A Pictorial Rebuttal to the Embedded Media

Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, and Rita Leistner.
Chelsea Greene, 2005. 196 pages.
and paperback editions available.

When the U.S. invaded the Middle East in 2003, the American war machine offered to “embed” reporters with the troops. Reporters and photojournalists would be assigned to travel with a specific unit of soldiers, who would protect them and ostensibly allow them greater access to the action than ever before. But while this policy made it look as if the government had nothing to hide, the policy of embedding reporters was also a very clever machination intended to control the kind of news and pictures coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and minimize the kind of “negative publicity” created by the free press during the Vietnam conflict and other U.S. military actions in recent history. In the past, reporters may have had less aid from the military, but at least they were free to go where they pleased and cover the stories they wanted objectively, without feeling they owed any special consideration to one side. Embedded reporters are told that if they stray from their unit at any time, they cannot necessarily return to it. Living with one group of soldiers, to whom they owe their safety, makes objectivity nearly impossible. Essentially, the embedded reporter becomes part of the military propaganda machine, going only where they go and seeing only what they see, from only their point of view.

Luckily for those of us who still believe in the inestimable importance of a free press to the democratic world, there are still some reporters brave enough to cover war zones without becoming embedded. From four of these journalists comes Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq, recently released in paperback.

The design is simple: Independent photojournalists Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (Iraq), Kael Alford (U.S.), Thorne Anderson (U.S.), and Rita Leistner (Canada) each contributed their most vivid pictures (along with enlightening captions) from their travels through occupied Iraq. Philip Jones Griffiths (Vietnam, Inc., Agent Orange) provides a forward to the book, and Phillip Robertson (Iraq war correspondent for Salon.com) has an explanatory introduction. The diverse collection of pictures within are loosely divided into sections by subject, with four essays, one by each photographer about a part of their experience.

All of the journalists are surprisingly eloquent writers, in addition to their obvious talent as photographers. Both Anderson and Alford’s writings touch on Iraqi reactions to the American invasion. In a piece about his contacts with Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, Anderson notes that during every celebration of the American occupation that was broadcast on U.S. networks, he also heard Iraqis chanting “down with America!” Alford was present at the iconic media frenzy when the statues of Saddam in Baghdad were toppled, shortly after U.S. forces entered the city. Despite the portrayal in the American media of crowds of Iraqi people rejoicing and participating in these events, she testifies there were no more than 200 Iraqis assembled at any of these supposedly pivotal events in their history. These moments of drama were engineered by the American military, and most Iraqis were not in favor of the vandalism. Events like these, which produced some of the most widely viewed images of the war, “didn’t represent what I had experienced of the war in Baghdad,” she explains. (Always careful to show multiple sides, however, the book does include a picture of an Iraqi youth urinating on the head of one of the fallen statues of Saddam.)

Leistner’s essay tells the tale of a harrowing journey across borders and the hazards of being an “unembedded” reporter in the war zone, while Abdul-Ahad’s story is a classic rumination on objective observer’s guilt: he was forced to watch helplessly as an entire group of noncombatants he’d shared a shelter with were brutally gunned down in front of him.

The reader of Unembedded is compelled to feel this internal conflict as well. Some of the most unsettling pictures in the book are of Iraqis attacking Americans. There are images of a Shi’ite sniper taking aim at an American target, a Mahdi soldier firing a mortar at a U.S. position, and even Mahdi Army personnel burying an IED meant to defend against American incursion. As an American, there is a gut reaction that surely the American photographers are committing some kind of treason by standing by and doing nothing to stop these enemies of America. But these photographers believe their duty is to share with the world the fullest, truest picture of the conflict that they have seen with the world, and that means seeing things from both sides. The book does not include any images of American victims of the fighting (presumably because they were not “embedded,” and were therefore prevented from gaining photographic access to American troops), but it contains many of Iraqis in pain and dying from American attacks. But Unembedded also acknowledges that there was suffering and persecution in Iraq long before America arrived, showing us the exhumed remains of countless victims of Saddam’s regime.

Perhaps the best editorial choice made by the creators of Unembedded was to show not just the front lines of the battle, but the entire range of life in Iraq under the U.S. occupation. In addition to the blood-soaked hospital floors, gun-wielding insurgents, and apocalyptic wreckage, there are images of brides readying for their weddings, old men playing dominos, women in a psychiatric hospital, and even fashion show producers tinkering with a fog machine.

It takes a moment to understand why these pictures appear in a book “on the War in Iraq” (to quote the book’s own subtitle), but by the end the reason for their inclusion is quite clear. Pictures of Iraqi fighters and (to a lesser extent) Iraqi victims are common in the mainstream media – they are the pictures the embedded reporters send home. But pigeonholing Iraqis in these limited roles makes it easy to forget that the Iraqis are people – not so different from and no less diverse than Americans. Unembedded refuses to let the reader off easily by allowing him to think of Iraqis as a mere concept or as a nameless, faceless mass, as so much war photography does. Even those killing Americans are not necessarily all the bloodthirsty animals they are generally portrayed as in the Western media; many of them simply consider what they are doing self-defense. As one Mahdi soldier Anderson spoke to puts it in the book, “We don’t hate Americans. If you come to my house as a friend, I give you food. If you come with a gun, I give you jihad.”

The foremost effect of this collaboration is to humanize Iraq and Iraqis, which requires a wider-angle view of Iraqi lives – a view that is rarely available to those of us lucky enough to be so geographically removed from the Iraq War.

But geographically removed though we may be, what is happening in Iraq is still “our” war, and we owe it to ourselves and everyone paying for the fight with blood or money to give it the fullest, most balanced consideration possible. Whether or not you agree with everything the book’s authors have to say about and with their pictures, the experience of Unembedded will leave you uncomfortable about what you have seen, questioning the U.S.’ role in Iraq and the true cost of the fight there. One doctor Alford interviewed sums it up: “War wounds are always multiple wounds. It’s not as simple as a bullet.”