In Focus: Starting A Personal Project with Stacy Pearsall
Thanks Kenna. Well I'm so thankful to be here with y'all this evening. And you know what, you said that I'm the only woman to do that yet. Because there will be more, you know? (cheering and applause) And that's why I'm here, because I think we all draw inspiration from each other, and we learn from each other. I would've not achieved those awards or those recognitions without having really good mentors. And also part of that is continuing to push yourself in unique ways. And that includes doing personal projects. So this evening I'm gonna talk to you a little bit about my project, the Veterans Portrait Project. And just what it means to do one. Because our personal and our professional lives, they collide and they compliment each other. And we can draw those two interests together in order to better ourselves. For me as she mentioned I was a combat photographer. And that's where this all began. At 17 I didn't do anything prior to that. I was in high school, I enlisted, I ...
went to basic training, and then they sent me the Defense Information School where I learned how to do photography. For my first four years I was really going intelligence, which is sort of an oxymoron in the service. Sorry that was a joke. (audience laughs) And then I applied to be a combat photographer, which is really where it's at in my opinion. And again I had really wonderful mentors. They taught me how to capture stories, and of course through my own experiences, I really gained a lot on my own. So fast forwarding through several deployments, 41 countries, lots and lots of operations, lots and lots of pictures, I think something like 150, just on my last deployment alone. Between you and me and everyone watching online, part of what I did was documenting soldiers stories while they were out on operation, of course that was key. Those images were used back here in the States to tell the stories of what was happening for all of us who couldn't be there. And that's an important part. But here's the thing, there was something underlying and undercurrent that I wasn't really recognizing just yet. And sadly we lost some of the soldiers in a tragic improvised explosives device, and one of the other soldiers came to me and asked if I had pictures of them. Some of them I did, and others I didn't. And that was heartbreaking. Because each and every one of their lives meant something to not only myself but their loved ones back here at home, and the soldiers they served alongside. So for me coming up short, it was a heavy burden. And from that point I dedicated to myself that I would take portraits of each and every soldier before going out on operation, in the event that something tragic did happen. I didn't know it then but I began to call it that last living picture. And so when something tragically did happen, I could hand over what memories I could capture while on the field and show their heroism to the end. That was important. So finally (laughs) my unlucky day came. But I was lucky because I'm here standing before you. So I count my blessings. But I was injured and it put an abrupt halt to my job as a combat photographer. And I spent a year rehabilitating, just trying to get back, just trying to get back to what I was doing, photojournalism. Sadly sometimes the universe weighs in and it's not exactly what you think it's gonna be. Or what you thought for yourself. So I'm just about to turn 28 years old and I realize that I go from living my life 100 miles an hour to an abrupt halt. And I find myself at home in a lot of pain. Not just physically but I'm like, in emotional turmoil. Because my career's been taken away from me. I've not really processed my experiences in combat yet. And I'm just trying to face the future without my own identity, or so I thought. When I was sitting in the VA hospital there was an older gentleman sitting next to me, and I was feeling extra frustrated. Because you know if you think about a veteran, what conjures in your mind's eye? An image of a man, perhaps? Maybe an older gentleman, somebody that you're connected to in your family, and that gentleman comes to your mind? Well if you look at me, I'm not the face that pops up in your-- (laughs) This mug is not what comes to mind, right? So I went from fighting downrange for my country to fighting for my own services back here at home. It was a whole new battle. So I was not only struggling during my recovery, but struggling to recover and to get the care I needed. So there are several things going on simultaneously. So there I was, weighting for umpteenth hour to see my neurologist, and there was an older gentleman sitting next to me, and I could just feel his eyes just barreling through me, and I was feeling the blood slowly begin to boil and rise in my face. And I was thinking would he just stop staring at me. I realize I'm not really your normal veteran sitting in the VA hospital, but I was getting very frustrated and finally like the little angel popped up on my shoulder like, Stacy, just be nice and kind. And the devil's like just tell him where to go! And then the angel's like-- (audience laughs) The angel's like, just, sh! And I did. So I turned to him and I asked him, was there something I can help you with? And it was like, he went from like this, to. And it was just the opportunity that created that space and that window of opportunity for him to unburden himself. He was just waiting for the right moment to talk to somebody and I just happened to be that person. Here's the thing, he was my guardian angel that day, because he changed the course of my life. He was the one that gave me direction. He's the one why I'm standing here on this stage talking to you about this. Had it not been for him, I would've not realized that everything that I had experienced in combat, the last living picture, all of those experiences were just the preface to what my life is now. That my life in service had just morphed into a different type of service. So that day I found out that the guy sitting next to me, the one I almost told where to go had already been there. He'd been to hell, he survived Normandy. He was captured, he survived the concentration camp. POW camp. Excuse me he survived a POW camp, liberated a concentration camp. The man was a national treasure. And it was really from that point on that I realized that I was going to take what I found, a purpose within myself, and move that