Veteran Portrait Exhibit Celebrates Those Who Served

Bill Heller, the Director of the Wally and Louise Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership at USFSP, is one of many veterans featured in a display at Nelson Poynter Memorial Library.

Bill Heller, the Director of the Wally and Louise Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership at USFSP, is one of many veterans featured in a display at Nelson Poynter Memorial Library.

(Nov. 20, 2018) – When Ann Wykell organized a large photo collage for the Military and Veterans Success Center last year, one photographer’s work stood out.

The pictures were black-and-white portraits depicting veterans in uniforms and civilian clothes from Stacy Pearsall’s Veterans Portrait Project. Inspired by the series, Wykell, who is the Public Art coordinator at USF St. Petersburg, arranged for Pearsall, an award-winning  combat photographer, to visit as the first artist-on-campus and to snap portraits of the many veterans at the University.

Pearsall’s photos of 24 veterans are now on display at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library. As an extension of her Veterans Portrait Project, the display showcases men and women who served the country from the Korean War to our most recent conflicts. At USFSP, there are 275 veterans, including 36 staff and faculty members.

“Our goal is to support the Veterans Center’s mission,” said Wykell. “Both helping vets on campus transition to becoming civilian students and raising awareness of who these folks are.”

That second goal proved harder than expected. Veterans can be a humble bunch.

“Quite a few of the veterans were reluctant to participate,” said Wykell. “They really had to be coaxed because they don’t want to try and grab the spotlight, so we did have to work pretty hard at recruiting folks to have their pictures taken.”

If some of the subjects were reluctant prior to the photoshoot, their attitudes changed when Stacy Pearsall arrived. As a seasoned combat photographer and accomplished professional photographer in her civilian life, Pearsall understands how to get subjects to open up in front of a camera. “She is such an engaging and an amazing person, so everybody was glad that they participated,” Wkyell said.

Subjects included students, faculty and staff, including Kathryn Benton, Assistant Director of USFSP’s Military and Veterans Success Center.

“I was excited to see the other veterans’ stories,” said Benton. “We had such a diverse group of people with different ages, experiences and times of service. It was great that Ann put together the project for everyone to see and learn how different we are, and that we’re not all angry combat veterans. The display is beautiful and captivating. It hits close to home.”

To add another layer to the exhibit, Wykell sought the help of Journalism Professor Janet Keeler who enlisted two students to take on the task of interviewing and writing about USFSP veterans who chose to have their stories told.

The two journalism students, juniors Emily Wunderlich and Delaney Brown, worked on the Veterans Portrait Project as a part of Keeler’s course, substituting their interviews and profiles  for some of the courses more conventional assignments. Neither Wunderlich nor Brown had undertaken such an involved journalism project.

“We sat down with Milton White, head of the Veterans Success Center, just to get some pointers on ways to discuss sensitive subjects with the veterans,” said Wunderlich. “I started off every one of my interviews by letting the veterans know that they could tell me anything they wanted to but that I wasn’t going to pry if there were things they didn’t want to talk about.”

Both students approached the project as a way to highlight the military and civilian experience of their subjects.

“My job in this wasn’t to input my own preconceptions about service,” said Brown. “It was about sharing their story, how they view themselves differently after the service, what service gave to them and what it took away. It was their story to tell. I’m just like the vessel that they told it through.”

“I was overwhelmed at times with how open and trusting they were with me,” she added. “As a student journalist, a lot of times people might look down on you, and there’s a lot of mistrust towards journalists at the moment, but they were so willing to be open and share about some really sensitive topics.”

Stacy Pearsall started the Veterans Portrait Project as an emotionally cathartic exercise ten years ago. To date, she’s captured portraits of over 7,500 veterans, sharing their unique stories through exhibitions across the country. The portraits will be on exhibit through January and available to view online at the Military and Veterans Success Center’s webpage.