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Embracing Change and Adapting Your Photography

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a guest post by Stacy Pearsall. I met Stacy when I was teaching in Maui last year and found her story and her photography inspiring. Please allow me to introduce you to Stacy.

Guest Post By: Stacy L. Pearsall

I used to believe that the one thing in life you can count on – is that you can’t count on anything. I joined the U.S. Air Force when I was 17 and figured I would be in the service for most of my life. I enlisted as a still photographer and my primary mission was to cover daily Air Force activities. At the time, the Air Force was consolidating career fields and photography was one of them. In fact, they merged U-2 aircraft (spy plane) film processing with the basic still photographer. I was a product of the newly combined field and didn’t think it would affect me. I was clueless. I ended up in a darkroom for four years straight, processing highly light-sensitive black-and-white Kodak surveillance film.

I had to get out of the darkroom and the only way to do so was to volunteer for a special duty assignment. I really wanted to get into a specialty unit called the 1st Combat Camera Squadron (1CTCS), but I didn’t have a strong enough body of work. I started building my portfolio by shooting on the weekends and holidays. I shot with a Nikon N-90 and a medium format Bronica, which the military had on hand. On rare occasions, they would let me shoot the Nikon N90s with the Kodak DCS 400 digital back. Nowadays wed consider it a clunky dinosaur, but it used to be awesome. As I gained more confidence in my shooting, my portfolio grew stronger. Eventually, the stars aligned and I submitted my resume and portfolio to 1CTCS.

I was accepted to 1CTCS just in time for 9/11. Naturally, when the war in Afghanistan began, photographers from my unit deployed. Knowing my time would come soon; I felt the pressure to train myself on the camera and satellite systems being used by my colleagues. I was in over my head. They were using state-of-the-art transmission systems such as BGAN and shooting with the new digital SLR Nikon D1H. Not only did I struggle with the new technology, I was nowhere near up to par photographically. I trained constantly and shot assignment after assignment on my own time. I openly admit that I spent many nights crying out of pure frustration. I didn’t feel like I was meeting their standards and I also felt isolated. At the time, I couldn’t blame them. After all, I was a woman in a predominantly male outfit and could barely ingest a compact flash card.

For three months straight, I cut out social events and television. I lived and breathed photography. On weekends, I would often go out and shoot a picture story, ingest, caption and transmit. I repeated this process until I was doing it in my sleep. Eventually, I started to demonstrate my capabilities to my superiors and was afforded real assignments all around the world. Within one year, I was placing as a finalist in the annual NPPA Military Photographer of the Year (MPOY) competition.

My photographic momentum continued to accelerate as my career progressed. I traveled to 42 countries including Iraq and Somalia. I traded my Nikon D1H for a D2H, then a D2X and ultimately a D3. I went on to win first place MPOY twice and was considered the quintessential combat photographer of my time. Just as I reached the pinnacle, I was wounded in combat – abruptly ending my military career. After a year-and-a-half of painful rehabilitation, I found myself without purpose. I was medically retired from service in 2008 amidst the dissolving newspaper photography industry. Finding a staff position was impossible. I began competing with unemployed Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalists for freelance assignments that paid next to nothing.

As bills began to pile up, I knew I had to do something drastic. I began by thinking of ways to adapt my skills as a combat photojournalist into the commercial/advertising photography genre. I established a website and blog to showcase my portfolio past and present work. I advance my knowledge in various lighting tools such as Nikon SB900s and Elinchrom RXs. Since I spent 12 years in journalism, I didn’t know the first thing about soliciting commercial clients. So, I spent hours reading books on the topic and finally a light bulb went off. I had to exploit my knowledge of military tactics by creating a niche market for myself. I realized by tailoring my photography, I could isolate clients who best suited my style. I had success! I shot my first commercial assignment for a body armor company based in Europe. With that boost of accomplishment, I went on to shoot many more military related assignments.

At the age of 29 and only 6 months after being medically retired from the Air Force, I purchased my own studio in Charleston, S.C. I started teaching various photography classes and workshops and found that my studio, Charleston Center for Photography, gave me a platform to share what I had learned over the course of my photographic journey. Now 30, I continue to keep up with current photographic trends and am shooting photo and video with a Nikon D3s. I have learned how to properly capture audio using the Marantz PMD 660 recorder and even learned to edit using Final Cut Pro. As you can see, I never stop evolving or adapting who I am as a photographer.

Before, I relied on photojournalism as my only source of photographic expression. By doing so, I limited who I was or who I could become as a photographer. By a shear twist of fate, I found a whole new side of photography and me in the process. The biggest lesson I learned was that success started with me. I had to put in the effort to get back the desired results; I gave it my all. After all of my technical struggles, physical disabilities and employment troubles, I now believe that I can count on something myself.


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