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View from the front lines

Photos by troops show the military's side of war, but the images are powerful nonetheless.

May 18, 2008|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 18, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Military photographs: An article in today's Calendar section about an exhibition of works by military photojournalists incorrectly says the 1st Combat Camera Squadron is based in Charlotte, N.C. The squadron, including Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, who is quoted in the piece, is based at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.

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.

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