|Sadr over Prayer, Thawra, Baghdad, Iraq, April 18, 2003.|
Photograph © Thorne Anderson.
|Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, July 22, 2004.|
Photograph © Kael Alford.
Eye Level in Iraq: Photographs by Kael Alford and Thorne Anderson, an exhibition which presented the photographs of two American-trained photojournalists who documented the deep impact and aftermath of the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, concluded a four-month engagement at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco last weekend.
I viewed this incredibly compelling and moving exhibition Friday evening, which drew upon 62 digital inkjet prints that were representative of the work Alford and Anderson produced over a two-year period -- often under duress. (They were loaned to the de Young by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.)
In an interview earlier this year with the PBS NewsHour, Julian Cox, the chief curator at the San Francisco Art Museums, told of how he was spellbound by the photos which he first saw in 2006. "I felt vehemently they needed to be seen by a large audience.
"Those kinds of pictures are not typically seen in major art museums. There are one or two institutions across the country that do show these kinds of pictures, but you don't usually see them in art museum context ... The pictures are incredibly moving."
For most freelance photographers who are working in a war zone, getting good action photos and selling them to newspapers and magazines around the world -- as well as merely staying alive -- comprise their daily to-do list. That's what Thorne and Anderson did 10 years ago when they went to Iraq as freelance journalists and covered the beginnings of America's war in trying to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Maintaining objectivity was paramount and, indeed, they were hardworking photographers. By not being embedded with the U.S. military, it enabled Alford and Anderson, who are now married and teaching at a university in Texas, the opportunity to cover Iraq itself -- to photograph objects of interest -- and to portray the daily life and realities of a people as they were living with war going on all around them. And, although there are no photographs shot in a combat zone, the bravery and commitment shown by Alford and Anderson was evident throughout this haunting exhibit.
"From the beginning I sensed that Americans' view of the war was obscured," said Anderson in his artist's statement. "Perfectly descriptive words like 'invasion' and 'occupation' were sidestepped in our national press. Prisoners, we were instructed, must be called 'detainees.' These taboos felt like veils, and I wanted to tear them away."
According to Anderson, he tried to abandon his preconceptions of war and asked Iraqis to guide him through their experiences of the war. "I went as deep as I could, even behind 'enemy' lines. It wasn't easy. I tried to remain open and nonjudgmental, and I never felt so patriotic as when I was doing this work."
In the years following the events which comprise Eye Level in Iraq, new political leaders have emerged in Iraq. Yet, even today's headlines coming out of Baghdad in which two coordinated suicide bombers targeted a Shiite mosque, killing 29 people and wounding 55 others, are just the latest in a string of attacks to hit Iraq. While violence has surged as well as political tensions, it revives the fear that Iraq could be headed for a return to widespread sectarian bloodshed.
"Violence has breached nearly every household and Iraq's cities have been divided by fear along sectarian lines," according to Alford, in her artist's statement. "Educated professionals have been targeted and millions of people have fled. Today Iraq is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt and dangerous places in the world."
Alford returned to Iraq in 2011 and found the people in her photographs "plagued by insecurity, a deeply iniquitous judicial system, failing public infrastructure, and a wariness of foreign intervention.
"I found men and women haunted by loss and disappointment and young people, as always, pressing toward the future."
Searching for solace in Iraq, Alford found it in the depth of the country's history and its rivers. "The Euphrates River flows south past Babel, the mythical birthplace of languages, where it joins the Tigris River. Together they cradle the legendary site of the Garden of Eden. Although I am one more on a long list of invaders, I am invited by families to sit beside these rivers. We share meals and sweet flutes of tea and trade stories of sorrow and hope."
To learn more about the Eye Level in Iraq exhibition:
To watch the PBS NewsHour story "Remembering the Faces of the Iraq War Through the Eyes of Photojournalists":