IN JUNE 2003, Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall was new to Iraq, and she still got a rush from the “combat entry” landing, as the pilot hurtled the plane into a downward spiral in darkness to outmaneuver enemy fire.
Baghdad international airport was the Wild West. But Pearsall wasn’t coming to shoot Iraqis -- though she would eventually shoot at them. She was there to shoot pictures.
The rosy dawn looked like fire on that hot morning, and Pearsall worried that daylight would make her medical mission a target as they waited for a badly wounded young man. As they loaded him onto the plane, Pearsall snapped away. The man was likely to be a double amputee and was concerned about how he would cope.
“I remember the anguish on his face,” said Pearsall, who, at 28, has won numerous awards. “When you take pictures like that it’s etched in your mind forever.”
Pearsall is one of nine military combat photojournalists whose work will appear in “Eye of the Storm: War Through the Lens of American Combat Photographers” at the Reform Gallery at West Hollywood. Pearsall will attend Saturday’s opening, which is timed to coincide with Memorial Day weekend and will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project.
At a time when the Iraq war is ubiquitous yet strangely remote, this exhibition brings home the conflict from the point of view of the military waging it. This war lacks the triumphant lyricism of liberated concentration camps or flags over Iwo Jima. Iraq imagery is as viral as the digital cameras that made the abuse at Abu Ghraib, photographed by troops, one of the war’s most enduring visual symbols. But this conflict, set in dramatic high relief against an austere biblical desert, is dangerous to photograph. Danger means distance.
The military photographers run with the troops, and their immersion can be as intimate as Marine Cpl. Samuel Corum’s shot of the guys camping on cots in their skivvies.
These photographers are uniformed and always armed in combat, said Pearsall, a member of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Air Force 1st Combat Camera Squadron. They’re targets and sometimes combatants. “I have fired back at the enemy, but whether I hurt, wounded or killed I do not know,” Pearsall said. “That’s the trade-off. It’s soldier first.”
Pearsall doesn’t strive for the lexicon of objectivity. She peppers her anecdotes with partisan phrases like “the bad guys.” She was once so bloodied rescuing wounded troops and performing first aid that another sergeant burned her uniform afterward. She weeps as she tells how her unit’s members died in a booby-trapped house in Baqubah in 2007. She felt guilty for not being with “my guys” but blessed to be alive.
Dane Jensen, the West Coast sales associate of the Moss Gallery, said he decided to curate the exhibit after seeing military photos online. He said the military was enthusiastic, especially since proceeds go to the nonprofit that helps veterans.
“Some people will say the images are whitewashed,” Jensen said. “There is some censorship -- it was, ‘Here are the images that are released that we want you to see.’ When they shoot photographs they choose a side, but sometimes it’s a side the media doesn’t report on, like the humanitarian work the soldiers do.” In addition, “They’re wearing the same uniform as the people they’re photographing, so they’re more emotionally available to their brethren.”
Some of the photographers would like to follow the path of Eddie Adams, who moved from the Marines to the mainstream press. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for a photo of a Vietnamese general executing a prisoner with a pistol on a Saigon street in 1968.
Today’s U.S. military photos already appear from time to time in mainstream American media, military spokesmen say, via military photos posted for public use.
Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press, said the AP distributes fewer than two dozen military photographs a year. Newspapers must decide whether to print the caption identifying them as military photos, he said.
“On occasion, if there is no other access, we take a military handout, but we try to limit that and press for our own access,” Lyon said. “People are using them if there’s nothing else. I would always argue for independent media access before any military-produced information.”
Unseen by the public are the photos documenting sensitive special forces missions or intelligence photos of so-called high value targets -- suspected Iraqi terrorists. Also off-limits are shots that might reveal security weaknesses.
‘Innocent to the war’
THE IMAGES approved for the exhibition are as varied as the photographers.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Bailey followed U.S. troops kicking in doors of abandoned houses on a 120-degree day in the northwestern Iraqi town of Tal Afar in 2007. An Iraqi woman opened the door into one courtyard, and Bailey entered a quiet, cool room where a little boy was asleep on the floor, “innocent to the war that raged around him, as if one could just take a nap and make it all go away,” Bailey told the curators.
