What We Don't See

A few days ago I received an email from a US Army sergeant stationed in Iraq.  He was writing to tell me how much he wished he had his camera so he could take pictures of the military drawdown going on right now.  In lieu of images, he describes a scene in a parking lot outside the canteen that is so evocative, subtle, and cinematic that I feel it needs to be shared:

With the drawdown picking up speed I see so many things that show the historic nature of it all.

I was walking to chow the other night and had to stop and just watch the scene in the parking lot. It was a line of dirty, beat-up Army big-rigs without trailers parked in a perfect row like they were just regular POVs [Privately Owned Vehicles].  Climbing down to eat was the worn out crew looking like they’d been on the road for months, smacking the dust off their uniforms. I didn’t ask but from how they moved they looked like they were just stoked to sit down and get a decent meal for a change.

The gravel lots full of MRAPS cleaned up for the trip home (or another front), the eerily abandoned buildings looking like they’d been used day in and day out for the last seven years, and the now empty sections of base that were bustling with activity just a month ago show a mass transit that most people could never imagine, let alone ever get the chance to see.

A Soldier's Answer to "Why Would Anyone Miss War?"

Over two weeks before Sebastian Junger’s Op-Ed in the NYTimes was published I was in the middle of a vibrant e-mail correspondence with a sergeant in the US Army I’d met in Kirkuk.  He wrote to tell me–among other things–that he had read my piece on covering the conflict in Libya and it had struck a nerve with him:

“Your commentary on the lure of war to conflict journalists was spot-on.  It was partly the adrenaline that brought me back here to Iraq for the second time but it was so much more. The extremity of the moments here make life so much more vivid but it’s also the ability to make a difference in individual lives, politics, national and international policy.”

As soon as I read it, I asked the sergeant–who’s asked to remain nameless–if I could publish this part of his email.  I asked because there is something so moving to me about his words.  I have this image of the two of us on patrol.  Both with helmets and flack-jackets on, each with a large black metal apparatus in front of our faces, pointing at something we’re about to shoot.  Our reasons for being there couldn’t be more different and at the same time couldn’t be more similar.

The Dawn of Iraqi Photojournalism

Over the past week I have–and with no exaggeration–witnessed the dawn of Iraqi photojournalism.

We printed the photographs from the workshop last night and will be hanging the show all day today.  Photos and videos will come shortly after.

And here–drum roll please–are the photo stories from the workshop.  Enjoy!

Patrick arrives!

Patrick Witty, the International Picture Editor at TIME Magazine, arrived in Iraq yesterday.

Here he is meeting with his students.

Patrick Witty (International Picture Editor at Time Magazine) talks with his students

Patrick Witty (International Picture Editor at Time Magazine) talks with his students

Iraqi Photo Workshop is Up and Running

Almost exactly a year ago Stephanie Sinclair gave me the idea of running a workshop for Metrography photographers.  For those of you who don’t know, Metrography is the first Iraqi photography agency that I started with my friend and colleague, Kamaran Najm.

It’s taken a year to get here, but with the generous support of IREX, the workshop is now up and running!

We have 25 Iraqi photographers in an intensive workshop with three amazing photographers: Newsha Tavakolian, Kael Alford, and Anastasia Taylor-Lind.  Tomorrow, Patrick Witty, the International Picture Editor of TIME Magazine arrives.

It’s hard to express how moving it is to see the Iraqi photographers, who’ve never had the opportunity to learn from professionals, hanging on their teacher’s every word.

Kael Alford and her students

Kael Alford and her students

Newsha Tavakolian and her students

Newsha Tavakolian and her students

Anastasia Taylor-Lind and her students

Anastasia Taylor-Lind and her students

A Mixing of Cultures Beyond Your Wildest Imagination

I remember when I first came to Iraqi Kurdistan two years ago I was hyper-sensitive to all the little quirky anomalies in the region.  Over time that sensitivity has dulled and now I barely register any of the weird things that used to send me running to my laptop, intent on emailing everyone with what I’d just seen.

However, there are just some things that no matter how numb you are, you recognize as extraordinary moments and yesterday I experienced one of those.

I was in a shared taxi coming from Sulaimaniyah to Erbil.  We were approaching the final checkpoint into Erbil where Arab Iraqis are forced to get out of the car and register with the city authorities.  The driver looked at me and asked in Kurdish if I was Arab.

“I’m American,” I said in Kurdish.

“Wow!  You speak Kurdish?” one of the men in the back exclaimed.

“A little,” I said, hoping that I wasn’t going to have to spend the 15 minutes having a strained and barely understandable conversation about which was better America or Kurdistan.

“Airport?” he asked me in English.

“Airport,” I replied in English.

He looked at me strangely as if my answer was weird.   I looked at him strangely because “airport” isn’t not much of question.  There was a tense silence.  Then he got very excited and started telling everyone in the car that he’s a singer and has some great  music that we should all listen to.

A CD was quickly produced and shoved into the CD player.

I prepared myself for some classic mustache and shoulder-shrugging tunes, but what came out of the car’s speakers was so unexpected that I still find it hard to believe.

A Bollywood version of Video Killed the Radio Star (I’ve included a youtube clip for those of you who don’t believe me)

The mood in the car lifted.  The windows came down and before we’d gone more than 15 feet, everyone was clapping and shrugging to the beat as if we were in a Kurdish disco.

So, although it took a mixing of American, Kurdish, Iraqi, and Indian cultures, I’m still not yet numb enough to appreciate what an amazingly strange and wonderful place this region is.