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Remembering the Faces of the Iraq War Through the Eyes of Photojournalists

March 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the early days of the Iraq war, photojournalists risked their lives to capture the daily existence of Iraqis in the middle of conflict. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels goes behind the frame to talk with photographers about communicating urgency through image and the separation between journalism and activism.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: the war in Iraq, which began 10 years ago this week, as seen through a camera lens.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports on a new exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

A warning: Some images in this story are disturbing.

SPENCER MICHELS: By far, the majority of American journalists who covered the early days of the Iraq war, 600 of them, were officially embedded with American troops, dependent on soldiers and Marines for protection, food, and for the stories they wrote or photographed.

But while the Bush administration encouraged embedding and said it wasn’t responsible for the safety of those not embedded, some journalists set out on their own to see what they could see without American military supervision or restrictions.

THORNE ANDERSON, Photographer: With Iraq, this is what I knew about it before I went the first time.

SPENCER MICHELS: Thorne Anderson and Kael Alford, a married couple who live and teach in Texas, were among the unembedded photojournalists who covered Iraq back then.

Their San Francisco exhibit, “Eye Level in Iraq,” shows the result of their taking chances as they tried to find Iraqis in situations apart from the troops.

THORNE ANDERSON: When you talk to an Iraqi person and you’re surrounded by these giant men with automatic weapons and flak jackets and helmets, they just cannot respond to you in a normal way. You can’t sit and have tea with them. You can’t go their funerals. You can’t play with their children.

The only way to have that experience is to get outside of the Humvee, to take off the flak jacket, travel in an ordinary car, to relate to people in an ordinary one-to-one kind of way.

KAEL ALFORD, Photographer: The time that we were working, between 2003 and 2004, it was a much safer place to be an unembedded journalist in Iraq, that, by the time we left at the end of 2004, journalists were being targeted more specifically.

SPENCER MICHELS: Working often as competitors, sometimes as colleagues, they came up with pictures, many published in American journals and newspapers, that told a different kind of story, as Alford related to a group of docents at the museum.

KAEL ALFORD: I wanted to be sure that I could make photographs that revealed that no war is clean.

This girl is an 8-year-old girl who was killed in a market on the outskirts of Baghdad. And so this bomb, we think, was probably launched by an aircraft carrier, a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and landed in this busy marketplace, killing more than 50 people.

These are her brothers who carried her into — basically, this is a morgue area inside a mosque. And so this is a very intimate kind of moment. And, as photographers, we were always looking to find ways to communicate the urgency of horrible drama in these situations. And I actually — it was challenging for me to make this picture.

It’s been one of the photographs that most — I get the most reaction from, from people, because it is so intimate and rare to see somebody this vulnerable, this young, and she’s so perfect. She seems alive.

SPENCER MICHELS: Anderson’s photos tell stories as well, stories he admits are sometimes beyond the photographer’s control.

THORNE ANDERSON: A lot of these photographs are, if we’re honest with ourselves, something of a collaboration between the photographer and the people being photographed. They’re allowing you to photograph. They prevent you from photographing some things that they don’t want you to see.

And even if you think that you have captured something very, very specific, when it comes to the audience, who knows the way they are going to see it.

SPENCER MICHELS: This Anderson photo portrayed part of the Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr.

THORNE ANDERSON: We had managed to work behind the Mahdi army’s front lines and to photograph that organization from the inside.

And that’s what you are trying to do as journalists. I’m photographing these two men and the son of one man repairing an RPG that had been damaged in battle. And it think of it as a very intimate moment.

Primarily, for me, it’s really kind of a visual representation of how a history of violence gets passed on from one generation to another.

SPENCER MICHELS: As close as he got to the people, Anderson says he tried to remained objective.

THORNE ANDERSON: 100 percent, this is journalism. One of your biggest jobs is to show people something they can’t see for themselves. And the furthest you can go is into an intimate moment in some stranger’s life.

SPENCER MICHELS: But, as Anderson told a group of art and photo students at the San Francisco Art Institute, objectivity isn’t always that clear or obvious.

THORNE ANDERSON: I have to navigate the sort of territory where it’s not always clear the difference between what a journalist and what an activist is.

There are certain things that for me are very black and white. I call myself a journalist. And I think, for my purposes, I think it is really important to for me to maintain a distinction between when I’m acting as a journalist and whether or not people perceive me as an activist.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t see injustice in the world, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t try to directly address that injustice. It’s definitely something that is always in the back of my mind.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the museum, only a few of the photos show American soldiers, yet the specter of war permeates the exhibit.

And that’s the point, argues Julian Cox, chief curator at the museum.

JULIAN COX, San Francisco Fine Arts Museums: They’re not easy to look at, but they are beautiful. Think about Francisco Goya and The Disasters of War. Think about Picasso and Guernica.

I mean, these are not — not easy things to look at, but yet they have — they transit across time, and they become very powerful, very significant.

SPENCER MICHELS: Cox says most fine arts museums shy away from contemporary, newsy photos.

JULIAN COX: Those kinds of pictures are not typically seen in major art museums.

Photography is a medium that most people now take for granted. Everybody has a camera. These images are historically important, also very beautiful to look at.

SPENCER MICHELS: The exhibit was timed to coincide with America’s leaving Iraq. For Anderson, it was a time to reflect.

THORNE ANDERSON: What I see is the desperation that I felt at that time, to try and capture these fleeting events before it was too late. When people see the museum, I really want them as much as possible to feel what it must have been like for Iraqi people at that time.

SPENCER MICHELS: “Eye Level in Iraq” remains at the de Young in San Francisco until June 16th.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, we have more lasting impressions of the Iraq conflict from two veteran broadcast reporters: ABC News’ Martha Raddatz and NPR’s Deborah Amos.