into a personal project. Now you're thinking wow, I don't know if I have a like experience like that that would drive me forward, but you do. Don't underestimate yourself. We all have experiences in our lives that are unique to ourselves. And you cannot compare your life's experience to mine or to other's next to you, because we all need to look within ourselves, and what those experiences mean. And what we can draw from them. So every project has a beginning. First of all, think about something a little bit more topical. What interests you? I'm interested in a lot of things. I'm interested in dropping everything, giving up my time and energy to help veterans and to help raise awareness. So that's why the project works for me. So I challenge you to think about what you're willing to forego in your life that would benefit someone else. What does that mean? Finding the motivation to want to do that. What would motivate you? So I'm compelled to do this personal project because I want to change the stereotype of who veterans are. They aren't that portrayal that we see so much in Hollywood. I'm not a middle-aged man who was in Vietnam. I'm 30 something, and I'm a young female. At the time I was 20 something. Okay, incentive. A personal project should never be something that you think you're gonna get a monetary reward. That's not where the feedback comes. That's not where the rewards come. Personal projects should be brought back with I guess you know you could call it karma. But it's the positivity that you get in return, that good feeling. There's nothing like it. So when I began the project, here is that guy, that elderly gentleman, World War 2 guy, his name's Micky. And I took his portrait, and he's like, "I don't know why you'd want to take my picture." (audience laughs) And I'm like, seriously, after all that you told me? It was incredibly, most humble. That to me was like, wow. But over the course of my project, I found out that it was really cathartic. To listen to their stories, to know that they weren't sleeping just like I wasn't sleeping, that they didn't do well with crowds, or that they really had to force themselves into social situations. That their life had utterly changed. That going through that unique experience, that almost inhumane experience, had made them more humane. I could relate to that. And every person that I interacted with validated those feelings. So personal projects should be a healing process too. If you find something that really is diving deep into your own personal life. It's really gonna force you to reflect on yourself too. To look at those ugly things. Because before I met him I was sitting there thinking about all the people who were looking at me, judging me and being prejudiced and silly and pigeonholing me. But oh my gosh, let me look right back at myself, and say I thought that this guy was thinking this and that. So who's the prejudiced one? We have to take time to evaluate our lives. Personally, professionally. We have to take a look at our family, maybe what we're doing in terms of hobbies and things like that. Because all personal projects can sort of evolve and re-evolve around who we are, and accentuate what we're doing in our lives. How many of you have a hobby that you're like totally obsessed with next to your paid work? You would actually like to drop paid work and just do this hobby, anybody? Cool. What if I told you that you could do photography and this hobby as a personal project and maybe switch gears and just do those together? Would be pretty awesome, right? She's like, maybe. (audience laughs) Okay, so every project has a why. So why do I do what I do? Okay. First of all, for me it's about giving back. I am definitely involved with non-profit organizations. Not just the Veterans Portrait Project, but other like-minded organizations. How can we benefit each other? I want to make sure that veterans are getting service animals so that they can get out and socialize and have stability. I want to make sure that they're purging those inner demons in a way, and understanding what they're feeling inside, and not have to live with that or carry that, to know that they're not alone. So all of these things feed into each other, but if you're looking at a personal project, what do you want to give back? What do you want to change? And so the next one is your unique skills. Course I speak military lingo, right? Anybody know what a BCG is? It's called birth control glasses. (audience laughs) They're standard issue when you join the military. 'Cause anybody wearing them is not gonna get a date, I promise. (audience laughs) But I can say that like, "Nice BCGs bro, those are nice." That's the language I speak. So that is why I can move freely in that community, and I have sort of carte blanche and I'm relatable. So what makes you relatable? What is a skill that you have or that you have that you can bring to a personal project that allows you better access and relatability? The next one is something that I like, pet peeves. You got pet peeves? Don't we all. So part of that, and I'm gonna go back. Part of that is one of my biggest pet peeves is always being overlooked as a veteran. It wasn't just two days that I was talking to a young marine and a couple walked by and they were an Air Force couple, and I knew that they were an Air Force couple, and I was like, "Hey look, there's a couple veterans going by." And the marine went right to the guy and shook his hand, and they were like, hey thanks for your service. And then he went to turn around. And she stood there like. I was like, "She's a veteran to you know!" That's one of my biggest pet peeves. What do they say when you assume something? Yeah I'm not gonna finish that, we'll keep this PG. Okay, so, I want to affect social change. I want to change what we think of as veterans. I want to change our mentality and what we've been fed. So personal projects should incorporate something that you want to change, something that you want to affect change in. Perhaps it's domestic violence. Perhaps it's about-- Oh my gosh there's a laundry list of social changes that I would love to list right now. But I just want to engage you a little bit. Do we have a microphone that we can engage? Great, can we bring that forward? I would like to know, has anybody been thinking about a personal project thus far? We've got a hand right back here. Do you mind standing up for me? Personal project, what are you thinkin'?
