From War Zones to Museum Walls, Capturing the Iraq War at Eye Level

BY Spencer Michels  March 21, 2013 at 2:20 PM EDT


Photographer Thorne Anderson captured this image in Najaf, Iraq, in 2004 while working as a freelancer covering the Iraq War.

When photographers go into the field to cover a war, it would seem that making art to hang in museums is probably pretty far down on their to-do list — after staying alive, getting good action photos and selling their work to newspapers and magazines.

Thorne Anderson and Kael Alford in Iraq

That’s pretty much what Thorne Anderson and Kael Alford did 10 years ago, when they went to Iraq as freelancers to cover the beginnings of America’s war.

They went as journalists, which is what they still call themselves — objective, hardworking photographers who decided not to embed themselves with the American forces who invaded the country, trying to rid it of weapons of mass destruction and of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

By not being embedded, Anderson and Alford cut themselves out of a lot of the “action.” But they found other subjects to photograph equally interesting, perhaps more insightful. They covered Iraq itself — and its people — as best they could, living with the war. An exhibit of their work, “Eye Level in Iraq”, is on display at San Francisco’s deYoung Museum, on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of that war.


Kael Alford shot this Fallujah scene in 2003.

Anderson is well aware of the difficulty in remaining objective when he is working with people whose lives are endangered by the war all around them. In preparing a story for PBS NewsHour about the photos, I observed him and his wife, Alford, as they talked to photography students at the San Francisco Art Institute. Anderson was eager to bore in on the topic of journalistic objectivity:

“This line between journalist and activist is hard to draw. It is really important for me to maintain a distinction between when I’m acting as a journalist, and whether or not people see 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 directly try to address that injustice. It’s definitely something that is always in the back of my mind.”

For Alford, it seemed difficult to completely divorce herself from issues faced by the Iraqis she was photographing:

“We decided we were going to show this from an Iraqi civilian perspective; we also wanted to be sure we helped Americans understand the motivations of those people who decided to challenge the U.S. occupation … Certainly many Iraqis hated Saddam Hussein and wanted him go, but what followed was this sort of long intractable conflict where American forces were staying in Iraq. A lot of Iraqis saw that as a colonial enterprise, a kind of occupation, a kind of offense really to their own sovereignty.”


This photo by Kael Alford shows a protest in Baghdad from 2004.

However, they resolved these sticky issues — issues that every journalist must face — and their work was judged as of museum quality. Not always easy to look at, it portrays the life of a people during a war. And as such, it was more than simply a record of that war. The chief curator at the San Francisco Art Museums, Julian Cox, said he was mesmerized by the photos when he first saw them in 2006. “I felt vehemently they needed to be seen by a large audience.”

Cox acknowledged that putting them on display was unusual for a museum like the deYoung:

“Those kinds of pictures are not typically seen in major art museums. There are one or two institutions across the country that do show these kinds of pictures, but you don’t usually see them in art museum context … The pictures are incredibly moving.”

Despite the lack of combat shown in the photos, Cox praises the nerve and the skill of the photographers. “Their bravery and their commitment to telling this story is what motivates me to put this war in front of a much larger audience,” he said. “And sometimes where there is horror, there is also great beauty.”

Alford and Anderson are back in the United States these days, both teaching at a college in Texas. But they would like to return to Iraq now that the U.S. is mostly gone. “I’m sure I’ll go back at some point,” said Alford. “I don’t know when, but I like Iraq. I like the people that I know there. I miss it.”

Their work is on exhibit at the deYoung Museum until June 16.

Watch Spencer Michels’ broadcast report on the exhibit (updated with link). Plus, view the NewsHour’s 2010 reports from Iraq on the end of official U.S. combat operations.