Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad,
Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, and Rita Leistner.
Chelsea Greene, 2005. 196 pages.
Hardback and paperback
When the U.S. invaded the Middle East in 2003,
the American war machine offered to "embed" reporters with the troops. Reporters
and photojournalists would be assigned to travel with a specific unit of soldiers,
who would protect them and ostensibly allow them greater access to the action
than ever before. But while this policy made it look as if the government had
nothing to hide, the policy of embedding reporters was also a very clever machination
intended to control the kind of news and pictures coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan,
and minimize the kind of "negative publicity" created by the free press during
the Vietnam conflict and other U.S. military actions in recent history. In the
past, reporters may have had less aid from the military, but at least they were
free to go where they pleased and cover the stories they wanted objectively,
without feeling they owed any special consideration to one side. Embedded reporters
are told that if they stray from their unit at any time, they cannot necessarily
return to it. Living with one group of soldiers, to whom they owe their safety,
makes objectivity nearly impossible. Essentially, the embedded reporter becomes
part of the military propaganda machine, going only where they go and seeing
only what they see, from only their point of view.
Luckily for those of us who still believe in the inestimable importance of
a free press to the democratic world, there are still some reporters brave enough
to cover war zones without becoming embedded. From four of these journalists
Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq, recently released
The design is simple: Independent photojournalists Ghaith
Abdul-Ahad (Iraq), Kael Alford (U.S.), Thorne Anderson (U.S.), and Rita Leistner
(Canada) each contributed their most vivid pictures (along with enlightening
captions) from their travels through occupied Iraq. Philip Jones Griffiths (Vietnam,
Orange) provides a forward to the book, and Phillip Robertson
(Iraq war correspondent for Salon.com) has
an explanatory introduction. The diverse collection of pictures within
are loosely divided into sections by subject, with four essays, one by each
photographer about a part of their experience.
All of the journalists are surprisingly eloquent writers, in addition to their
obvious talent as photographers. Both Anderson and Alford's writings touch on
Iraqi reactions to the American invasion. In a piece about his contacts with
Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, Anderson notes that during every celebration of
the American occupation that was broadcast on U.S. networks, he also heard Iraqis
chanting "down with America!" Alford was present at the iconic media frenzy
when the statues of Saddam in Baghdad were toppled, shortly after U.S. forces
entered the city. Despite the portrayal in the American media of crowds of Iraqi
people rejoicing and participating in these events, she testifies there were
no more than 200 Iraqis assembled at any of these supposedly pivotal events
in their history. These moments of drama were engineered by the American military,
and most Iraqis were not in favor of the vandalism. Events like these, which
produced some of the most widely viewed images of the war, "didn't represent
what I had experienced of the war in Baghdad," she explains. (Always careful
to show multiple sides, however, the book does include a picture of an Iraqi
youth urinating on the head of one of the fallen statues of Saddam.)
Leistner's essay tells the tale of a harrowing journey across borders and the
hazards of being an "unembedded" reporter in the war zone, while Abdul-Ahad's
story is a classic rumination on objective observer's guilt: he was forced to
watch helplessly as an entire group of noncombatants he’d shared a shelter with
were brutally gunned down in front of him.
reader of Unembedded
is compelled to feel this internal conflict as well. Some of the most unsettling
pictures in the book are of Iraqis attacking Americans. There are images of
a Shi'ite sniper taking aim at an American target, a Mahdi soldier firing a
mortar at a U.S. position, and even Mahdi Army personnel burying an IED meant
to defend against American incursion. As an American, there is a gut reaction
that surely the American photographers are committing some kind of treason by
standing by and doing nothing to stop these enemies of America. But these photographers
believe their duty is to share with the world the fullest, truest picture of
the conflict that they have seen with the world, and that means seeing things
from both sides. The book does not include any images of American victims of
the fighting (presumably because they were not "embedded," and were therefore
prevented from gaining photographic access to American troops), but it contains
many of Iraqis in pain and dying from American attacks. But Unembedded also
acknowledges that there was suffering and persecution in Iraq long before America
arrived, showing us the exhumed remains of countless victims of Saddam's regime.
Perhaps the best editorial choice made by the creators of Unembedded
was to show not just the front lines of the battle, but the entire range of
life in Iraq under the U.S. occupation. In addition to the blood-soaked hospital
floors, gun-wielding insurgents, and apocalyptic wreckage, there are images
of brides readying for their weddings, old men playing dominos, women in a psychiatric
hospital, and even fashion show producers tinkering with a fog machine.
It takes a moment to understand why these pictures appear in a book "on the
War in Iraq" (to quote the book's own subtitle), but by the end the reason for
their inclusion is quite clear. Pictures of Iraqi fighters and (to a lesser
extent) Iraqi victims are common in the mainstream media – they are the pictures
the embedded reporters send home. But pigeonholing Iraqis in these limited roles
makes it easy to forget that the Iraqis are people – not so different
from and no less diverse than Americans. Unembedded refuses to let the
reader off easily by allowing him to think of Iraqis as a mere concept or as
a nameless, faceless mass, as so much war photography does. Even those killing
Americans are not necessarily all the bloodthirsty animals they are generally
portrayed as in the Western media; many of them simply consider what they are
doing self-defense. As one Mahdi soldier Anderson spoke to puts it in the book,
"We don't hate Americans. If you come to my house as a friend, I give you food.
If you come with a gun, I give you jihad."
The foremost effect of this collaboration is to humanize Iraq and Iraqis, which
requires a wider-angle view of Iraqi lives – a view that is rarely available
to those of us lucky enough to be so geographically removed from the Iraq War.
But geographically removed though we may be, what is happening in Iraq is still
"our" war, and we owe it to ourselves and everyone paying for the fight with
blood or money to give it the fullest, most balanced consideration possible.
Whether or not you agree with everything the book's authors have to say about
and with their pictures, the experience of Unembedded
will leave you uncomfortable about what you have seen, questioning the U.S.'
role in Iraq and the true cost of the fight there. One doctor Alford interviewed
sums it up: "War wounds are always multiple wounds. It's not as simple as a