Photojournalists Tell the Untold Stories From Iraq

The Photo Blog
May 31 2013 11:00 AM

Photojournalists Tell the Untold Stories From Iraq

This post contains disturbing images.

AL MUSAYYIB, Iraq—An Iraqi child jumps over the remains of victims found in a mass grave south of Baghdad. The bodies had been brought to this school for identification by family members who searched for identity cards and other clues among the skeletons to identify missing family members. The victims were killed by Saddam Hussein’s government following a Shi’ite uprising here after the 1991 Gulf War, May 27, 2003.
AL MUSAYYIB, Iraq—An Iraqi child jumps over the remains of victims found in a mass grave south of Baghdad. The bodies had been brought to this school for identification by family members who searched for identity cards and other clues among the skeletons to identify missing family members. The victims were killed by Saddam Hussein’s government following a Shi’ite uprising here after the 1991 Gulf War, May 27, 2003.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Photographer and writer Michael Kamber says that covering the Iraq War is the most important work he has ever done.

"It's the war that sort of transformed America, and not for the better," says Kamber, who has worked as a photojournalist for more than 25 years and reported in Iraq for the New York Times on multiple trips since 2003. “It was amazing to be there and have a ringside seat to it."

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Ten years on from the start of the conflict, Kamber has released Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories From Iraq, published by University of Texas Press, an anthology of firsthand accounts by top news photographers from around the world. It is dedicated, in part, to the 151 journalists who lost their lives in Iraq, 41 of whom were photographers and cameramen, many of whom were his friends and colleagues.

Kamber says putting together the book was a cathartic experience—a five-year project that helped him, "Come to terms with the trauma."

Staff Sgt. Zebadiah Thomas, of C Co., 3MUSSAYYIB, Iraq—Staff Sgt. Zebadiah Thomas, of C Co., 3-7 Infantry, watches a stairwell as his squad checks the rest of the house for a fleeing suspect, March 9, 2008.-7 Infantry, watches a stairwell as his squad checks the rest of the house for a fleeing suspect in Musayyib, Iraq, March 9, 2008.
MUSSAYYIB, Iraq—Staff Sgt. Zebadiah Thomas, of C Co., 3-7 Infantry, watches a stairwell as his squad checks the rest of the house for a fleeing suspect, March 9, 2008.

Ben Brody

TAL AFAR, Iraq—Samar Hassan, 5, screams moments after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. The troops fired on the Hassan family car when it unwittingly approached during a dusk patrol in the tense northern town. Her brother, Racan, 11, was wounded in the shooting. Later, after being treated in the U.S. and returning to Iraq, Racan was killed when insurgents bombed the family home in retaliation for the boy’s trip to the U.S., Jan. 18, 2005.
TAL AFAR, Iraq—Samar Hassan, 5, screams moments after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. The troops fired on the Hassan family car when it unwittingly approached during a dusk patrol in the tense northern town. Her brother, Racan, 11, was wounded in the shooting. Later, after being treated in the U.S. and returning to Iraq, Racan was killed when insurgents bombed the family home in retaliation for the boy’s trip to the U.S., Jan. 18, 2005.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

"I came back and struggled with it a lot and dealt with tendencies and habits that were not positive, to say the least," he says. "Once I was able to focus on the book, it really helped me to put some of that negative energy into something positive."

The result is a body of work that Kamber describes in the introduction as a series of "intimate conversations" he had with other photographers, discussing the war, "Obsessively as if scraping at a wound—one we sought to heal as we picked hard at the scab."

The stories detail harrowing near escapes, revelations of failed marriages, fear, trauma, guilt. In one chapter, Lynsey Addario recounts her kidnapping; in another, João Silva remembers picking up his camera after stepping on a land mine (he subsequently lost his legs). The unglorified realities of being a war photojournalist are acknowledged, yet so are the drives and desires that propel them to return.

KARMAH, Iraq—Sgt. Jesse E. Leach drags Lance Cpl. Juan Valdez of Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, to safety moments after he was shot by a sniper during a patrol. Valdez was shot through the arm and right torso but survived, Oct. 31, 2006.
KARMAH, Iraq—Sgt. Jesse E. Leach drags Lance Cpl. Juan Valdez of Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, to safety moments after he was shot by a sniper during a patrol. Valdez was shot through the arm and right torso but survived, Oct. 31, 2006.

