[published: July 01, 2009]
One of the few independent photographers in Baghdad during the start of the Iraq War reflects on what it means to glimpse the battlefield on one’s own terms.
Foreign news reporting is in trouble. There are fewer paid outlets for foreign news and less funding for assignments. Foreign news pages in many long-trusted ink and paper publications are shrinking and international bureaus are closing shop while budgets for foreign news are re-directed at keeping business afloat at home. This is happening while our country is at war on at least two fronts.
Increasingly, foreign correspondents are independent journalists who put their livelihoods and welfare on the line. They are a crucial missing link, ground-truthing our satellite view of the world. Increasingly, freelance journalists are the outposts of our civilian intelligence abroad.
One editor told me on the day I left for Baghdad before the U.S.-led invasion “We’ll publish your photographs, but if something happens to you, we are not responsible.” The trade off is that as a freelancer, you meet the world on your own terms. You can peer between the headlines or the obvious assignments for stories that might be overlooked, that might challenge your editors’ assumptions or perspectives that may be unpopular at home. And if you get that sort of first hand experience it will certainly change how you see yourself and your role in the world.
In some ways, the events in the following photographs seem to have occurred a lifetime ago. Freelance journalism rarely makes for a stable life. In the last 5 years I’ve lived in three countries on two continents, re-adjusted to life as an American at home, a very different experience from being an American abroad, and re-discovered a range of life on this side of American’s wars, where it often seems like there is no war at all. And yet my time in Iraq feels like yesterday. Though I spent only 10 months in there, in 2003 and 2004, but I think of that distant place every day. On some level, I feel like I owe the people I met in Iraq at least that, a shred of my daily consciousness. And for my own sanity, I need to continue to make meaning of what I saw. I regularly vow to make a return trip, once I can find a reasonable way to finance the stories I’d like to do there.
In Afghanistan now, we are testing our military strategies again. There, U.S. soldiers are often fighting people who are known in military circles as “accidental enemies”, people (usually men) who had no beef with us until we showed up, dropped a bomb on their village, or began destroying their poppy harvests (thought that’s one policy that is finally beginning to shift). In our efforts to secure ourselves, we may be making as many enemies as we are friends. Newton’s third law of motion often comes to mind when regarding the effects of the U.S. military’s use of force in recent years when applied to desired diplomatic outcomes. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. But who will be there to document that?
It will be difficult for smaller publications with limited resources to provide the far ranging, well-reported, fact-checked reporting and that a variety of well-staffed daily news publications once offered. As the remaining profit-margin driven, advertising dependent print publications gasp for air, it may be that inventive new publications like the one you’re reading, or new models more interested in achieving audience than income, will inform us in the future. Perhaps audiences know this and that’s why you’re here.
Which is why when someone stumbles across my work from Iraq and asks me to write about what it was like to be an independent reporter there, traveling among Iraqi civilians rather than embedding with the American military, I feel obliged to show the images again. I want to remind viewers what the early days of the war looked like, and how the violence with which we entered Iraq help trigger the consequences that followed.
The most recent of these photographs was made five years ago this coming August, but this is one of those cases where typical measures of time are inadequate. Like a birth, or a death in the family, a war shifts personal meaning and comprehension. War also haphazardly upends lives. There are more telling markers of the passage of time since the U.S. led invasion than months and days. Here are a few: 2.6 million internally displaced people in Iraq and 1.9 million Iraqi refugees according to UNHCR. More than 600,000 Iraqi deaths in excess of the pre-war mortality rate according to plausible studies like the Lancet Report, 4,316 dead U.S. soldiers and many more wounded U.S. personnel. These numbers should be familiar to us all by now.
Those know the region say that Iraq is no more stable or prosperous place than it was before the invasion, in fact all indicators tell us that life there now is worse. Nor are Americans are safer now from angry ideologues bent on revenge for U.S. actions abroad. Certainly our own country is no more prosperous or stable thanks to the 657 billion dollar war in Iraq (source: http://costofwar.com/). Even many of those who profited from it most have likely seen their coffers dwindle of late.
It’s valuable to remember how we got here, what the war looked like for Iraqis from the beginning, and to contemplate the short and long term affects for their nation, their neighbors, and consequently, for ourselves. When news breaks of say, Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan, it’s worth reading a little deeper.
So now that you’re surfing around for your own perspective, hunting and pecking at various sources for news, perhaps you’re already thinking more like a journalist yourself. The best reporters take nothing for granted. They step through the looking glass to the other side of the story as often as possible, and rely on evidence, not on opinion nor rhetoric, and look for local narratives.
In a famous moment at the U.N. security council in 2003, former Secretary of State Colin Powell offered images of a chemical weapons factory in northern Iraq among evidence of why we needed to invade southern Iraq (when we already had fair access to the north). The site he showed later turned out to be a chicken farm, confirmed thanks to the field work of a stringer for Time magazine (see: http://www.serendipit-e.com/otherside/). The rest as we know, is history. Nearly every rationale for going to war was debunked by the Iraq Survey Group among a long list of others, and five years later, we’re talking about sending more troops to Afghanistan with fuzzy objectives once again.
It’s a fine time for all of us to take more responsibility for our information about broader world and how it influences our political perspective and decisions. We need to evaluate and cross check the information we’re given, to ask for credible evidence from our sources, particularly our leaders (regardless of how much we like them), and to get a closer view of distant issues on a shrinking (and warming) planet, if we’d like to have a say in what’s done in our names.
Kael has worked as a freelance photographer covering culture, politics and conflict in the Balkans and the Middle East for many US and European magazines and newspapers including Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, The New York Times, The Times (London), The Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle, NRC Handelsblad (Netherlands) Vanity Fair, and others. She was based in the Balkans from 1996-2003. Kael covered during the US invasion of Iraq and worked there until 2004. Her photography from Iraq was included in the book and exhibition “Unembedded: Four Independent Journalists on the War in Iraq”(Chelsea Green, 2005).
She is currently working on a multimedia project documenting coastal erosion in southeast Louisiana and the impact of coastal degradation on the communities there. She is currently a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University and is represented by Panos Pictures in London. She’ll be teaching at this year’s “Foundry Photojournalism Workshop” in lovely Manali, India. Check it out: http://www.foundryphotoworkshop.org/
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