Kontum Diary

Meet Paul Reed, who’s a veteran of the Vietnam War. For years, he lived with the guilt of taking life. The feelings became too much, and he receded from society, he lost everything and eventually he became homeless.

After some time, he moved home with his mother. She’d kept his war mementos he’d sent home all those years ago. One of those items was a diary he’d taken from a Vietnamese soldier he’d engaged, and presumably killed, on the battlefield.

His mother encouraged him to get it translated. That he did, and the Vietnamese soldier’s writings changed Reed’s heart and soul.

Reed set on a journey to return the soldier’s items to his widow. Upon arriving in Vietnam, Reed discovered the soldier wasn’t dead! Together, they visited the battlefield where they’d last met and began healing together.

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Once enemies, they’re true friends today. You can learn more about Reed’s story in the book Kontum Diary, or check out the documentary by PBS.
Kontum Diary: Captured Writings Bring Peace to a Vietnam Veteran

VPP at Raritan High School in Hazlet, NJ

I was invited by high school teacher, Teresa Genneralli, to bring the Veterans Portrait Project to Hazlet, NJ. Naturally, I said yes. It was an opportunity for me to teach students, reach out to a new community and photograph veterans all at the same time. Teresa included another teacher, Rosemarie Wilkinson, whose students were going to interview the veterans and write-up something on each other them. She was also nice enough to house my assistant, Trish, and me for our brief visit.

Here’s a quick video showcasing the Raritan High School VPP session and educational outreach day!

It was wonderful to hear the young students say, “Thank you for your service,” to the veterans. Plus, the students did a great job behind the camera! See for yourself below…

Click HERE to see the gallery portraits the students captured during our time with the veterans.

VFW Conventions 2013 and 2014

VFW Conventions 2013 and 2014

In 2013, We were located in Louisville, Kentucky, and in 2014 the VFW convention brought us to St. Louis, Missouri. These were my first times being in both states, and for a fun fact, my husband is the last remaining plank owner currently on the USS Missouri SSN 780, so I had some goodies to give out at the Missouri location of the VFW Convention.


[This was made after we set up the Veterans Portrait Project booth in 2014 located at St. Louis, Missouri.]

I believe I can speak for Stacy as well that these conventions can be overwhelming, but just like every location, it is also rewarding. To seeing a D-Day survivor, twin brothers who both served, WWII veterans, to just so many wonderful examples, you feel the need to absorb every story they are telling you even though your brain simply isn’t capable. Every photographing day at the VFW convention Stacy photographs almost one hundred veterans, and even I find myself in awe to her machine-like capabilities!


[Stacy Pearsall, me, and Ashley Brokop (another great combat photographer veteran) at the VFW Convention after set up in 2013.]

The first time Ashley Brokop and I assisted with the convention in 2013, she wrote on her blog about her experience. You can read about her inspiration and thoughts about the VFW Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, here.


[Veterans wait patiently and chat at the Veterans Portrait Project booth in the VFW Convention located in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 20, 2013.]

At the VFW Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2014, we were visited by some who were photographed at the previous convention. It was nice to see familiar faces knowing they’re still doing well!


[These twin brothers first visited us at the VFW Convention in 2013. They came by in 2014 to say hello. They are two of four brothers total. All four served in the military, and very fortunately all four returned home. Can you imagine their mother’s stress and worry while they were out?]

As stated earlier, there are so many stories we hear. One I have been able to remember was a couple who had been together for 45 years and it began when the guy wanted to marry the girl of his dreams. The father of the girl said if she would not date anyone and not go to prom while he was out serving in Vietnam, he’d allow it. The girl waited patiently on the home front, never dating even one and stayed at home the night of prom. When the guy got back from serving his country, the first thing he did was knock on the door where the love of his life was staying. Her father answered the door, and the guy (in uniform) said, “I still want to marry your daughter.” Forty five years later, I was in tears hearing their story as they waited to have his photograph taken by Stacy. They even had another wife of a veteran in tears. I could tell their love was not a show, and whether your husband was deployed (which mine was at the time) or you’re single, you could not keep your eyes dry on their love story. Thank you, Mike Pierson, for this story I have kept in my mind at least two years, and probably many more!


[An old photograph made during the Korean War with Joseph P. in the driver seat {top}. Joseph P., a Korean War Veteran, and I pose for a photo after our long chat {bottom}. Photographed at the VFW Convention in St. Louis, Missouri.]

There are also the unexpected stories you hear from a veteran who simply needed help with showing some photographs on his computer. This was with Joseph P., Korean War Veteran shown above, and we talked for quite sometime. What I can remember was he was born in 1932. He showed me a photo of the beach he was at in 1952 then returned in 2009 and the differences were remarkable. He had a twin who passed away after 32 hours, and has been a Mac user since 1989. You never know what you’re going to find out until you ask just one question.

We are looking forward to photographing more conventions in the future so we’ll have more stories to pack in our minds.

© Veterans portraits by Stacy L. Pearsall, Behind the Scenes images and story by Des’ola Mecozzi

VPP Introduction

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.

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[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.

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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.

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[I wait for veterans to arrive at the VFW Post in Tomball, Texas.]

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[I figure out the set-up of the VPP studio at the 2013 VFW Convention held in Louisville, Kentucky.]

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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