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Glazer's Camera

In Harm's Way: Photojournalists Go to War

Photographer Kate Brooks captues the grief, shock and outrage of an Iraqi citizen shortly after a car bomb exploded on Aug. 29 at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. Photographer Kate Brooks captues the grief, shock and outrage of an Iraqi citizen shortly after a car bomb exploded on Aug. 29 at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf.
© Kate Brooks / Polaris

In the Middle East, photojournalists don Kevlar vests and find back doors into places that do not even have front doors, all to show the world what words alone cannot. It's a risky job.

Journalists have been kidnapped, threatened, jailed and killed. Since the beginning of the year, 22 journalists worldwide — 12 in Iraq alone — have been killed in the line of duty or murdered because of their profession, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In March, American freelance photographer Molly Bingham was imprisoned in Baghdad, accused of spying, held for a week, then released in Jordan. In June, 54-year-old Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in Iran after being beaten into a coma by police for taking photos of families of imprisoned student protesters. In July, 24-year-old British freelance cameraman Richard Wild was shot in the head on a Baghdad street.

Every day we learn of soldiers dying, of ordinary citizens bombed while worshiping, of peacekeepers killed while trying to help. The news keeps coming. And the journalists keep going to cover it.

PhotoMedia talked with three award-winning photojournalists — Hyoung Chang, Eric Grigorian and Kate Brooks — about their experiences working in war-torn places.

Patience pays off

Photojournalist Hyoung Chang, 34, a staff photographer for the Denver Post, spent several weeks in Pakistan in the fall of 2001, waiting for the Afghan border to open. In a recent telephone interview, Chang described how he, a reporter from his paper, a translator, a driver and 30 other journalists finally were escorted over the border by members of the Northern Alliance. When the convoy arrived in Jalalabad at midnight, they were met by a boy, no more than 12, who was screaming and pointing a machine gun at them.

"We kind of freaked and didn't know what he was talking about," Chang remembered. The translator, an Afghan, gradually learned that there was a 10 p.m. curfew, and that they were violating it. When an older man showed up, he let them go. "That was one of the scariest moments I had," Chang said. It was his first overseas assignment.

A leader of the Northern Alliance took the Post team and a Los Angeles Times photographer to a warehouse-like prison in Afghanistan's Kundar province. With 300 Taliban prisoners inside and only 40 or 50 guards outside, Chang recalled thinking that if a riot broke out, it would be all over for the journalists. The interviews were successful, however, and Chang got some powerful pictures that earned him a Photo of the Year Award from Editor & Publisher magazine.

This spring, Chang covered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. After waiting in Kuwait for two weeks before he and another Post reporter could shadow a U.S. aid group into Iraq, they spent 10 days in a military compound in Umm Qasr, where they covered military and local stories, including one on the shortage of water. From there, they traveled to Basra to photograph military action, and then to Baghdad, arriving the day after the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously pulled down by U.S. troops in al-Fardus Square.

Getting to Baghdad was not difficult, Chang said. "There were tons of U.S. and British military on the highway. We just followed them and didn't worry too much about an ambush." They arrived after dark and were forced to spend the night in the car near a military checkpoint by the Tigris River.

Showing the other side

Los Angeles freelancer Eric Grigorian, 34, who won the 2002 World Press Photo of the Year for a black-and-white photo he shot after an Iranian earthquake, had spent two months in Iraq shortly before he talked with us by phone. Grigorian went to Baghdad because he felt that the media coverage of the Iraq war had been very one-sided. He wanted to photograph the human casualties and the destruction that he thinks the mainstream media is ignoring.

"My intention was to show the other side of what happens when there's a war," he said. "Obviously, there are some positive aspects of why we went into Iraq, but at the same time, there're a lot of negative ones, too."

Grigorian's main project took place in a spinal-cord rehabilitation center, photographing doctors and patients who had been caught in the fighting. "Some of the guys I photographed were in really bad condition," Grigorian remembered. "I hated going to that place."

He also covered assignments for news magazines, including some military stories. Ironically, those were the only pictures that had been published at the time of this interview, but he had hopes for his other photos. "It would defeat the purpose of why I went to Iraq, of why I'm a photographer, if they don't get published," he said. "But I have faith in my agency (Polaris)."

Being in postwar Iraq was not as bad as people think, Grigorian said. "People say, ‘Oh man, I'm so glad you came back alive,' and I'm, like, ‘Why wouldn't I?'"

There were plenty of hotels, Grigorian said, and colleagues clued him in to a place where he could stay for $30 a night, compared to the larger hotel next door, which catered to journalists, had a pool and cost about $100 a night. He easily found a translator/driver in the hotel lobby. The most difficult aspects to deal with, he said, were the heat, which was well over 100 degrees; not having a reporter to consult with; and the food. "I had two choices," Grigorian said. "Eat at the hotel, which was bad and expensive, or eat falafels every day, which you could get on the street, two for 25 cents.'

Grigorian had some hair-raising moments, however. An Iraqi man showed him a picture of his brother, killed in an accident by a U.S. jeep, and said that he wanted to kill an American in revenge. Another time, a man approached him in the street and demanded to know, in Arabic, if Grigorian were an Israeli. He also accompanied some U.S. military patrols on armed raids, but he didn't really begin to feel uneasy until cameraman Richard Wild was killed.

