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Female Photojournalists Discuss Their Work in Iraq

February 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Images from Iraq: The terror, the wounded, the grief. Photos taken by two young American women, friends now, drawn to Iraq despite the dangers there on their first combat assignments.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: I had never really understood what it was like to be exposed to this type of violence and this type of stress.

TERENCE SMITH: Stephanie Sinclair’s work has recently been on exhibit at Chicago’s Peace Museum.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, she first went to Iraq for the Chicago Tribune, and now shoots for Corbis Images.

Despite the popular notion that conflict photography is a man’s job, she says up to a fourth of the photojournalists cycling in and out of Iraq are women.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: People in general just want to be a part of documenting history and witnessing it and being a voice for people. It’s compelling and it’s an amazing opportunity in your life. So, why not?

TERENCE SMITH: Andrea Bruce Woodall is a staff photographer for the Washington Post. She’d made five trips to Iraq by the end of last year when her diary was published by her newspaper.

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: It’s my release in a way to get a lot of the thoughts and feelings that I have out and to be able to deal with it more on a day-to-day basis than keep it all in and deal with it years down the road, I guess.

TERENCE SMITH: The conflict has taken an emotional toll.

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: The bombings are the worst. It’s a really hard thing to get out of my mind, definitely, even still. The smells and the grief and the hopelessness that they feel is — it sticks on you.

TERENCE SMITH: Woodall’s photos of an incident while embedded with American soldiers:

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: As we were pulling out of the village, the bomb went off about five feet away from the humvee that I was in. But my humvee was completely armored. The humvee behind me wasn’t, and two soldiers who were in the back of the humvee caught some heavy shrapnel in their faces. Specialist Gonzalez, he was in severe pain. He was taken into the local army hospital. And when he was being worked on, he would — he was supposed to be lying down, and he would forcefully sit up and start praying over and over again.

TERENCE SMITH: Soldiers grieving; soldiers missing home.

TERENCE SMITH: I notice that while you have lots of pictures of U.S. soldiers, they’re generally not in combat. You’re capturing them at other moments.


TERENCE SMITH: Intentional?

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: I think that it’s expected that they’re going to fight. What’s unexpected is how are they going to react to being in the field — how to remind readers that they are people — that they’re Americans who are missing their families while risking their lives.

TERENCE SMITH: While safety concerns sometimes make it imperative, both Sinclair and Woodall prefer not to be embedded with U.S. military units.

It is the plight of Iraqi civilians caught up in the conflict that keeps drawing them to Iraq.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: I was moved by them. It wasn’t really a decision I made. It was something that was taken out of me, and I just couldn’t leave.

TERENCE SMITH: A man and his daughter before the fall of Basra. It does seem extraordinary that the father and the daughter would walk through that scene…

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: It’s their home. That’s where, you know, they have family members in there. They have to go home.

TERENCE SMITH: The women hope their photos will give Americans a better understanding of what the conflict has done. A war widow here, supporting her two children through prostitution.

Young men released from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: This is one young man who was being greeted by all of his family members and his friends. They tackled him with hugs and kisses, and everyone was crying. And it was one of the most beautiful moments that I saw there.

TERENCE SMITH: Fearing that Americans are inured and even desensitized to a steady diet of grim scenes of war, Woodall also tries to tell the Iraq story through scenes of everyday life. They look like they’re having fun.

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: Yeah. This is in Fallujah. It’s not really —

TERENCE SMITH: Oh, really?

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: — an image that we associate with Fallujah.

I think it’s extremely important to show not only the sadness and the grief and the blood and the horror of things that happen there, but also show that these are people just like us.

TERENCE SMITH: As a woman, Woodall says she can gain access to shoot scenes of domestic life that would not be easy for a male photojournalist in the Middle East.

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: Women aren’t really allowed to be in a room alone with a man unless it is their husband or unless their husband is present. Being a Western woman, I can still enter into the man’s realm and be somewhat accepted because they see me differently than most, you know, Iraqi women. And yet I can also go into the women’s world openly and freely.

TERENCE SMITH: A little girl being kept inside by her mother.

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: Because of the cluster bombs.

TERENCE SMITH: And the danger.

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: And we could see them everywhere outside. It was pretty frightening.

TERENCE SMITH: The consequences of going out to play: A 6-year-old being washed for burial. Stephanie Sinclair:

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: The mother or family member will clean them by hand. And, you know, it’s very intimate, very private, private experience that they do, and — so — but I was allowed to go in and — because they knew what had happened to them was an injustice and that these girls were innocent and — so, they wanted to show people what could happen.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think that women photographers shoot with a different eye in a story like Iraq?

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: I think so. Everyone’s going to photograph the moment in front of them, but I think sometimes we look for — the subtleties are more emotional.

TERENCE SMITH: Sinclair’s photographs often focus on the subject’s eyes.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: I want to find the truth of the situation. And a lot of times, there is so much, you know, dog and pony show out there. You have, like, everyone’s trying to show you their version of what happened. And sometimes you just want to look into their eyes and be like, “what really happened?”

TERENCE SMITH: As Iraq becomes even more dangerous for Westerners, both women worry that fewer Western journalists will tell the Iraqi story. Stephanie Sinclair has decided to stay out of Iraq for a while.

STEPHANIE SINCLAIR: I’ve known a lot of people injured and killed there this year. I hate to put it graphically, but it was a very graphic experience, like pieces of bodies and explosions. Everyone has their limits, and I just had to kind of come to the point where I said, “OK, I think I’ve reached my limit for now.”

TERENCE SMITH: Although Andrea Bruce Woodall is ready to return to Iraq, her newspaper has postponed her next trip, citing the danger.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you have a sense that the American people understand what the Iraqis are going through?

ANDREA BRUCE WOODALL: No, I really don’t. In fact, I think many people, my own family included, try to shut out Iraq these days.

People don’t have a good sense of what it is like for anyone over there, and it’s one of the reasons why I go back.

And I go back because I feel like maybe this time I can really get people to see what it’s like or get people to really, you know, care.