Personal project for me has to be empowering young girls and women to find their voice, to find their passion way earlier in life than I have at age 34. And to not be afraid to go after it, and not be afraid to limit themselves like society tells them to, but to get out of that, break past that, and go for it no matter what.
Okay, so you want to empower young woman to have a voice. Great, any particular demographic of young women, or just young women in general?
I found my passion being outdoors in trekking and climbing mountains (laughs) this last year.
Okay, so kind of changing the gender norm. Okay, challenging that.
Challenging that, but, there's been a lot of progress in the last few years that I've noticed, but to also say that you don't have to be this skinny blond white woman, you can be a woman of color, you can be 50 years old, (laughs) you can be someone with a disability. It doesn't matter, so.
Great. Well that would be a really good one. Let's dive into that in a little bit. And you had your hand raised next sir? Right next to ya.
I'm 60 years old seven years ago. (audience laughs) My mother had a stroke, and I myself and my daughter who's a certified nursing assistant started taking care of my mother. And for seven years now I've faced legal actions by a family member, and it is amazing that if you're-- I work actually full time as a caregiver for developmentally disabled adults and elderly disabled people. But if you're a family caregiver you have absolutely no protections under the law unless you can afford a tremendous amount of attorney expenses. And I want to change Washington state law. I came to this because I'm gonna start making a little video presentation for my state legislators and hopefully for my US Congressmen. I think that family caregivers need protection under the law.
Excellent, wow. That's a heavy one. But not undoable, like that is definitely achievable. And thank you both for sharing. We're gonna dive a little bit more, and I'm gonna come back for you, so prepare yourselves. And here's the thing, there's no monopoly on story topics. So they may have been done before, but the one thing I want to emphasize to each and every one of you is they've never been done by you. You have a unique voice, the family that you were raised in, your own personal experiences, all those vary from vision to vision. So just don't even let that bother you, take it on no matter what. The Veterans Portrait Project for me allows me to capture the stories and kind of do that continuation of service. And also finds a unique way to say thank you to my fellow veterans. This right here is a mission statement for my project. So it provides me direction. When you hunker down and you're getting ready to start this personal project, it's important to provide yourself a mission statement. Why? What's the purpose? I want to change how girls think of themselves, and what opportunities they have before them. See the unlimited opportunities. So what's that mission statement look like? I want to reinvent legislation for caregivers. You want to rewrite that, you want to affect change. So identifying that and writing down, sum it down. You can sit there and write a sheet of paper, just write down your thoughts. But then you're gonna start whittling it away, chiseling it down to very concise, one sentence, why. What is your mission? So every project needs goals. You've created that mission statement, you understand what the purpose and the why is, but next you have to create achievable goals. And for me like initially when I started the project, I didn't put in place a time. And perhaps you say I want to do a project, I'm gonna give myself six months to do it. So within six months I want to achieve these goals. But perhaps it's not just about affecting change. Or you know educating young women. Perhaps it's a little bit more about a wide swatch of things. So learning new skills. We really don't like to take risks on paid assignments, or we really don't like to stray from our formulas that we find successful over and over again. But that puts us in a creative rut. So personal projects gives you the freedom to try new things, to fall on your face a couple things, without the fear of letting anybody down. Without ourselves and our own pride, but we'll get over it, because that's the beauty of it, personal projects allows you small successes. So the next one is going to be to create a niche portfolio. I started with one portrait. I didn't have a whole lot else. Now I'm getting upwards of 7,000 portraits. And this process has been a learning experience. So what do you want to build? A niche portfolio of young women? Photojournalism, maybe you want to expand into another field of photography? Okay so maybe you want to create new networks with friends, and new networks with other people. So right now you're known as the wedding photographer in your town, you're like well I really want to expand into something else. I want to know more about the landscapes around here, I want to create fine art. So perhaps you're going to take on a personal project where you're exploring that aspect. You're trying new skills, you're creating new networks. And now you're opening up new doors for yourself. And perhaps potentially new clients. So the next one is to get your work seen, and part of that is perhaps you are working on that story and you pair up with the local newspaper, and you get with a writer, and you say I'm working on this story, let's do this together. My whole goal, my whole mission statement is all about changing and reforming this idea. So how can you get that seen? And if you want to do fine art, maybe it's about having a very small local exhibition pairing up with maybe