“To come across something like that really puts things in perspective, what these civilians go through,” Bailey said by phone a few minutes before he graduated from the military photojournalism program at Syracuse University. “The future of that country lies with a generation that has grown up with poverty, neglect and warfare,” Bailey said. “Whose side will they take? Will they be pro-American or anti-American?”
Air Force Staff Sgt. Cherie Thurlby traveled to the remote Afghan village of Aroki in Kapisa province with the 48th Combat Support Hospital. A boy of 8 brought his badly burned baby sister by donkey. A boy of 5 led the ailing family cow. Teenage girls brought infants who might have been siblings or their own. When the girls unveiled, Thurlby asked if she could take their pictures, and they nodded eagerly, yielding images of imploring, upturned faces suffused with hope and desperation.
Such photos might inspire sympathy for the U.S. military. But if they’re intended as propaganda, some don’t do a very good job.
SAN DIEGO-based Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Watkins captured the spooky terror of the war in 2007, with a nighttime shot of heavily armed U.S. special forces standing by a door, with a barking German shepherd straining at its leash. Their high-beamed nightscopes cut into the darkness. Their faces are masked with night goggles that tint the photograph in ghoulish greens.
Would anyone willingly open the door to these scary trick-or-treaters?
In Army Staff Sgt. Mike Pryor’s 2007 photograph of a night patrol, the American troops look as alien as astronauts on the moon as they try, in the words of one platoon leader, “to pick a fight.” “At higher levels, the talk may have been about reconciliation and engagement,” Pryor reflected in his statement, “but out with the grunts, the law of the jungle still applied.”
The difference in the usual journalistic rules of engagement is as evident as the M-16 over the shoulder of Army Staff Sgt. Russell Klika.
There are no photos of Iraqis screaming at Americans, no terrified families cringing on the floor while U.S. troops shout in unintelligible English. Klika’s image of displaced Iraqis scrounging to build a home in a garbage dump was shot from a bulletproof vehicle, whizzing by at 50 mph.
Danger also isolates independent photographers, though “civilian photographers aren’t censured for what they shoot,” said David Hume Kennerly, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War photography in 1972. “It’s very hard to cover this war. I think the level of photography among military photographers is the highest I’ve ever seen.”
The show also offers intriguing insights into the experiences of U.S. servicewomen, who are increasingly being drawn into combat situations.
Thurlby arrived in Iraq in April 2003. She and a female videographer, Staff Sgt. Dawn Anderson, spent months pleading to go on missions. They finally rode along -- armed with a 9-millimeter pistol and M-16 rifle. “This was a battle we constantly fought as photographers, and women,” Thurlby told the show, though “they eventually saw the value in having us along to document history.”
Like a lot of volunteers, Pearsall viewed the military as a chance to achieve her career goals. Pearsall, living with her divorced mother, the manager of a pet store in Canton, S.D., dreamed of attending art school but didn’t have the money. An uncle in the military encouraged her to aim for a career as a military photographer. She joined the Air Force at 17, and for four years, she processed images from U2 intelligence flights.
In 2003, she went to Iraq, living with troops in tents and abandoned buildings, shooting the photos that made her the Defense Department’s military photographer of the year, a citation co-sponsored by the National Press Photographers Assn. She is the only woman to win twice.
Along the way, Pearsall completed the Syracuse photojournalism program and married fellow photographer Andy Dunaway before returning to Iraq in 2007 with the wave of U.S. troops the Bush administration called “the surge.”
In Baqubah, Pearsall teamed with Staff Sgt. Katie Robinson, a videographer, to cover an Alpha unit. One day, while she and Robinson were assigned elsewhere, “our guys” in Alpha walked into a booby-trapped house and died in the explosion.
Pearsall weeps at the memory. But she and Robinson had to “man up” and keep working. A sniper had shot a gunner with Pearsall’s new group, and as he died on the operating table, Robinson got shot too. A single bullet traveled through Robinson’s arm and into her video camera, exploding the battery, and exiting to take off the top of her thumb. Soon Robinson was back in the field, shooting video with what remained of her thumb.
“The Iraqis who spoke English thought she was ‘the man,’ ” Pearsall said.