Stacey Pearsall’s more than 6,000 veteran portraits are like snowflakes (lately Atlanta is all too familiar with snowflakes): No two are the same.
Pearsall started the Veterans Portrait Project in late 2008. The goal, according to a video on the project’s website, is to “show that every veteran is an individual of themselves and has a unique story.” Little more than the subject’s military background is consistent across Pearsall’s black-and-white portraits. In one, a woman in uniform kisses a baby. In another, a piece of duct tape with “Top Secret” scribbled across it covers a man’s mouth. A couple of canines are even profiled.
“Everybody has someone in their life that is a veteran or knows a veteran,” says Pearsall. The Veterans Portrait Project spans every generation and branch of the military. She aims to photograph veterans from all states and provinces the U.S. Department of Defense recruits from; currently she’s visited 65 cities across 27 states. On Dec. 9 and 10, she photographed more than 30 veterans in the Woodruff Arts Center.
Each session is tailored to the veteran. Pearsall tells her subjects to wear something that represents who they are: Sometimes they show up in military uniforms; other times, street clothes. She asks questions about the veteran’s time in the military, their fondest memory of the service and the people they met in the armed forces.
“It starts with a conversation and being aware and cognizant of veterans’ nonverbal gestures,” says Pearsall. “As we continue to talk, I bring them into the studio. I quiet my mouth and open my ears.”
All of her subjects leave with a copy of their portrait. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever had their picture taken by a professional photographer. “Most are surprised that they look that good and that the portrait really looks like them,” says Pearsall.
Pearsall, herself an Air Force veteran, describes the project as “an emotionally cathartic, physically healing tool.” She joined the Air Force at age 17 and did three combat tours, earning the Bronze Star Medal and Air Force Commendation with Valor. Her combat photography is known internationally; Pearsall is the only woman to have won the National Press Photographers Association’s Military Photographer of the Year award twice. In 2007, injuries sustained from an IED blast in Iraq caused her to retire from the military. The Veterans Portrait Project was her way of using her talents to continue serving and to thank those who had also served.
“I think every individual has a gift that they can offer veterans. The one thing I can assure people of is my ability to take a good portrait,” says Pearsall. “I encourage anyone who’s thought about thanking a veteran but doesn’t know how to look at what sort of things are inside them and see how they can offer their unique talents to veterans.”
More than 40 of Pearsall’s photographs will hang in The Woodruff Arts Center’s Beauchamp C. Carr Gallery. The exhibition is free to the public and will remain on display until Jan. 16.