Invisible in Baghdad
I'm sitting on my balcony reading a novel by Haruki Murakami. The sun is shining gently on my face, I hear sparrows singing in the trees and the muezzin is calling for midday prayers.
I take a moment to reflect on the chapter that I just completed and my eyes wander past my feet that are resting on the balcony railing, past the blast walls and barbed wire across the muddy Tigris River that is slowly flowing towards the oddly-shaped water tower in the middle of the Green Zone just ahead of me. The tower is remarkably sticking out of the horizon and I feel I have spent the better part of last year looking at it. In reality it's been just moments, of course. After a long day's work, while watching the sun go down with a can of soda in my hands, or in between assignments like now. The tower was always there. Like an accomplice.
I not only missed the invasion, but also the roughly one-and-a-half years afterwards which is often described by photographers with a certain nostalgia in their voices as the "good times, when working was still possible."
For me Iraq was tricky as soon as I arrived, which was months after the first foreign hostages were put in orange jumpsuits and beheaded in front of video cameras.
There are maybe eight or nine foreign photographers still trying to cover this conflict from the civilian side. I am by far not the bravest, most committed, talented nor longest-serving of these photographers; I am just one of them. The majority of the pictures that are coming out of this country are taken by Iraqi photographers working for wire services or foreigners who are exclusively embedded with the military. Of course, I am one of them and am sometimes embedded with either the American, British or Iraqi military and so are most of my colleagues.
However, I like it here. It's a great challenge. Nothing comes easy. Everything is hard work. You're trying and trying and a lot of times you come back home with literally no pictures. But there is a feeling that this is the war of my generation. Even as worldwide interest is decreasing, I feel that there will be a time that people will see this war in a similar way as we see the Vietnam War today. And even in places like my home country, Germany, people will realize that it was wrong to see this conflict as an entirely American problem that has no worldwide implications.
Working in Iraq is less heroic than one might think. And it's not great fun either. The guys with the fancy scarves and khaki pants left a long time ago. No parties, no girls, no drinking. You're just trying to get out of the house every day and get some pictures into the camera. In a place where you cannot walk around in the streets freely as a westerner and have to travel with a couple of Iraqi guards wherever you go, that's quite a challenge. Kidnapping is still the biggest concern. Most of my trips are precisely planned and last only short amounts of time. It's a little like playing hide-and-seek. You just keep moving and try to be invisible at the same time.
I came to Iraq to learn and that's what I'm doing. I'm still at the very beginning of my career. It's not very rewarding. You have to spend a lot of time here. The normal 10-day-assignment-gig doesn't work. And even if you do spend a lot of time the results are often mediocre.
But then sometimes there is this special moment where things just come together and you can stay a little longer than usual and the people don't mind that you're there and the light is great and you actually manage to get a picture. With a little bit of luck the picture will be published and people in America will see it when they read the newspaper on the subway in the morning. They will see my picture and all I can hope for is that it will inform them and maybe even make them look at it just a tiny bit longer than they normally would.
But even if the picture doesn't get printed it's never wasted because I'll always have the picture. Whatever happens, whatever people do or don't say, I'll have the picture.
The war in Iraq is a secretive war. It's sneaky and hidden. None of the many parties involved really wants you around. The list of the things you can do is very short and the list of things you can't do seems endless.
Maybe the hardest part for me personally is dealing with the sense of guilt. Often I feel guilty and angry for not being able to produce more and better pictures and tell the story in a deeper, more meaningful way. I feel like I owe it to the Iraqis, the Americans, to the company I work for and most importantly to myself to do better and try harder. I know I shouldn't think that way, but every time I find myself walking restlessly up and down in my room that's more or less what's on my mind.
Honestly, I am not entirely sure why this is. There are multiple reasons, I think. One reason is because it's so difficult to work here, of course. Another one is probably that it's statistically unlikely that a photographer will be present when fighting happens or when an American soldier gets hurt or killed. The country is huge and so is the number of American troops. By contrast, the number of photographers covering the conflict is incredibly small. Maybe another reason is that everybody involved is so skilled at keeping the press under tight control. Some say that it's because the light is so bad in Iraq. Others think that because of the easily accessible digital technology there are so many mediocre pictures sent around the world that the few excellent ones are never discovered. I guess another reason is that there is more self-censorship practiced by American publications than the American public realizes or wants to realize.
I get a call from one of the drivers. The planned meeting would finally happen. Relieved, I drop the book, take my camera bag and after a brief discussion with driver, fixer and security people, we are on our way -- past the gates and concrete blast walls of the compound I live in and out into the busy streets of Baghdad. We are stuck in traffic after only a couple of hundred meters. People in the other cars stare at me and I slide deep down into my seat.
The meeting lasts only for about 20 minutes. The neighborhood is considered to be dangerous.
Assam Mofak Jassem, 33, was kidnapped in broad daylight on February 28, while he was leaving his workplace at the Iraqi Ministry of Health. After being held for about five days, friends and family members managed to raise $20,000 to secure his release. During captivity he had to sit on the floor of an empty room. One day his captors took him outside and made him kneel on the ground in a line with other hostages. They started to kill everybody in the desperate row by shooting their victims in the head. Just before it was Assam's turn one of his captors intervened. Apparently he had been confused with another hostage and wasn't meant to be killed. He was replaced with somebody else who was shot in the head instead of him.
I photograph Assam in the empty living room of his house. He had to sell some of his furniture in order to start paying back the money for the ransom to his family and friends. Out of fear, he did not go back to work at the Ministry of Health and is currently unemployed.
Back home I edit and color-correct my pictures before I send them to New York. Later that night I return to the balcony, pick up my novel again but have trouble concentrating. After reading the first sentence of the same chapter three times over, my mind starts to wander and I find myself looking at the oddly-shaped water tower in the distance.
© Christoph Bangert
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