a restaurant or something, starting small and then going bigger, and dreaming big! Because now I would've never thought, never would've thought in a million years that I would've had a number of popup exhibitions across the country last year, or be in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. I never would have thought about that. But when you're doing good things and you're setting goals for yourself, that doesn't mean you can't achieve them. So the last one is to be inspired. And most importantly and this is why I put this one on the very last one, because I want to leave you with that idea in terms of setting goals. Be inspired. If you wake up one day and this personal project has all of a sudden turned into work, let it go, move on to something else. Because obviously it's not the right topic. I get up in the morning and I'm like, I cannot wait to hear the stories that I'm gonna hear today. I don't loathe going on the road. I am away from my husband all the time, and these are the sacrifices I make. I sacrifice having time with my husband and my family, I sacrifice time with my beautiful horses and my dogs, all because this personal project means that much to me. I'm invested. Find something that inspires you that you're willing to sacrifice things that mean something to you in order to maintain that inspiration and to keep going. Everybody with me? Awesome, okay. So in life everything has risk. The thing with personal projects though is the only thing your risk is your time, your energy. What do you have to lose? Nothing people, nothing! (audience laughs) The answer is nothing, it's so easy. So you've established an idea. You're thinking about maybe you want to bring to light some social change, or you want to reinvigorate yourself. You want to build a niche portfolio, you want to become a fine artist, you want to try some new techniques. Whatever your purpose, whatever drives you. The next thing to do is how are you going to find subject matter? People always ask me, well how do you recruit your veterans? I'm like well, I have several ideas, and several ways and several approaches. First is to find interest groups. So for me when I first started out, the VA was a natural fit, because the veterans are there waiting at the VA hospital for their appointments like me. So what I would do is I would go and I would set up an hour or two earlier. I would make portraits while I'm waiting for my own appointment. So I'm like, hey what're you guys doing? Having cookies, you want to take a portrait, yeah sure. I'm like sweet. So I went from doing that in my own hometown at my VA to going and setting up appointments just to take portraits. That's how excited it got. It all started really really small. Then other interest groups were like, hey so I heard about your project. So I was walking through the VA one day and I saw your exhibition there, blown away. Can you do it at my VA? So then I went to another VA, another VA. Then the VFW was like, hey let's have you up at the conference. Four days of like non-stop veterans in the seat. I think it was something crazy like 200 veterans in one weekend, it was nuts. And so on. So finding like-minded groups that maybe relate. The other one would be organizations like I just mentioned. Like for me it would be American Legion, VFW, Paralyzed American Veterans, et cetera et cetera. So for you you're going to look at maybe caregivers. I'm sure there are organizations within your community or even nationally that may be able to help and guide you with some really compelling subject matter. And then finding ways to get involved with them. And often times our own stories are like right under our noses. This gal that I'm all hugged up with, which I love hugs, I am a touchy feely person. That's my sister, aw. Hi Megan! So look within your own backyard, sometimes you don't have to go that far. Some of the best and most compelling personal projects can happen right two minutes from your house. That's how it started for me, obviously. Okay so if I'm coming to Seattle, I'm going to let everybody know on social media. Hey I'm going to be in Seattle, at this location on this date. If you know a veteran or you're friends with a veteran or a family member let them know I'm coming! And then all of a sudden I'm full and RSVP'd within 24 48 hours. It's crazy, social media is dynamite. So perhaps you want to work on stories about young women doing unique things. Like perhaps it's glacier climbing (laughs) or something. Like some really crazy sport. You go out on social media. Hey doesn't anybody know of any young ladies out there doing this? One thing that's great about social media is making your problem their problem. So putting it out there and saying, here's my problem, help me find solutions. And people are like yeah, I wanna help! And then you're like overwhelmed with the number of ideas. It's incredible. And lastly special events. So I know some of us can't afford to just up and go to Phoenix, Arizona, or up and go to Tampa to this conference or that conference. But if you can, do it. I know this seems really strange. But as a project began to develop, and I'm probably my fifth or sixth year in-- I'm going on my 10th year by the way. I was spread so thin. My husband and I had a heart to heart. He was like, you gotta set boundaries. Because I can't so no, like I have a hard time saying no. People are like, we're gonna be doing this all women's fundraiser, we'd love you to come. And I'm like oh my god that sounds phenomenal, yes! And my husband reminds me that I have five other events that are back to back. So there I am totally strung out, strung thin, nothing left in my tank whatsoever, 'cause I give give give give give. So