March 2003

by Seamus Conlan


Close Up: Seamus Conlan - Lost and Found
(by Joe Cellini - Apple)

Our passage on the road into Iraq was relatively smooth this time, compared to the trip last September, when it took eight hours to cross the border. This time the uniformed border guards kept us waiting just several hours. They searched our car and temporarily confiscated our satellite phones and computers. At least they didn't take the good stuff, the stash of Stoli that I routinely hid down the back seat for a late-night bit of comfort.

Sitting at the border, I recall all those roadside posters of Saddam Hussein, at virtually every turn. Who was it that said: Be wary of a country that greets you with images of its leader? Driving across the desert from Jordan on this superhighway (built during the last twenty years by the French), I pass oil tanker after oil tanker, coming and going into Jordan. I can't help but think what the future of this whole region will be like in the coming weeks. And what will it be like this time around in Baghdad?

As I type this into my laptop, my mind ricochets over the events of the last 30 days. What a month this has been. My wife and best friend Tara Farrell and I have packed up our apartment in London to move with our nearly-five-year-old daughter, Dylan, to New York -- to ramp up our new business: WorldPictureNews (WpN) , an on-line photo agency created by and for photographers and photo editors. Up and running since our roll-out at the Perpignan photojournalism festival in 2001 (we launched, auspiciously, on September 10 of that year), we've been lining up clients, procuring assignments for photographers, working out the technical glitches, and seeking venture capital with our fearless v.c. captain Brian Miller.

Amid the packing crates and the madness that comes with moving years of belongings across the Atlantic, I've been prepping for Iraq, fielding assignments for photographers from far-flung magazines and newspapers, dealing with our tech-wizard, Ifor Evans and e-mailing day and night with WpN's partners and advisors, an all-star cast of industry experts and good, good friends that includes, alphabetically: Stephen Claypole, Jimmy Colton, David Friend, Mark Greenberg and Kurt Pitzer, along with Tara, and a couple of others who shall, for now, remain nameless.

In the middle of it all, we put together some truly inspiring story packages and photo features from Korea, Iraq and South Africa, as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Kurt spent a month, along with photographer Molly Bingham, on the trail of the heroin smuggling trade that helps fund al Qaeda.

With Tara and the crew minding WpN, right now I've got my laptop open--and Iraq, first and foremost, on the brain. On my last visit--on assignment for People--the Iraqis were surprisingly warm and charming. Their openness was something I hadn't anticipated in the least, given what has been hanging over them and what they have gone through over the last twelve years. The People piece--a slice-of-life story on everyday citizens, of Iraq --revealed some surprising insights, sure to startle ordinary Americans, many of whom read the magazine for celebrity stories. I'm surprised to hear that even MTV's crews are now roaming around the region in hopes of educating their young audience on the effects that the looming war will have on typical Iraqis. Good to know that MTV kids are going to be dished up some reality. That can only be a good thing, considering the teenagers of Gaza know more about world politics than most journalists I know.

The coming hours--when I reach Baghdad--will tell me how things have changed there. I cannot be naive enough to think that these last, tense days and weeks have not affected the population in some tangible ways. Unable to receive much information outside the Iraqi media, the Iraqis rely on government channels. I wonder what Saddam has been serving up instead. After all, his people know little or nothing of the systematic executions that take place in their country, and the gassing of the Kurds. They don't fully realize that their jails are full of political prisoners whose only crime has been to speak out, as in a normal society. I had a driver the last time around who told me he thought that Osama bin Laden was a hero for attacking America. After all, he never lived under the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. His point of view was that the U.S. bombed his country and brought it to its knees, and the pressure of the Americans continues to hang over them like some dark cloak. I guess his thoughts are relatively profound, considering what is about to happen to his country and how it is likely to impact his life and that of his family.

My wife once told me: "You are a journalist first and a photographer second." If I'm going to remain true to my profession, I have to remember this and realize that if he holds this particular point of view, it is due to the conditions of his life. At one point on my last visit, I was asked how I feel about the Iraqi people themselves. I answered by saying, "The only difference between us is that I was born in a different country." After all, each of us is a product of our own circumstances -- sometimes this makes for a sad reality, but it's the one basic true condition. If I had been born in Gaza, I would be throwing stones at the Israelis; if I had been born in Israel, I would be shooting Palestinians throwing stones at me. So why am I heading towards Baghdad on this desert highway?

"What's the news?" I'm asked as I'm greeted in the main media haunt, the Al Rasheed Hotel. Good question. What will this war be like and how will I, honestly, handle this situation once the 2,000-lb bombs begin to drop outside my hotel bedroom? Taking the necessary precautions has always been my forte to surviving a war zone. Earlier during this whirlwind month, I had the bizarre experience of rolling up to the MoD (Ministry of Defense) in England with my great mate, photographer Seamus Murphy, to learn about chemical, biological and radioactive weapons of war -- and, most importantly, to learn how to survive them in an attack. We were put through drills in gas chambers with CS gas to learn to use respirators and chemical suits. I couldn't help but think how easy this might be in the heat of the Iraqi desert, without the body armor and hardhat on. Learning how to drink water--while still encased in a gas mask--I really began to pay attention. I soon realized that in case of an emergency, sleeping in the bathtub with a mattress tugged cover me might be an actual survival option. So would having a portable shower bag filled with antibacterial soap hanging at the ready above the bath. And what about the industrial earmuffs and safety glasses to make life easier once the canisters and warheads began to drop? I quickly understood: I'd look like a fool, but a 2,000-lb. bomb dropped on the presidential palace, only a few hundred yards away from my hotel room, would otherwise make my ears bleed, and the flying glass catch me by surprise. I thought to myself: Securing the windows with duct tape will be my first job upon hitting the ground at the Al Rasheed.

Although the hotel staff may be alarmed to see this sort of activity, I guess it wouldn't be all that surprising, given that a few hundred journalists would be staying on the premises. Not in a hotel known for its Gestapo-esque attendants and a wiretap or two in every room.

Thinking about the situation that I'm going to have to deal with, both mentally and physically, is very daunting. Putting aside what average Iraqis will have to cope with, I selfishly think about my beautiful daughter, Dylan, and her lovely mother, Tara, who in the last month has worked around the clock juggling assignments and building a new working electronic platform for WpN. On top of that, Tara packed up the home and office - at the same time - to ship both the family and the business to New York. And she arrived in a blizzard, only to awake to find a snowdrift in the living room.

What did I miss? I missed Dylan's first day at "big school" and Tara's 31st birthday. In fact, I felt guilty having been unable to join them on that first leg of our new life together in New York. Instead I was scaling down the London office for an extra two weeks, working with our tech guru to put the finishing touches on the new website while, miles and time-zones away, in Jordan, People correspondent Pete Norman hustled, successfully, to secure our visas to Iraq.

So now we high-tail it along our desert highway. Tara and the gang mind the agency, for the moment, and we rumble on to meet our destiny with the Iraqi people, and with a war neither we nor the Iraqis really want.

© Seamus Conlan


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