Five Years of the Iraq War
A masked Iraqi National Guardsman blindfolds a detainee suspected of having links with foreign militants, Basra. Atef Hassan/ Reuters
“This is the last war I will cover”- Samia Nakhoul
Whether and how photographs work depend on a lot of things, and this is especially true for news pictures. Both expectations and possibilities are shaped by everything from page layout and caption to the political climate to pretty much anything a viewer brings to a picture.
Few “genres” of photography have as clearly pronounced a remit as war photography, to bear witness, to effect change. In the second world war, photographs valorized soldiers’ courage; through the wars of the 1950s to the 1970s, a tradition of war photography attended to human costs.
Because war images are both hard to produce and hard to look at, a great deal of emotional and perceptual management takes place around war images. Photography of the Iraq war has been defined by its own trajectories of embedding and car bombings, of digital imaging, and of an accumulated history and tradition of war photography.
Reuters’ Bearing Witness: Five Years of the Iraq War is a powerful multimedia presentation. Like many of the other online multimedia pieces produced to mark the ongoing war, it provides timelines, maps, pictures and videos. It distinguishes itself from other presentations, however, by humanizing the war- not only through the journalism, but through its portrayal of Reuters journalists.
One might ask, considering the scale of devastation wrought in the name of this war, what it means to foreground the experiences not of combatants and victims, but of professional foreign journalists. The profiles of Reuters staff, however, are excruciating and powerful. I found watching and listening to Gulf Bureau Chief Samia Nakhoul talk about her time in Iraq (which included being wounded herself and the deaths of close colleagues) deeply moving. And while Baghdad bureau chief Dean Yates notes that most of the seven Reuters staff who have died during the Iraq war were killed by American fire, what he leaves unsaid speaks volumes.
The presentation works because it tells the story of the war through the experiences and words of three individuals (the third is photographer Goran Tomasevic). For better or for worse, by the time I got to the timelines and maps, I was considering these through the perspectives of the Reuters staff.
Similarly, iconic images work in certain contexts but they often reduce and simplify, serving magazine front covers with impact if not complexity. These profiles stripped the gloss off of pictures that had been seen again and again, and allowed many iconic images to become unpacked, to be returned to the stream of history.
The risk to Iraqi journalists is arguably greater than that faced by more obviously visible but protected foreign journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists marks five years with Dateline Iraq- Five Years Later , which includes interviews with journalists about reporting in Iraq and how working there has changed over the last five years. Of 111 journalists killed in this war, more than three quarters were Iraqi.
In the CPJ report, photographer Jehad Nga describes the change in Iraqi military practices. Bombing scenes are controlled in a way that prevents photographers from photographing the dead. On the U. Chicago Press page promoting Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle of the Iraq War, Ashley Gilbertson similarly describes how the rules regarding photo reporting in Iraq have changed (via No Caption Needed ).
Despite these obstacles, coverage continues. But continued coverage raises another question:
National Public Radio’s On the Media focuses this week on war coverage and features an interview with writer Jim Lewis . Lewis was troubled by what he observed as strong images’ capacity to distract from understanding issues (via 2point8):
I would be talking to friends and family and people that I worked with and trying to explain what was going on in the Congo and what I had seen, and I would show them these photographs along with others. And I just found that they got in the way of trying to tell the story I wanted to tell, and that, in fact, rather than clarifying the story, the shock of the photographs had a tendency to derail both my telling of the story and other people’s understanding of it.
In Dark Odyssey, Philip Jones Griffiths notes that the point of photographing horrors is not to document “man’s inhumanity towards man” but to effect change by understanding the basis for violence. Reflecting on five years’ worth of pictures of horrors, it should not only be the weight of the images that presses for a change in thought and action; the pictures must be presented in a way that addresses not only the violence, but its basis as well.