at the start of the year what I do now is I talk about what time am I going to invest? Okay I'm going to do one public speaking engagement for free every quarter. I'm going to do X number of Veteran Portrait projects a month, and that's it. When I hit that cap, if somebody calls and says we have this great event, do you mind doing it? That's when I step back and say, okay, I'm sorry, I've met the quota for the year. Let's talk about maybe next year. The other thing was that whatever you're operating with in terms of gear, don't stress out about it. If you feel like you don't have the gear to do such and such project, when I started the project all I had was one camera, one lens, and two little flashes. So there I was looking like a hobo in my VA hospital. And now I have this like elaborate studio set up. But that doesn't mean I couldn't still do it with one camera one lens and two strobes. So here you are the very beginning, that start line. All you gotta do is go like this and dive right in. You can obtain gear as you go. The wonderful thing about personal projects is it often brings in other assignments. So people have seen the work that you're doing like, wow that's pretty tight. Do you think you can do something similar for me like this and we'll pay you? Well yes of course you can do that! Then you squirrel away a certain number of money, or certain assets. Buy yourself some new gear, upgrade your stuff. And again balance your pro life with your pro bono life. Once you hit that cap, you have to start weighing what you're doing in terms of emotional investment, time investment and professional investment. So this all has to do with creating a sustainable project. For me my project has gone on a long long long long time. It's not typical to have projects this long, and I think it's probably going to be a life-long endeavor. When I started it I said that I was gonna photograph veterans in every state and province from which we recruit. I'm on state number 27, so I've still got a way to go. I saw your eyes go big like, what? Say what? That was my catharsis. That was my healing. And I'm still a wounded person. I am still you know healing inside, and I think other veterans benefit from the project and they're still healing inside. And I think so long as I live my life I will my life in service, so the project is a never ending story for me. It could be that for you too, if you find something that you're passionate enough about. Okay. But good karma can't pay your bills, as we all know. I always love those things like, oh we love your work, we don't have a budget. I'm like, eh. (laughs) And that's okay. With personal projects what you can do is look at investing in yourself. So what I initially did was I took paid projects, paid assignments. I would squirrel away half of that income and I would use that to pay and fund my personal projects. I would take that to go to Florida or Georgia, anywhere I could drive. That was gas money, hotel money. People would put me up, 'cause like I said, I'm a hobo. With my one camera and my one lens and my two lights. So invested in myself, and you can do that too. Crowdfunding. There was no crowdfunding when I first started this, but let's be honest, I could sell some T-shirts. Corporate sponsorship. As you being to establish what you're doing and the message that you're doing, people want to invest in it. And finding a like-minded corporation. I was very very surprised and didn't see it coming, but a corporate organization approached me about wanting to fund my Veterans Portrait Project. I was like totally blown away. But they really catapulted the project into something bigger than I ever thought. Private investment is also another thing. Applying for grants. You can sell and license your imagery, if it makes sense. So I have 6,000 portraits if you wanna buy some for your-- (laughs) If we were in a corporate building, VA for instance, or this building or that building and they want to have an exhibition of veterans, I'll say, do you mind if we just pay per print? That way I can take that money and it put it towards X Veterans Portrait Project engagements over the course of 2018? So if it makes sense and you can earn revenue from that to push forward your project down the road a little bit further, that makes sense. And creating merchandise, merch! I got a shirt, I got your T-shirts, I got your hats! (audience laughs) What's great is I had T-shirts that said I love the Veterans Portrait Project or I support the Veterans Portrait Project. So now I've got some walking billboards. And they're like Veterans Portrait Project right here, and then people ask about it, well what is that? Well thanks. But I also a little kick back, like $25 per shirt, that I could put into going and photographing more veterans. Win win! Okay, remember. Personal projects seriously has personal in the title. If it doesn't pull at your heart strings, if it doesn't have some personal connection to you, it's not the right fit. Go back and search again. And again if you're waking up in the morning and you're not like, yes, I get to go take portraits of 100 veterans in six hours! If that doesn't motivate you, then probably not the right project. Find the right project for yourself. So what I want to do now is open it up to some questions. I want you to remember to stay true to yourself and who you are. Draw upon your own personal experiences when you establish this project and you're creating your mission statement and you're setting your goals. Okay, tough question. I heard from two people about personal projects, I'd like to hear from somebody on this side of the crowd. Is anybody working on a personal project right now? I saw like a quasi non-committal...