João Silva/the New York Times

U.S. Marines take a break to shave in front of one of Saddam Hussain's presidential palaces the day Tikrit fell from Republican Guard rule, April 15, 2003.
U.S. Marines take a break to shave in front of one of Saddam Hussain's presidential palaces the day Tikrit fell from Republican Guard rule, April 15, 2003.

Lynsey Addario/VII

TIKRIT, Iraq—In Saddam's hometown, a U.S. Marine slides down a marble handrail in one of the dictator's extravagant palaces. The residence contained carpets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and at least one golden toilet. Tikrit was the last major city to fall to Allied forces during the invasion, and, despite fighting that continued through Iraq, Marines celebrated victory, April 14, 2003.
TIKRIT, Iraq—In Saddam's hometown, a U.S. Marine slides down a marble handrail in one of the dictator's extravagant palaces. The residence contained carpets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and at least one golden toilet. Tikrit was the last major city to fall to Allied forces during the invasion, and, despite fighting that continued through Iraq, Marines celebrated victory, April 14, 2003.

Ashley Gilbertson/VII

"I think when you get away with it—and there is this sense of getting away with it—and you come out alive with your arms and legs attached, it's a pretty amazing experience,” says Kamber, “getting sent around the world to witness these events and bring the story home for millions of people."

But frequently, issues of censorship pervaded the conflict, and many stories were left untold. Some of the images included in the book have never before been published—they were deemed too gruesome for American audiences at the breakfast table.

"You have to remember, these images showing bodies blown apart and people lying in pools of blood, this was every single day in Baghdad," says Kamber."I wanted to put images in there that had been subjected to some sort of censorship, photos either editors didn’t want to publish, or the U.S. military had objected to."

Steering away from gratuitous violence, Kamber also tried to balance what he called "hard photos" with other photographs that represented the complexities and different facets of the war.

"There's a lot of downtime, a lot of boredom; there's the vastness of the war machine—the fact that we were building military bases the size of small cities, then there's the sweetness and everyday life of the Iraqi people,” he says.

KARBALA, Iraq—An Iraqi woman holds the hand of her dying husband as he lies among the bodies of their children, who were also killed by a suicide bombing during the Shi'ite festival of Ashura. The mother is the only family member to survive, March 2, 2004.
KARBALA, Iraq—An Iraqi woman holds the hand of her dying husband as he lies among the bodies of their children, who were also killed by a suicide bombing during the Shi'ite festival of Ashura. The mother is the only family member to survive, March 2, 2004.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

UBAYDI, Iraq—Capt. George Morris, commander of B Company, 2-502 Infantry, and his soldiers hit the ground running in the opening salvo of Operation “Patriot Strike.” The soldiers detained 10 suspected al-Qaida conspirators and seized weapons and bomb-making supplies, Dec. 29, 2007.
UBAYDI, Iraq—Capt. George Morris, commander of B Company, 2-502 Infantry, and his soldiers hit the ground running in the opening salvo of Operation “Patriot Strike.” The soldiers detained 10 suspected al-Qaida conspirators and seized weapons and bomb-making supplies, Dec. 29, 2007.

Ben Brody

NAJAF, Iraq—A militiaman loyal to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fires toward U.S. positions on the western border of Najaf’s old city. Militiamen engaged U.S. forces with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms fire, Aug. 22, 2004.
NAJAF, Iraq—A militiaman loyal to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fires toward U.S. positions on the western border of Najaf’s old city. Militiamen engaged U.S. forces with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms fire, Aug. 22, 2004.

João Silva/the New York Times

BAGHDAD—Six weeks before the start of the war, a man sits drinking tea at the Al Zahawi cafe on Rashid Street. Cafes are a trademark of this ancient city, gathering places where men socialize and play dominoes and blackjack, Feb. 12, 2003.
BAGHDAD—Six weeks before the start of the war, a man sits drinking tea at the Al Zahawi cafe on Rashid Street. Cafes are a trademark of this ancient city, gathering places where men socialize and play dominoes and blackjack, Feb. 12, 2003.

Bruno Stevens

"Other people will have a history of the war; soldiers will have a different story, or Iraqi civilians will write books that will represent their history. I felt like we had to set this down for history in the way that we know, as photographers.”

Update, June 3, 2013: A photo in this post of Marines removing a soldier's casket from an airplane was removed at the request of the publisher.

Liz Fields is a freelance journalist based in New York. She has written for various magazines and websites in the U.S. and her home country of Australia.