"It made you think, ‘Are they attacking journalists now?' When that happened, all the journalists were worried," he said. "You just never know. I don't think I ever felt like something was going to happen to me, but there were definitely times when it was tense, and you knew anything could happen."

Anything could happen

Freelance photojournalist Kate Brooks, 25, is originally from New Mexico, but has recently relocated to Baghdad to cover the occupation. She has earned recognition from Communication Arts magazine and from the Russian exhibition known as InterFoto for her photographs exposing Russia's discriminatory policy toward children with special needs. She also made the short list for an Eisenstaedt Award in 1998.

Brooks covered the war in Iraq for Time magazine from February through April, then returned to Iraq this summer. We reached her by e-mail in Baghdad, where she was covering, among other stories, the Aug. 19 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Najaf, Iraq. Time's report on the tragedy included six pages of her photos. She also has worked for Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and Scientific American since her return to Baghdad.Brooks' life in Iraq sounds almost normal: She lives in a house in Baghdad, cooking for herself or going out with friends. While her translator reads the local papers for her, she goes to briefings, searches the web and looks for stories.

"Day to day, moment to moment, I feel fairly comfortable in Iraq," she wrote. "I am, however, aware of the fact that anything could happen at any moment. I had a number of close calls during the war and have seen other journalists killed in Iraq. Those experiences don't just go away."

Brooks described some of those experiences: "Most days were spent traveling along smugglers' routes, crossing Iraqi front-line bunker positions that spanned for miles, a hazardous preoccupation that yielded little beyond knowing which positions were still being held."

On March 22, Australian journalist Paul Moran was killed by a suicide bomber. "I arrived moments after the explosion," said Brooks. "As I was photographing the aftermath, my translator pointed out a body. He said he believed it was that of a foreign journalist. A couple of Iranian journalists and I looked for debris that we could use to identify the body. I found the face of an Omega watch, and the others found some half-burned receipts from Teheran bearing his name."

A week later, she got a tip that a full-scale battle was under way in the Kurdish mountains, with U.S. troops and Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga (literally, those who face death), fighting Ansar al-Islam, an extremist group associated with al-Qaeda. She and her translator, Moham-med, drove on winding mountain roads toward the sound of gunfire.

"The ridge to the right of me was lined with peshmerga, and Ansar bodies lay scattered amongst the rocks. On the ridge to the left, an Ansar sniper was targeting U.S. special forces and peshmerga," Brooks wrote. "I quickly made my way up the hill, photographing bodies and peshmerga along the way. . . . The incoming fire that afternoon made the situation on that mountain dangerous, but being on the side with the vastly superior firepower and technology was emboldening. . . .

"About six weeks ago I received an e-mail from a woman who said that she had identified her son in one of my photographs from that day, and informed me that he had been killed in combat 10 days after I had photographed him."

'I'll be anything they want me to be'

Armenian by heritage and born in Iran, Grigorian holds dual citizenship. When he travels to Iran, a country that does not recognize his American citizenship, he uses his Iranian passport. Describing himself as "very Middle Eastern-looking," Grigorian said that he often was mistaken for an Arab and accused of lying when he said that he did not speak Arabic. In deciding how to identify himself in Iraq, he had to evaluate each situation as it came up. "I'll be anything they want me to be," he said. "Most of the time, just to be safe, I tell them I'm Armenian."

Chang, who is an American of Japanese descent, was advised by his "fixer" — a person who serves as translator, driver, guide and local expert — to tell people he was Japanese. The Denver Post reporter with him told people he was Canadian.

Chang said that, most of the time, people were open and treated him well. "Maybe being Asian helped," he said. "I don't know if it mattered."

Brooks, who speaks Russian, wrote, "In Iraq, I don't tell people who ask me on the streets that I am an American because of the growing anti-American sentiment. I never know what being an American might mean. If I feel I'm on neutral territory, then I'll admit to being an American. If I'm in a situation where I feel uncomfortable saying that I'm an American, I usually say I am Russian."

Chang has covered assignments in many Middle Eastern countries since 2001. He feels comfortable negotiating his way around unfamiliar territory and getting the kinds of assignments that he thinks make powerful photographs. Although he is sometimes "half scared, half excited," he likes being in new countries and meeting the people there. He said that refugee camps are excellent places to find fixers because, "they know the dark side of the country."

He never felt in danger in Iraq, Chang said, even though there was shooting going on around him all the time. One of his photographer friends wants to return to Iraq, but Chang said that he's not sure he wants to go back just yet. "But if something happens in North Korea, I want to go. Or anywhere that something happens," he said. "It's pretty exciting because every day is a huge challenge. I have to push myself."

Grigorian expressed a similar sense of purpose. "I love the job. There's a reason I do it." Although he doesn't like the actual traveling, he loves being in new places. "I can sleep anywhere; I don't need security," he said. "To me, that's fun: not knowing where I am going to go, just going somewhere and making do with what you have."

In the introduction to the upcoming book, Desert Diaries: Photojournalists on the War in Iraq (see sidebar), Iranian photojournalist Reza writes that, unlike television coverage, "the true story of this war will be written through these photographs."

Although photojournalists who go into dangerous places acknowledge there is always a chance that things could go very wrong, they say that the rewards outweigh the hardships and the danger. In among the fear, frustration, exhaustion and boredom, they get what they came for. If they were not willing to risk so much, we would understand so little.

Beth Luce
Story Author: Beth Luce

Beth Luce is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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