Live From Iraq

Two and a half years into the war in Iraq and we still know so little about the Iraqis on the ground and how they survive and die each day.

News reports are dominated by coverage of American fighters. Our visual understanding of the war is almost exclusively American: our soldiers atop tanks racing to liberate Baghdad, suffering heat and sandstorms, their faces bathed in an orange glow; American Marines in full battle mode charging across the Diwanya Bridge; and the shock and awe over Baghdad, almost like Grucci fireworks -- as long as you don't see what happens when they hit their targets.

And that's the whole problem. We rarely see who is at the receiving end of a hellfire missile, or a 50-caliber rifle, or a 500-pound bomb. The politics of that destruction and the anger and desperation it fuels, remains hidden.

So it brings great relief to finally get a glimpse into the Iraqi experience, from four intrepid independent photojournalists who have compiled their images into the new book, Unembedded (Chelsea Green). Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, Rita Leistner and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad decided to forsake the bubble of the American military and cross front lines to see what life is like from the Iraqi side.

The collection of 149 photographs and dispatches from the photographers begins with the American invasion in March 2003, moves through the rise of the insurgency in Falluja and Sadr City and culminates with the siege of Najaf and the Mahdi Army in August 2004.

Along the way we visit hospitals in Fallujah and Baghdad where relatives wash their dead and care for the wounded. We see a mosque in Baghdad where women mourn more than 50 killed by a U.S. bomb. We see an Iraqi boy triumphantly celebrating the explosion of an American vehicle. And from the courageous Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, the lone Iraqi photographer in the group, (Alford and Anderson are Americans, Leistner is Canadian) we see an extraordinary sequence of photographs of civilians running from a U.S. helicopter attack on Harif Street in Baghdad in September 2004.

Angry residents of Zafrania confront U.S. soldiers
Zafrania, April 26, 2003 -- Angry residents of Zafrania confront U.S. soldiers guarding an ammunition stockpile after an accident launched a missile that killed people in nearby houses. Photo by Kael Alford.

Amid the violence, there are many welcome images of daily life with Iraqis enjoying small pleasures: family members swimming in the Euphrates river, men dancing at a wedding in Ramadi, women squeezed into a car on their way to a henna party in Sadr City, and men playing dominoes at sunset on the banks of the Tigris River. In a book about war, the images of Iraqis at peace, done artfully and unsentimentally, humanize the conflict and remind us that before the American invasion and even after, Iraq is still a country of individuals who feel and dream and celebrate and socialize, like people everywhere. They are not just Sunnis, or Shiites or Kurds, or in soldier parlance, Hajjis.

The photographers do not discriminate when it comes to the purveyors of violence. It is not just the Americans blowing up civilians. There are plenty of victims here from Iraqi car bombers and saboteurs. Yet the origin of the madness is leveled squarely at Americans as demonstrated by a strong image by Alford which appears early in the book, of angry Zafrania residents in April 2003 confronting American soldiers after a missile accidentally killed several people in a nearby house. The Iraqis, of all ages, are furious, demanding an explanation. We never see the American soldiers in the picture. The way Alford shot it, we -- the viewers -- are the soldiers, the occupiers, and we are the ones who have some explaining to do.

A patient at Rashad Psychiatric Hospital
Baghdad, April 15, 2004 -- A patient at Rashad Psychiatric Hospital sits by a television broadcasting one of the Coalition Provisional Authority's daily live broadcasts. Photo by Rita Leistner.

Nearly half of the book is dedicated to the rise of the Mahdi Army and the growing power of Muqtada al-Sadr. According to Leistner, all four photographers began photographing the rise of the Shiite insurgency and naturally followed it to its culmination in the holy city of Najaf, where, in August 2004, forces loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr fought an onslaught by American troops.

"The Mahdi Army was media savvy. They actually had a quasi media liaison," says Rita Leistner. "It was difficult and dangerous but you could do it, you could make contact, and there were people who were open to journalists." The result is that all four photographers came away with up-close, unscripted, intimate moments of the siege of Najaf from the Iraqi point of view.

Looking at these pictures now, I only wish we could see the same coverage from Falluja, Ramadi and Tal Afar. But for a Westerner, it appears too dangerous, nearly impossible. Leistner says with sadness that if she were to return to Iraq, "I would probably have to be embedded and I'm not sure what that would contribute to the dialogue or story on Iraq."

Leitsner has a unique perspective, after spending four months with soldiers from the 37th Cavalry 3rd Infantry Division from April to August 2003. "Being embedded is about the soldiers, it's just inconceivable to think that it's a story about Iraq. I always knew that wasn't the only way I wanted to cover the story, that I was going to go back unembedded."

A man walks through a devastated street west of the Imam Ali shrine
Najaf, Aug. 27, 2004 -- A man walks through a devastated street west of the Imam Ali shrine. The street was a front-line fighting position for the U.S. Army and Mahdi Army fighters during a nearly three-week battle that left much of the old city in ruins. Photo by Thorne Anderson.

As a collaborative effort, the book suffers from some confusion, and not all the photographs are first rate. Some of the images from the early days of the war seem a waste and the book's sequencing is confusing; sometimes chronological and other times not. The few images of American soldiers are fairly innocuous, and I almost wished for a few great photographs depicting the daily humiliation of occupation -- house searches and identity checks, the kinds of shots taken most easily by embeds.

Still, Unembedded is a great accomplishment and a terrific counterpoint to the routine images gracing the front pages of most American newspapers.

Consider this: The picture most widely distributed during the Marines' violent siege of Falluja last November was a close-up shot of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, otherwise known as the Marlboro Man, his face smeared with the grime of war and a cigarette seductively hanging from his lip. This image was taken by Los Angeles Times embedded photographer Luis Sinco and published in over 100 newspapers on Nov. 11, 2004. On that day in Baghdad alone an estimated 19 people were killed and an unknown number lost their lives in Falluja. But it was the Marlboro Man who made the front page coast to coast. There are no Marlboro Men in Unembedded.

Images from 'Unembedded' will be exhibited at the Redux Gallery in New York on Jan. 19, 2006. For more information on the book and future exhibits, visit the website.

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