So my grandmother, my mor-mor, she was my second my mother, and I'm very close with her. And I started photographing her about seven years ago just documenting her day and her life. And then fast forward seven years later now, and I had my daughter. And I realized that as my grandmother's life was declining, it very much mirrored a newborn growing older. So that's I'm working on right now, and it's ironic that I'm standing here talking about this, because my grandmother is due to die today. Don't mean to bring it down. I'm okay with that. And so I've been photographing my daughter and my grandmother for the last year and a half since she's been born. And so I have photos from seven years ago up until now, and then I'll photograph my daughter past my grandmother's death, and it will become a Diptic I think. I have some photos of the two of them together, and then it will become a Diptic also about comparing the birth of one and the death of another.
Wow, that sounds really beautiful. I'd love to see that work. And I'm really sorry to hear about that.
It's okay. I think the process of her death has been much harder than the acceptance of losing her. So yes. But I'm excited about it, I'm excited about--
The project itself?
Yeah, finishing it. It's been something I've been very dedicated to. And something that you said about it being personal, a mentor of mine also told me that it should be personal.
It should be. Yeah I bet that's gonna be a really beautiful story when it's done. Thank you for sharing that, great. And quasi non-committal, what you got?
I have been kind of in the just baby brainstorming stages, and initial conversations of doing a project. I think I'll call it Resilience. But I work for a non-profit called First Aid Arts and we train people how to work with trauma survivors using creativity. And it's all based on the science of creativity being the antidote to trauma and your brain and your body. And what is it that builds resilience, and it's community and creativity and creating something for yourself that gives you a greater purpose outside of your job, and that's where you see people really thrive if they've been through something very traumatic. And I'm sure you've heard a lot of different stories talking to veterans even about how they have overcome through different creative pursuits. It'd be interesting to hear the stories that you have heard through that. But I think yeah, I want to a portrait series and possibly a documentary about resilience, and how people accomplish that in their lives and how that makes communities stronger.
Excellent. I think that sounds really dynamic. What would be even cooler is for you to take your skills and teach these people who could potentially be your subject matter to document their own lives and contribute in a special way. Like how are they using art as part of their recovery and resiliency? Interesting. I could see some potential there! (audience laughs) It's got legs, no it's great! Does anybody else want to share? And perhaps maybe throw off some ideas. Is there anybody who's watching online That has interjected their thoughts?
We have a couple questions, but not their projects yet.
Okay, I will open the questions if they have some.
The question is, do I have to have a personal experience in order to make it a personal project? For example what if I don't have a personal experience but I want to help and bring awareness to for example a battered women shelter?
Okay. I would say no. As long as you have the ability to be empathetic and caring, and delicate around those types of subjects, then that's all that really matters. But if you're passionate about that topic and you're passionate about bringing about change, no, of course not. I think having those experiences make it more relatable. You can better understand where your subjects are coming from. But I don't necessarily think it's a requirement.
So I think it's just sometimes scary to jump out and say I'm gonna start this personal project because there's so many logistical things on how to do it. So just a thought, and I would love to get your opinion on it, is helping out with someone else's personal project could help you feel like you maybe know some of the steps that you might need to do, or some of the hurdles that you're gonna find. So finding someone that's similar minded, help with their personal project as a way to kind of figure out your way. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that.
That's absolutely a good idea. If you're feeling a little bit insecure about where to start or unsure about where to start, if you want to assist for a while somebody on their personal project. People ask me all the time, how can I do the Veterans Portrait Project? And I'm like well the Veterans Portrait Project mission was solely for me, it was something to conquer this hill. It was a goal for me to get out of that dark place where I was, to launch myself into a different life, so that that was never gonna be a two seat ride. That was always gonna be singular. That doesn't mean that it doesn't take a village to hoist me up that lift. Because without support from my colleagues and from the people who have contributed, bought my T-shirts and swag, I would have never made it to that pinnacle. But there are photographers. I think Portraits of Love is a way that you can host some sort of community organization. It's an already established organization that his well-oiled machine in place, and you can contribute that way. So there are already things in place where you don't have to take it on yourself, but you can see how it works. But I'm gonna test you a little bit to try and just dive in. We always tend to be like, it might be cold, is it cold? (gasps) That's cold! (audience laughs) But if we just dive and we sit there for a minute shaking, eventually it warms up and you're like, oh, it's not so bad. And you forgot how cold it was from the beginning and how scary it might have been. That shock, that initially shock and we get over it, and we acclimate. For me I didn't take those portraits thinking, this is kinda scary, it's overwhelming. It never happened that way, because that's not how it began. It started out really small, and that little piece of sand developed into a pearl. And that's what a project should be, just a little piece of sand that develops into a pearl.
