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 Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq
Independent images from the war in Iraq

MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the contradiction of the embedded journalist, but as the gory occupation of Iraq grinds on (three years and counting) that stroke of managerial genius must count as one of the few things the U.S. military has done right.

Gone are the uncensored hordes that roamed Vietnam stirring up dissent at home, silenced are the corralled journalists of Panama and the Gulf war who howled their discontent. With the recruitment of the embedded reporter the media became, effectively, part of the military machine, going where they go, pointing where they point, another smart weapon in the propaganda arsenal.

Kael Alford

Unembedded presents the work of four photojournalists who dodged that restraint âe" sneaking across borders and through no-manâe(TM)s lands in the process âe" and sought to present another side of the war, the slivers of life (and death) in Iraq unrecorded and unremarked upon by the media riding in the armoured personel carriers. Beyond the photographs, essays by the journalists detail their complex relationships with the plight of their subjects. Other anecdotes and snippets of conversation further contextualize images of a society unfamiliar to most readers.

Much of the work here is not traditional war photography, although the usual markers are well represented. There is blood, and plenty of it, soaking clothes and streets, being squeegeed from the floors of overwhelmed hospitals, and also guns, although as often clutched by the fleeing or set aside while their owners go about other business as they are raised in use.

A horrifying sequence of photos by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi army deserter who became a widely published photographer and has remained on the front lines of the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, chronicles the bewilderment and terror of three men shot in the street in front of him who failed to reach the shelter he crouched behind, life ebbing from them as Abdul-Ahad took his pictures. Afterwards, his camera records the confusion and grief of sorting the living from the dead. In his accompanying narrative, he explores the dilemma that confronts the engaged journalist: to continue to work and bear witness, or to put aside the camera and take a side. His remorse over his choice is palpable.

Thorne Anderson

Rita Leistner

But these are not the images that make this book so worthwhile. Amidst the violence, it is the view into the lives that persevere despite it âe" what unfolds after the smoke has cleared âe" that are most affecting. There are weddings and funerals. Children splash about in the Euphrates, lay bandaged and broken on gurneys and play tragically at war. We see moments of relaxation made poignant by their fragility. On one page friends play dominos at dusk, on another a group flees a mortar explosion, one of their number balancing a plate of food and laughing or grimacing âe" it is hard to tell.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

This is life in wartime, and pictures of a people dealing the best they can with the exigencies of that situation. While Rita Leistnerâe(TM)s portraits of the inmates of a Baghdad psychiatric hospital are moving in their own right, nothing illustrates those straitened circumstances more than her twelve close-ups of patches of earth, the graves of Mahdi fighters killed during the 2004 siege of Najaf. They are marked only by a scribbled note weighted down with a stone, or stuffed into an emptied water bottle. In an image of terrible banality, one life is commemorated by what appears to be a Post-it Note wedged into a broken brick.

There is an obvious intent in this book to humanize the Iraqis dying in droves in the street and those who have taken up arms against the U.S. invasion. While the quality of the photos can be uneven, Unembedded as a whole is an essential rebuttal to more readily available portrayals of the war. Even amongst its most staunch supporters, there is a growing sense that the U.S. efforts in Iraq have gone awry. Unembedded goes a long way to putting a face on that grievous mistake.âe"Stephen Gregory

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