HIGH POINT -- For Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, there was one thing scarier than being a combat photographer -- not being a combat photographer.
But when an injury in 2007 ended her military career, that's the uncertain future Pearsall faced.
"I was in denial," recalls Pearsall, who suffered head trauma and a spinal injury in a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq. "I went through about 18 months of therapy and rehab -- I tried hard to stay in the military -- but doctors suggested that I not wear body armor anymore, and if you can't wear body armor, you can't go to combat. My fate was sort of sealed."
Pearsall, who has since reinvented herself in a number of ways -- including through her widely acclaimed Veterans Portrait Project -- will share her inspiring story during a program Thursday evening at High Point University.
In addition, the HIgh Point Museum will host an exhibit, "A Picture of Courage," featuring two dozen of Pearsall's most compelling images from her stint as an award-winning combat photographer. The 16-by-24-inch photos are printed on aluminum, giving them an edginess that makes them even more compelling, according to Pearsall.
The exhibit will open Thursday, the same day she'll be speaking at HPU.
"You're going to laugh and you're going to cry," Pearsall says of her lecture, which is free and open to the public. "It's basically my story -- the ups and downs of my experiences in war and after, and what I'm doing now. I think everyone has a talent, and sometimes they don't recognize that within themselves until they try -- and I think I'm a good example of that."
Pearsall, of Charleston, S.C., became an Air Force photographer when she was 17, initially processing film for about four years before applying to be a combat photographer.
What would compel a young woman -- or anyone, for that matter -- to want to be a combat photographer?
"I can't imagine any person who trains every day to be the best at what their field offers not wanting to be a combat photographer," Pearsall says. "That's the top echelon of military photographers, so I wanted to be there."
And she did it well. She was one of only two women to win the National Press Photographers Association's Military Photographer of the Year award, and the only woman to win it twice.
"I just shot for the troops," Pearsall says of her work. "I tried to pack as much information and emotion as I could into one frame. I found my biggest weakness was my biggest strength, and that was really getting in touch with my subjects. Most of the time, if they were suffering, so was I. I shot what was around me and tried to convey that energy with the use of light and body language. Combat is chaos, but the camera kept me separated from reality long enough to do the job at hand."
In addition to capturing the sometimes graphic horrors of war, Pearsall says she also tried to show the humanity of those people fighting the war.
"I think people tend to document the most obvious thing -- the trauma, the gore -- because if you're going to war and documenting war, that's the first thing you think of to cover," she says.
"But my curiosity stems from people in the U.S. thinking our American soldiers are invincible. I wanted to show they are just human beings. They had friends and family. They had emotions. There was downtime, moments of levity, moments of calm, and I wanted to make sure people back here saw that. You'll see some of the human toll of war in my work, but you'll also see those softer sides of American soldiers."
Pearsall admits being a combat photographer was a dangerous job, but she chose not to dwell on that.
"I really never chose to think of myself as being in a dangerous situation," she says. "If you dwell on that, it can be all-consuming, so my way of coping with that was just to acknowledge today could be my last day, and then move on."
When Pearsall was injured and told she could no longer be a combat photographer, the military offered her a teaching position, but she declined.
"I was accustomed to going 100 miles per hour, and teaching would've been the equivalent of stopping at a dead standstill," she explains. "That really didn't appeal to me."
After her retirement from the service, Pearsall went through a period of depression and even bitterness as she found herself spending long hours in VA waiting rooms for treatment. It was also in those waiting rooms, though -- surrounded by veterans from every generation and branch of service -- that she found inspiration for the next phase of her life, the Veterans Portrait Project, in which she photographs America's veterans.
"It was a way to get the camera back in my hands, and to prove I could have an occupation that didn't require going into combat," she says. "And it was a way I could give something back to my fellow veterans."
To date, Pearsall has photographed about 5,600 veterans in about 60 cities across the country, she says.
"And I don't plan to stop anytime soon -- there are millions of veterans out there," she adds. "This has been a labor of love and very therapeutic, not only for myself but also for the people I photograph. It's an opportunity for them to tell their story."
In photographing the veterans and hearing their stories, Pearsall says she has found a common bond with them, no matter their generation, gender or race.
"There's a camaraderie there -- we're family," she says. "Nothing can separate that from one veteran to another, and I find that really beautiful."