The Digital Journalist
The Girl Who Shot Saddam
August 2004

by Karen Ballard

It was definitely a stroke of luck -- right place, right time -- but as my father always told me, "you create your own luck." I was scheduled to leave Baghdad on June 30th after the handover, but when I found out that Saddam was going to appear before the Iraqi Special Tribunal I took my chances and stayed. I sacrificed a precious seat out of Baghdad on a military flight, knowing I'd be stuck there at least another week or more, with or without Saddam photos. Anybody ready to leave Baghdad will tell you: when you're ready to go, you are REALLY ready to go.

Saddam's perp walk

Pool Photo by Karen Ballard/ Redux for TIME
When Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told me I would be the pool photographer I was elated. A half hour later, however, I was a bit chagrined when several colleagues, including this year's Pulitzer Prize winner Carolyn Cole, college buddy Rick Loomis, both of the LA Times, and all the wire service photographers who were standing across from me when someone asked, "So General, WHO is the still pool?" Kimmitt pointed to me, and said, "That woman." The disappointment was evident among my colleagues. This was, after all, one of the biggest moments in Iraq's history, and everyone wanted to record the event.

As the time of Saddam's arrival approached, I was nervous. But the desire to do a good job outweighed my anxiety. By the time I got to the ersatz courthouse that Thursday afternoon I felt totally in control. It was one of those rare moments that I had been training for my whole career. My mantra became, "don't think about who he is, or what he did, just shoot, shoot, shoot!"

Saddam Hussein stared right at me.

Pool Photo by Karen Ballard/ Redux for TIME
Of course saying that to yourself and actually doing it is another thing. I had about 40 minutes at the courthouse to work up a pretty good sweat while being moved back and forth, both inside and outside, by the authorities. They couldn't make up their minds until the very last minute whether I could photograph him getting out of the armored vehicle. This left me plenty of time to overthink the situation, and I kept switching my cameras back and forth about 20 times for the high harsh Baghdad light to a fill-flash for inside the building. Besides adjusting my shutter, I asked the military photographer and others to walk through the front door several times just to make sure I'd nail the focus when Saddam walked into the building.

Finally the curtains opened and the show began. The Tribunal authorities decided to allow me outside for Saddam's arrival. It was the ultimate perp walk. The once-feared Saddam Hussein being marched toward me in shackles, held on both sides by large Iraqi police guards. As Saddam got closer I moved quickly to my spot inside the foyer. He entered, stopped, and, for a chilling moment, stared right at me.

I held my ground and fired away. I felt his anger at my camera, at me, and actually thought he might spit on me. He didn't know exactly what was about to happen and, suddenly, the formerly fierce dictator seemed small and disheveled.

Pool Photo by Karen Ballard/ Redux for TIME
The guards moved him into a narrow hallway where they started to unlock his shackles. I went into the courtroom where 34 people silently stood or sat. You could hear the chains clanking as they came off, like the ghost of Christmas Past. The door behind the banister opened and there he was. Saddam Hussein came to face the music.

The two guards seated him, then moved directly to each side, their handcuffs and guns ready. Saddam appeared calm for the moment as his eyes darted around the room, observing all who were there to witness his trip to the dock. He seemed to recognize some of the folks in the room. Iraqis intermingled with Americans. A small media pool was present, Peter Jennings of ABC, Christiane Amanpour of CNN, and John Burns of the New York Times. There were TV cameras, a military still photographer, a judge and two court clerks. Saddam once again glared at me, but I continued shooting.

As the judge spoke Saddam became agitated, unrepentant. He questioned the young magistrate in Arabic, and clearly his temper was reaching the boiling point. I later learned the judge at had told him he was no longer the President of Iraq, but was now "the former President of Iraq." He screamed out, "Bush! Bush!" It was all I could understand, but he didn't sound that happy with the President of the United States.

As Saddam was lead away in chains, I saw, like the statues that had glorified him, a dictator toppling before my eyes.


Pool Photo by Karen Ballard/ Redux for TIME

© Karen Ballard

Karen Ballard is a freelance photographer based in Washington, DC. This was her sixth time to Baghdad since 2000.