying, “Thank you for your service.” During the course of my physical rehabilitation from combat injuries in 2008, I brought my camera and mini-studio to my doctor’s appointments. I took ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, eighty portraits of veterans at a time. However many I could manage in the window of time I was afforded.
Eventually, I began to set up my studio at my local Veterans Administration (VA) hospital outside of my appointment times and spent four to six hours taking veterans’ portraits. A creative director from the VA asked to see some of the portraits I was producing. She liked them so much; she asked if a permanent exhibition of the work could be displayed prominently down the main hall of the medical facility.
I was gob smacked. I’d never intended the portraits to be seen by anyone other than the veteran and myself. Alas, the exhibit was installed with prints larger than life, and each veteran’s name and branch of service showcased alongside. People from the region traveled in to see the exhibit, and what started as a personal project evolved into a fulltime philanthropic endeavor.
Veterans who’d sat for a portrait in Charleston, South Carolina, told their friends in North Carolina and Georgia and the word kept spreading further and further out. They all wanted me to bring the fledgling project to their areas and do the same thing for their veterans. Quiet frankly, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from individuals and organizations such as USAA and the Veterans of Foreign War, and the enthusiasm of veterans who wanted to be part of the VPP.
Furthermore, as a wounded combat veteran every portrait I took brought me one step closer to being healed. I’d found my path to recovery occupationally, physically and most importantly, emotionally.
[I wait for veterans to arrive at the VFW Post in Tomball, Texas.]
[I figure out the set-up of the VPP studio at the 2013 VFW Convention held in Louisville, Kentucky.]
With the support of USAA, I set about taking the VPP on a nationwide tour in 2013. I traveled with an eight-foot white roll paper background that I shipped in a homemade PVC pipe container my husband made.
I had four Elinchrom BXRi 500 compact flash heads, a Gossen Digisky light meter, a strip softbox, a square softbox, two reflector dishes, a Manfrotto backdrop stand, six Manfrotto stackable light stands, two A-clamps, two Justin clamps, four extension cables, two power strips, a collapsible foot stool, a gardener’s foam knee pad, two hundred model release forms, two clipboards, twenty pens, spare flash tubes, spare modeling light bulbs, Gaffer’s tape and a multi-tool. All of this equipment was distributed into my Kata LW-97W PL and LW-88W PL organizer cases and the light stands and backdrop system were transported in a Kata LS series bag. In total, my entire portable studio systems weights in around 150 pounds.
I didn’t want to chance any rough handling by airport workers, or risk having my camera bag be a no-show at my arrival destination so I always carried my two Nikon D800 camera bodies, and a variety of NIKKOR lenses, my laptop, hard drives and other essential accessories with me at all times.
Often, I’d have to fly on smaller regional jets and my gear just barely fit in the overhead. In those instances, I’d have to keep it at my feet.
Once I arrived, each location offered new problems that needed to be solved whether that was low ceilings, space restrictions, power shortages, high foot traffic and the like.
If I wanted to do any full-length portraits, I needed a minimum of a ten by twenty foot space. I had to make sure there was enough distance between the background and subject, so the light didn’t spill over onto the subject’s face. And also needed enough camera-to-subject distance to achieve compositional flexibility.
© Veterans portraits and story by Stacy L. Pearsall, Behind the Scenes images by Des’ola Mecozzi