Witness To War
Interview by Catherine Komp
As we reach the third anniversary of the US-led “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq and subsequent occupation, there is still no clear indication of when the devastation will end. A land that many historians called the birthplace of civilization has been reduced to smoldering buildings, burned-out cars, broken glass, and deserted streets.
Unsanitized images of this shattered landscape are often hard to come by, especially those that expose the daily realities of living amongst the chaos — people’s pain, anger, and fear along with their strength, determination, and hope. But there are a number of unembedded journalists who continue to work in Iraq, leaving the security of the green zone and armed guards, to live amongst Iraqis and capture what American photograher Kael Alford describes as the “horror and beauty of Iraq.”
Alford, along with three other independent photographers, American Thorne Anderson, Canadian Rita Leistner, and Iraqi Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, have collaborated on Unembedded, a book and traveling exhibit of their photographs and essays. Clamor recently had the chance to ask Leistner and Anderson about their work.
What stories do your photos tell about the changes to Iraq’s people and cities that weren’t being told by other photojournalists?
Leistner: The work of embedded photojournalists is certainly important in showing the changes going on in Iraq (I was embedded myself for four months in the spring and summer of 2003). But when I was embedded, my story was about the soldiers. This was simple access and location: you report on where you are. Being unembedded meant spending time with Iraqis and so we were able to record the effects of the war on their lives. What our work and experience shows is that things are getting worse by far for the Iraqi people. You can’t show this so well if you are living on a military base with American soldiers.
As an unembedded photojournalist in Iraq, how did you perceive your role in recording the destruction of war and the impact of the US occupation?
Anderson: I think news media, particularly American and particularly television, where most Americans get their information, relies too heavily on the reports of journalists embedded with American and coalition troops in Iraq. I feel that our role as journalists and the goal of this book is to provide balance to that coverage.
I’m glad the embed program exists and I would like to see it continue. Some journalists have done great work while embedded, but the perspective of embedded journalists is very limited. They only see what the troops see, and they only get to meet ordinary Iraqis on rare occasions and always surrounded by soldiers, guns, and heavy armor. It’s impossible to see Iraq from a more local perspective under those circumstances. Embedding with the military is a great way to do a story about the soldiers and the effect the war has on them, but it’s not the best way to report on what this war has done to Iraq.
America has suffered a lot in this war. I feel very strongly about the sacrifices that the U.S. military has made in Iraq. I don’t begrudge the heroism of American soldiers and it breaks my heart to consider the tragedies that many American families have suffered as a result of the disruption of their family lives, the life-altering physical and emotional injuries of tens of thousands of American soldiers, and the loss of more than 2000 American soldiers’ lives. But it is important to remember that the Iraqi people themselves bear the brunt of the tragedies of this war. And it is not possible to get a clear picture of the Iraqi perspective while working as an embedded journalist.
I have worked for a brief period embedded with American forces and I felt like I was trapped in a heavily armored plastic bubble. I could see Iraq from the back seat of those humvees, but I couldn’t touch it or feel it or interact with it. And it was impossible to have any kind of meaningful contact with Iraqi people while wearing body armor and surrounded by American soldiers. I first traveled to Iraq in 2002, before the most recent U.S. and coalition invasion and I already had all the local contacts I needed to report without the support of the U.S. military, so I felt a responsibility to do my part to balance what is reported by embedded journalists.
Has embedded journalism irrevocably changed war reporting?
Leistner: This embedded issue is the most important one facing journalism in Iraq. Today in Iraq, it is impossible to work as an unembedded journalist without it being a near suicidal act. It is a very bad thing indeed to think that the only view of the ongoing conflict in Iraq will be from inside a military unit, but I’m not sure if we can blame the embed process itself for that. I would, however, argue that the impression embedded journalism early in the war gave to the Iraqis was that the media and the military worked as a team. I don’t think we can easily measure the influence this has had on how journalists are viewed and treated in Iraq, but I am certain it has had a negative effect and has contributed to the loss of security for journalists as perceived as any kind of neutral party.
What stories do your photos tell about the real costs of war?
Leistner: The obvious costs of war are perhaps the ones we see on TV: soldier casualties, Iraqi “enemy” casualties. Some destruction of buildings. The real cost of course is much wider than that. There are uncountable civilian casualties. There are the wounded and maimed. There are orphaned children. Schooling is disrupted. Entire cities are leveled by bombs (this is never shown in the mainstream media). Children become soldiers willing to die fighting. Security erodes to the point that everyone is afraid -— of attacks, of kidnappings, of robbery, of assassination. Amenities in general suffer with direct results on the population: No electricity means no water, no sanitation, no added security of lights at night. The rights of women are deteriorating in Iraq as religious fundamentalist gain power. This doesn’t just mean being forced to wear covers, but beatings and the legal murder of women (called honor killing) is finding renewed popularity.
How do civilians adapt to the destruction of war that is all around them?
Leistner: Most who can leave the country do rather than having to live in a war zone. Others live in fear and feel helpless. I’m not sure if that is “adapting.” One can adapt to anything, I suppose. I would say all people can adapt as is human nature to do so, out of necessity or having no other option. Maybe “put up with” is a better term for it. Some choose to take up arms. That makes me think of the use of the word “adapt” as it’s used to describe the militant Borg in the Star Trek series. It’s all about survival.
Anderson: War brings out extremes in people. On the one hand we do see the best of humanity: generosity, warmth, and kindness offered up in the worst circumstances. But war brings out the worst in us as well. The value of life is cheapened each time one witnesses a senseless violent death.
When working in conflict zones, when should a reporter put down the camera and try to help injured people?
Leistner: When they think they are realistically in a position to be able to help.
Anderson: Whenever we can be more helpful than others in the vicinity. But it is important to remember that we as photographers are almost always the outsiders and usually have less to offer than the local people in the vicinity of traumatic events. In those cases, the best we can do is continue to do our jobs, documenting important events with integrity.
How do you maintain honesty and truth in your photos?
Anderson: We chose to work unembedded so that we might provide another perspective on this war. And I mean that literally: we sought out a specific physical perspective — not a specific political perspective — outside the American bases and armored vehicles. That is, we chose to see what the war looks like from a more Iraqi point of view. That was our only agenda. What you see in the book is what we saw from there. It’s not the only perspective, but it is an important one — perhaps the most important one.
We get the occasional internet flamer who claims that by working unembedded, particularly by working occasionally behind the insurgent lines, we are somehow “aiding and abetting the enemy.” The other phrase we sometimes see is “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” I’m really not sure how people come to that conclusion because I see the work we do as a service to the American public. The U.S. is involved in an unprecedented manner in a massive military project in Iraq and the U.S. public should really know what that looks like from all angles. Anyway, those responses are few. The vast majority of responses we get to the book are very positive. People are often even grateful. It’s clear that there is a hunger out there for coverage of Iraq that goes beyond what people normally see on their television screens.
Leistner: I think that the greatest truth and honestly in my photographs comes from the subjects I photograph. This is especially true of the portraits. I want the world to look into their faces as I did and see the humanity and the honesty in them. I don’t want to just have compassion or pity for them, but some kind of empathy too — of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think, “I can see some of myself in this person’s face. Does this person deserve to live in terror any more than I do?”
Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq
Chelsea Green, 2005