Iraq is not so much a country now, in the western mind’s eye, as it is a by-word for chaos. Reporting the country’s conflict has cost numerous lives and been fraught with difficulty; a web of managed information, propaganda and lies. The option to be ‘embedded’ with a troop was often all that was available to journalists wanting to report from the region, but the four photographers whose work is featured in this excellent book sought more. They are drawn together by an instinct to document the everyday lives of people they witnessed and met in Iraq, as well as the pain and wreckage of bombs and shootings.
The photographs of Ghaith Abdul-Ahad from Iraq, Kael Alford from the US, Thorne Anderson from the US and Rita Leistner from Canada unite to become a whole body of work with which to construct this document. An image by Thorne Anderson in Baghdad, April 2003, shows a group of local boys laughing with glee as one aims a jet of urine on the head of a fallen Saddam statue. What is touching is the schoolboyish delight in the act; the exuberance. Anderson’s understanding of the complexity of emotions in the city at the time leads him to add: ‘There were also chants of “Down, Down America!”’.
In another image from Baghdad in April 2003, taken by Kael Alford in Yarmouk Hospital, a man stares into the camera and covers his mouth with a hand in desolation and heartbreak. His wife and two children have just been killed by a missile hitting their house. In Falluja, Anderson takes a picture through an X-ray of a nine-year-old boy’s skull and captures his little sister similarly clasping her mouth in shock. America’s ‘shock and awe’ tactics are shown here to be working – against the citizenry.
Some of the most vivid images of fighting, fear and death are taken by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who filed reports for The Guardian, and whose writing, with that of the other photographers, complements the images with spare and straight commentary. In a series of two pictures we see a group of injured men shell-shocked, sitting up, and then slumped dead on Haifa Street, Baghdad. Abdul-Ahad describes his guilt in taking the photographs.
The book benefits enormously from two of its four contributors being women. Alford’s picture of a big water fight in the Euphrates River between female cousins as they hitch up their skirts is joyous, while she also shows sophisticated young women, made up in a Baghdad restaurant, and a bride-to-be getting ready.
Rita Leistner, who hiked into Iraq over the Turkish border, has made some remarkable portraits of her Kurdish smugglers and one of a female Kurdish separatist guerrilla, dressed in uniform, headscarf tied and nails painted, smoking a cigarette and being chased around by her two daughters at a secret mountain camp. Her pictures of women at the Rashad Psychiatric Hospital are unsettling, respectful, and are at times, beautiful.
Unembedded is a hugely valuable portrait of the people of Iraq and has been published with modesty and sensitivity. If its structure is sometimes confusing, every image is well captioned and offers a significant insight into the lives of Iraqis struggling to survive and get by as the world watched.