Question here, well actually we have Jordana Baker who wanted to share her personal project. She says, "I'm in the beginning stages of "a personal project following a "child diagnosed with cancer through their journey. "After watching my daughter live and die from cancer "I want to bring awareness and reality "to what that actually means for "those child and their family."
Wow. Well first of all that little kid's a warrior. I mean I'd love to see that work, and that project sounds amazing. Does she say whether she's going to continue on and look at other children, or just the one story?
Jordana you'll have to let us know. (laughs)
Follow up with us, wherever you are! (laughs) I wanna know. A couple of questions. When this child overcomes cancer, which I know they will, is it going to be a continuation in this project? Or is it just a glimpse into the day and life of this one child? What are you going to do with the pictures? How is it going to affect change? Is it just something personal that you wanted to do and then lock it away and keep it for your own? Because that's fine too, if that's the goal. So reach out to me, I'd love to see your project. And if want to talk a little bit later, let's do that too.
Question, until we hear back from Jordana. Is it feasible realistic to have more than one personal project going on at once? (laughs) Does it depend on the scale, or if you're just trying a couple things out?
Listen I don't do anything small, that's the problem. For me it probably would not be beneficial for me or possible because I go big or go home. So having more than just the Veterans Portrait Project would just be insurmountable I think. I do little small things in my community, like I just recently photographed portraits of the girls who work out in my gym, it's like an all-ladies gym. And I was so empowered. There's a woman in her 60s who looks like she belongs in the Thunderdome. And I'm so inspired by her just tenacity to get out there and show these 20 somethings what it's like what it's about. I was inspired, so I went out and I set up some lights, and I was like ladies, I just wanna show your life and your vivacity and your strength. Let me take some portraits. There was no money, no money exchange. Like my friend who owns gym's a small business owner, it's my love language to give back, that's what I like to do. And so kind of like supporting other women, that's was really cool. It just made me feel real good. The payment came in these girls looking at their pictures looking like the utter epitome of strength and not knowing that they had that in them, and that to me is where like the payment came, seeing their faces light up as they looked at themselves in a whole different way. But I definitely couldn't do that in the long term alongside this project. But really this fed into that fed into another thing. So long answer to a short question, sorry everybody.
No sorrys here. (laughs) Do you ever take on someone to help you? You talked about how it's kind of a singular, in terms of you being the photographer. But since you said that the project has blown up to bigger than you expect, when do you bring in a team to help you?
Sure. Well as I said from the beginning, there isn't a monopoly on story subjects. And people ask me all the time, I'd like to do my own Veterans Portrait Project, and I was like, "That's cool just don't use my name." I'm just kidding. In all seriousness, then get out there and go take pictures of veterans. I'm not holding you back. Actually I would adore you for doing that. But maybe you don't necessarily relate to that so much as you do with women who are homeless or men who are homeless or perhaps it's people who are recovering from a heavy drug addiction. You want to do stories or bring awareness to that. For me I usually travel with at least one assistant, sometimes two or three depending on how large the event is. And they are photographers in their own right. And the thing is I've recruited colleagues who have some sort of military ties, specifically because they are the first face they see, the veterans see, when they come to register before they see me. So these guys and gals know and speak the language. It helps break down that barrier from the beginning. So I'm very aware of the people I'm bringing in to help. That doesn't mean that I don't have Aunt Betty with a tray of cookies off to the side like plying them with sugar and coffee and shooting the breeze. She never served a day in her life, but that doesn't mean that she can't contribute. So I hope that answers the question, you have something here?
I wanted to know, you've shared with us some of the amazing stories that you've been told through the project, and I'd like to know more about how that amazing value is being shared with the world. I understand it was a personal project, but are you doing something with these stories and sharing them back?
