November 9, 2007

Chaos of war is captured by photojournalists’ lenses

By Kellie Ell

WASHINGTON - Kael Alford spent more than two years photographing a war-torn Iraq. One day a missile landed on a civilian home. The father, drenched in blood from his two young children, carried their dead bodies to the hospital followed by his injured wife. Alford learned doctors didn’t want to waste precious time because the wife was too injured to save. Their one surviving child, a bandaged teenage boy, sat on the floor of the infirmary watching his mother bleed to death. Alford snapped a photo at that moment.

“One of my goals was to put a face on civilian casualties,” Alford said of her time spent photographing in Iraq. “I wanted to document the sense of anger the Iraqi people were feeling.”

Sadr City, Baghdad, Aug. 7, 2004. A young boy watches his relatives repair a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the home of a Mahdi Army fighter. - Photo by Thorne Anderson

An exhibit titled, “Unembed-ded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq,” opened Monday at the AFL-CIO headquarters. The show has been traveling throughout the United States for about two years and is featured in a book by the same name.

The 60 images, which will hang through Friday, tell the stories of people whose families were torn apart by fighting and their attempts to live surrounded by the madness and devastation the war produces every day.

In addition to Alford, the freelance photojournalists, who met in Baghdad in 2003, are Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Thorne Anderson and Rita Leistner. All have worked for major news outlets, but wanted to take photos they assumed the U.S. news media would not publish. Alford said the group felt many stories in the U.S. media were “oversimplified.”

After corresponding with one another, they realized they had a body of images spanning the first two years of the war, 2003 and 2004.

The atmosphere of the opening reception was decidedly anti-war, with an emphasis on the victimization of the Iraqi people.

Alford was there to talk about her photos.

“We had a narrative that wasn’t consistent with the American airwaves - and it was pretty accurate,” Alford said. “We had an unembedded perspective. What it was like for Iraqi citizens.”

Sadr City, Baghdad, Aug. 7, 2004. Members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army take to the streets in rebellion against the interim Iraqi government and American military occupation. - Photo by Rita Leistner

The compelling body of work includes photos of a neighborhood in shambles, portraits of Sunni guerrilla fighters at home, Iraqi civilians - many of them children - dead in the streets, Iraqi army fighters held as prisoners of war and Iraqi university students hanging out.

“It is time to bring the war home,” said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president for the AFL-CIO executive council. “Let people see real images. Not filtered through the Pentagon or General [David] Petraeus,” the U.S. commander in Iraq.

Alford, who was in Iraq before the United States attacked, said, “By the time the U.S. military arrived in Baghdad, I was in a pretty bad mood. As a photographer, you often find yourself taking pictures of something uncomfortable. People would pull me into funeral homes and say, ‘Take this photo and show the American people.’ They didn’t believe Americans are that kind of people if they knew the truth.”

Ron Pinchback, general manager of Pacific Radio in Washington and emcee of the evening, talked about the cost the war has on American taxpayers.

“Every man, woman, child, dog is paying $8,000 a year for this war,” Pinchback, said. “This world is in a state of disarray. U.S. foreign powers under this administration have been a disaster. We are here to look at some real photos, real pain, real suffering.”

Speakers and guests discussed the war’s negatives effects, including suffering by both Iraqis and Americans, public health problems and continuing troubles facing veterans returning home.

“I saw these photos, and I was moved to tears,” said Dr. Michael McCally, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “It’s hard not to. We must examine the psychological effects of war.”

Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild and vice president of the Communications Workers of America, said 57 journalists have died in Iraq so far this year, and more than 226 journalists have died in the Middle East since the start of the war, “more than any other war in modern history.”

Alford remains skeptical about whether the United States will withdraw forces soon, noting that the new embassy the U.S. is building in Iraq is one of the “biggest ever.”

“I think it’s a great idea to end the war,” Alford said. “We started it. But it’s out of our control now. I don’t think it’s our war anymore. We have to cooperate with neighboring nations to end it.”

The photographers are hoping to find other places to show the exhibit, Alford said.

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