Iraq: close and personal

When I arrived in Amman, Jordan, last summer, the Israeli incursion into Lebanon had been going on for two weeks. Relatives of mine had fled Beirut a few days before my arrival, and we all stayed together at my uncle's house. At night my cousins and I would stay up late, smoking and sharing stories about our lives in Beirut and Detroit, and how out of place we felt in conservative Amman. We usually slept in until the late morning and gathered for breakfast around the TV. My aunt put out plates of cheese, olives, zaatar wa zeit and hummus and we flipped between music videos, cancelled English language sitcoms and the news, waiting for word on when our family members could return and whether or not their street had been hit.

As Hassan Nasrallah gave an extended television broadcast, we filled the room, and cried silently together when he stated that Hezbollah would continue resisting occupation until the last bullet. The first time I saw footage of the devastation — the camera panning over long rows of dead infants wrapped up in paper like loaves of bread and surveying still piles of rubble mixed with dismembered human parts — I felt something inside myself quietly snap. I had never felt that way before, but I continued to feel the same hard snap every time Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiyya aired this footage. As an American unaccustomed to seeing such images on televised news in general, I wondered about the sanitized visuals that were being offered back home in the United States about the Lebanese story and the Iraq war. The American network news programs that came on very late at night in Amman (always devoid of Arabic subtitles) seemed primarily concerned with the threat of liquids on airplanes, with little concern for Lebanon's casualties.

It's easy to assume that censorship is to blame for what we don't see in the United States. Independent citizens filmed most of the footage I'd seen of Lebanon while I was in Jordan. In contrast, the Iraq war footage usually available to the American public is produced by "embedded" photographers, who travel with and are protected by the U.S. military and are bound by its rules. As a result, they have little contact with Iraqi people, and their photos are from the literal perspective of an American soldier. Unembedded, an exhibition at Wayne State University's Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, features work by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson and Rita Leistner, four independent photographers attempting to provide insight into everyday Iraqi life. They peer into the reality that we have been shielded from, and also uncover a lesser known truth: We, the American public, are also to blame for what we don't see. This show provides insight into our own cultural expectations of how a story, any story — whether a Time magazine cover story or blockbuster movie — should go. In the optimism projected from the Pentagon, Iraqis existed in extreme oppression under Saddam, and that necessitated an invasion. We stepped in. It seems to follow that, as their liberators, the Iraqi people would happily rise up to greet us. This is not how events progressed, but back in 2003, editors weren't interested in the breaking news of a growing national resistance. Images were chosen, Thorne Anderson says, to correspond to ther predetermined narrative arc.

As an independent photojournalist in Iraq in 2003, photographer Kael Alford snapped "Zafrania, April 26, 2003," a shot of angry male residents of Zafrania confronting American soldiers following a deadly accident that launched a missile from an ammunition stockpile soldiers were guarding which led to civilian casualties. At a recent panel discussion at Wayne State, she spoke about the perceivable shift in attitude as a result of event like this one. The loss of loved ones caused previously law-abiding citizens to grow angry and resentful toward Americans. The men in her photo have their hands raised in pleading and accusatory gestures. A man with a bruise on his forehead (caused not by violence, but by frequent prayer) takes on the role of community elder, demanding accountability for the destruction of his town and consideration for his people. He is clearly grief-stricken and audacious, as he dares to approach the soldiers. Whether or not the Americans were responsible, it's clear they were being held responsible.

At that lecture a few weeks ago, Alford and Thorne Anderson spoke about the aesthetic and political properties in their work, and their reasons for showing the photos in a traveling exhibit, as well as the book, Unembedded (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, $29.95, 192 pp.). Imagery of this war, they said, has largely consisted of the iconic image of Saddam Hussein's head. His is the only Iraqi face that Americans are used to seeing on TV, apart from the occasional soldier helping a civilian or the "token" casualty. Anderson explained that their aim was to take the focus off the "cartoonish villain." In this collection, there is no one image to sum up the experience, no perceived attempt at definitively capturing the Iraqi experience. Instead, there are a multitude of experiences, running the gamut from pre-wedding excitement and celebration to interinsurgency fighting and the mourning of the dead. Although the photographers make artistic decisions when taking a photo — how to frame it, how to simplify it — art is not the point, and accuracy in storytelling is prioritized over aesthetic concerns. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad's photos of the injured and dead during a U.S. attack on Baghdadi citizens are straightforward, capturing the shocked, frozen faces of casualties and the anger and panic of survivors.

In the words of 15-year-old Catherine Faris King, a winner of the America-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's Youth Activism Art Competition, being Arab American means having "a connection to the people in the Middle East whom I have a kind of weird responsibility to." Walking through the gallery at the opening night of the exhibition, I couldn't help thinking that the men in so many of these photos looked like my uncles. These streets looked like their streets, and the children playing with plastic guns reminded me of my young cousins. While viewing these photos, my mind was almost singularly focused on the plight of the average Iraqi. Yet the dominant conversation topic I overheard in the gallery regarded the welfare of American troops, making it seem that nationalist pride and personal ties to U.S. soldiers rendered consideration of other vantage points impossible, or at least very difficult.

A dissenting viewpoint, one that's different from the master narrative, brings us closer to objectivity. These photographs have aroused accusations of anti-soldier, anti-American leanings. In this exhibition, American soldiers appear in only two images, seen in the conflicting roles of helper and interrogator. Their presence is also implied in a Rita Leistner photograph of an Iraqi suspect who has been "bagged and tied." It's an image that evokes the Abu Ghraib photos we saw in 2004.

One buyer of the book argues that the photo's captions are from the point of view of a "Saddam Hussein sympathizer." But he or she should consider that, as Anderson explains, the military itself conducts intelligence on Iraqi life, and documenting an opposing viewpoint can help resolve conflict: "If our journeys from behind the lines were acts of faith," Philip Robertson writes in the book's introduction, "then they were also proof that often when one man is confronted with the humanity of another, he will not raise his rifle and pull the trigger. This is not disloyalty to one's country. It is the thing that brings an end to war."

After repeated viewings of Unembedded, I began to feel "used to" some of the images, so that some scenes aren't as startling to me as they first were. But I don't feel desensitized. I get lost in the cold face of a dead child (photographed by Alford as she's washed for burial), searching her droopy eyes, noticing the blueness of her lips and the way her caregiver seems caught in a sigh. Leistner's photos of garbage and paper scraps seemed innocuous at first glance, and reminded me of Jordan: the trash littering the beach at the Gulf of Aqaba and the flattened plastic bottles in the streets of Amman's old downtown. But closer inspection reveals that the trash served as grave markers, a sweet attempt by a survivor to pay respects and maintain some semblance of humanity in the chaos. This realization caused my throat to tighten up, and it still does, when I remember it. The strongest images in this show aren't those that shock, but those that touch you softly and haunt you.

This exhibition offers viewers a glimpse not just into a war zone, but also in the mirror. Unembedded makes it unequivocally clear that war permeates all aspects of day-to-day Iraqi life. We are offered a rare opportunity to reflect on what it means to be involved in a war that Americans choose to turn away from every night as we shut off the TV, close the newspaper and stop thinking about it.


Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq runs through Jan. 12 at Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, 480 W. Hancock St., Detroit; 313-993-7813.

Nadia Abou-Karr is a printmaking student at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected]
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