Isn't that the greatest question ever? And I still ask myself that every time, because you know your mission statement can evolve. Thank you for that question. So when I first starting taking the project, the pictures were just me taking them and giving them to the veterans saying, "Thank you for your service." And then it took a creative director saying, "I want to put an exhibition in the hallway "of just Charleston, South Carolina veterans. "I want to call it the Hall of Heroes." So that was the first exhibition, and that was within the first year. Whoa, never thought that would happen. 88 portraits, like larger than life down a hallway. Pretty extraordinary. So here's veterans, they're going to a VA hospital. It's kind of you know nobody goes into a hospital feeling like yay! But they're walking down the hallway and seeing their brothers and sisters and having ownership, it gave them a sense of place, like this is my place, this is why I'm here. So that evolved into having more exhibitions. Not only in VA hospitals but having popup exhibitions at really unique venues. Like I had one on an aircraft carrier Resumen San Diego. And I had one at an old Air Force hanger down in Texas. We popped up these exhibitions of portraits of veterans who lived in their community and invited the public to come and just have a dialog. I wanted people who've never really been associated with military or knew a veteran to come and talk to real life veterans. Because again part of that mission was to change the face or what we perceive in our mind's eye of what veterans are, who they are, what we need. Our interactions with our community, or roles in society. So all of that was part of it. I would eventually like to do a book, I'd like to get through all the states first. I had a video documentary crew follow me along for three our four different places. We went to Detroit, Michigan, and we went to Oregon right down the road, we went down to Oregon and a couple of other places. And they followed me around and I was like, fun story, I have tangential thinking. Come along the ride with me. So picture this, we're in Minnesota, and I've got the video documentary crew there, and I've told them I said, the stories are rich. We will end up taking portraits all day, and then some guy who owns like a piano bar, served in the Navy, let's go have a drink at this guy's piano bar, and he's like dueling pianos, it's the most surreal thing. They didn't believe me. Like I think they kind of did, but they wanted to see it for themselves. So we're in Minnesota, it's harvest season. We're driving through the roads and people are combining, there's dust lying, it's so awesome. 'Cause my boots actually had a functionality. (audience laughs) But this guy who was a Korean war veteran, and he sits in my chair and he has like a, you know a Dekalb corn hat on. And he's so sweet and his wife's behind me and watching him and I'm looking at ihm like, I'm so in love with you right now. And we got to taking pictures and he told me, he told me about his time in Korea. He and this other fellow were one of the only two survivors in his unit left from Korea. Their unit was basically devastated. So he left Korea, flew home to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in the middle of the night. He said he got home at around midnight. And that he was in the tractor putting seeds in the ground by 5 a.m. the next day. And I was like, I can't imagine going from seeing the worst experience of my life to going back to what would seem to mundane. But he's like, "Well speaking of that, "I gotta go get the soybeans out of the ground, "can we hurry this one along?" And I'm like, "Can I go with you?" And he said yeah. So there I am just an hour later. My colleague and I shoved up into the cab of a combine with an 80 something year old Korean war veteran driving along. And that is why I love what I do.
Just a question. Looking at each of these portraits, each of them are unique, and they tell each stories. How do you get them to pose to tell that story?
That's a good question, how do I get them to pose? Well if you were listening in on my class about non-verbals and body language, it all comes down to being observant of their own body language, and asking them without asking them to pose. So I will watch them as I talk to them and we get to know each other and we get our initial handshakes and stuff like that. I'm watching them and I'm talking to and engaging them, observing their body languages. What topics make them accentuate or remote? I'm watching do they cross their legs, or do they own the space? What is it about them personally? I don't want them to pretend they aren't something they are. I want to capture a genuine image, a genuine portrait, and hopefully all of these pictures do that for them. So what I will do is I will offer them guidance. I will say, "Hey, why don't you have a seat right here and let's chat?" And maybe they'll lean forward like this a little bit. Maybe they'll lean back and be a closed off. But all of those will lend themselves into certain body language about who they are. And as I begin to shoot and we being to have a dialogue, their microexpressions and their facial expressions will change based on what we're talking about, and hopefully if I'm attuned with them and we are in sync together, I will be capturing moment after moment after moment, and I will look at a sequence of 20 frames of the same veteran and think, I don't know which one to chose. And then I will rotate it to my colleague and be like, pick one, 'cause I just can't, they're all great. That's the goal.
Thank you so much. My goodness everyone. I just wanted to feed you one comment that a viewer said. "She's inspired me to finally start my personal project, "creating portraits of transplant survivors and "their families to raise awareness for organ donations." And she herself is a liver transplant survivor. So thank you, I think that was Texas Beauty. So thank you for that. I think it's just amazing, I'm gonna get up here on stage with you. Amazing of the stories that are coming through and the stories that everyone has to tell. So thank you, where can people follow you? I want to make sure that everybody has that.
Okay, hold on a second. I'm on Facebook, I'm on Instagram and Twitter. If you go to VeteransPortraitProject.com you'll find all of my social media tags. I want to stay in touch with you. Don't hesitate to reach out to me and share some ideas about personal projects. Let's drill down and let's make a difference. We can do that together.
All right everyone, well thank you so much. Please help me first, give it up for Stacy Pearsall. (cheering and applause)