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Last Photographs

[clock] 25-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2007

with Joanna Gilbertson

Ziad outside
Ziad Sabah Jasim, a detainee who confessed to being a member of the Islamic Army in Iraq and to killing American soldiers, waits outside an American Joint Security Station in the Ghazaliya neighborhood of Baghdad.

Baghdad, March 2007

I didn’t want to go back.

When I began reporting from Iraq in 2002, I was still a wild and somewhat naïve twenty-four-year-old kid. Five years later, I was battle-weary. I had been there longer than the American military and had kept returning long after most members of the “coalition of the willing” had pulled out. Iraq had become my initiation, my rite of passage, but instead of granting me a new sense of myself and a new identity, Iraq had become my identity. Without Iraq, I was nothing. Just another photographer hanging around New York. In Iraq, I had a purpose, a mission; I felt important. I didn’t want to go back, but I needed to—and for the worst possible reason: I wasn’t ready for it to end. After twelve months away, I had a craving that only Iraq could satisfy.

My wife didn’t like the idea. Neither did my shrink. “If you go back to Iraq now,” he warned, “you’ll probably keep going back.” To be completely honest—and I wasn’t being honest with myself then—part of me knew they were right. Still, I could easily rationalize my desire to anyone who asked. I told them that I wanted to have one last look, that I needed to shoot the place differently, outside the constraints of daily coverage; I said I wanted to photograph Iraq emotionally, to react to my feelings on the spot instead of bottling them up as I’d done in the past; I said I wanted to be sure that my book of war photographs was indeed finished, that the story had irrevocably turned. The only people who bought my justifications were my editors at the New York Times. They thought another rotation was a great idea.

I felt pretty confident, and a little champagne-drunk, when I fell asleep in the plane on the runway a few weeks later. An ice storm had crept up on the city, and there was no way to know when my flight would clear for takeoff from Kennedy. When I awoke eight hours later, I was still in New York. My buzz was gone, and so was my confidence. Other passengers were demanding to know when we were going to leave, but I had bigger, equally unanswerable questions. We took off for Amman, and I spent the twelve hours sleepless, wondering what I was doing, what exactly the story was I thought I was chasing, and how much luck I had left—if it hadn’t already run out completely.

*  *  *  *  

I’d been out of the country for over a year, so I couldn’t go on any embeds without getting a new Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) ID. These military press cards (which, incidentally, nine out of ten New York City bartenders prefer to my Australian driver’s license) are only attainable in person at the center in the Green Zone. When I arrived at the checkpoint, the Iraqi and Peruvian thugs guarding the door told me that there was no press conference that day, so I could come in, but my cameras could not. Walking the corridors to the bunker office, I wondered why on earth they’d be worried about a Western photographer in such a perfectly boring place.

Minutes later, I understood: two soldiers sat behind the desk, one of them manning the telephone and the other the computer. Hunting and pecking with his two index fingers, Specialist Computer entered hacks’ names as Specialist Telephone shouted them out to him. The protocol seemed even more ridiculous because Specialist Computer’s mouth was stuffed with an ice-cream sandwich. He paused long enough to hand me a sheet of ground rules, which every reporter has to sign in order to embed with the troops.

Though mostly the same as agreements I’d signed many times before, I was asked this time to initial every single one of the forty-six paragraphs on the form. Clause number eleven had the biggest changes. It was a lot more specific: “Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member’s prior written consent. If the service member becomes KIA, Rule 11(b) applies.”

Soldiers are extremely reluctant to sign any documents not issued by the military. Actually, they won’t. Period. Not that it matters. Who would have the balls to stand in front of a unit before a mission and ask them to sign a release giving permission for photographs to be taken in the event they’re wounded? As if they didn’t distrust the press enough already, as if such a form wouldn’t be seen as the ultimate tempting of their unit’s fate. If you’ve ever wondered why photographers don’t take many pictures of death and horrible injuries—the ugly facts of war—now you know.

*  *  *  *  

My first few days I was in western Baghdad, stuck at one of the small outposts called Joint Security Stations (JSSs)—“joint” because they’re manned by American and Iraqi soldiers. JSSs were popping up everywhere as part of President Bush’s so-called troop surge, which aims to stabilize the capital. My time at the JSS was quiet, dull. Most people forget that the major part of war is tedium, fending off the oppressive boredom between life-threatening moments. For hours each day, I walked from the roof to the parking lot and back, trying, without luck, to find a photograph, any photograph. So when the opportunity to go on patrol presented itself, I took it.

Specialist Loren Brinson, 21, of the HHC 1-5, First Cavalry Division, sits guard at a small JSS setup in a Sunni district in western Baghdad. The dummy (left), once used to draw sniper fire, was discarded after insurgents realized the ruse.
A Sunni man is detained by a Shiite-dominated army force at a JSS in the Mansour district of Baghdad.
A Sunni man is detained by a Shiite-dominated army force at a JSS in the Mansour district of Baghdad. He was suspected of detonating an IED that killed a member of the unit.

An infantry unit was heading to the nearby neighborhood of Ameriya, a 100 percent no-go zone for unembedded press, which runs parallel with the infamous airport road. They were escorting a handful of engineers from the Stryker Brigade who had been ordered to collect trash. The “sanitization mission” would eliminate insurgents’ IED hiding spots among the garbage and, as a bonus, place the trash-collecting Americans in the community’s good graces.

The engineers were told unconditionally that they should remain in their vehicles. The area was full of snipers, and the roads were lined with bombs. But the minute we rolled up to the street, a few engineers exited the heavily armored vehicles and started directing their bulldozers. Some of the infantry guys watched the scene in disbelief; others were livid. By bulldozing the rubbish, they said, the engineers made it even easier for insurgents to hide their lethal bombs in the torn-up ground.

I didn’t have a picture from this embed yet, and out of sheer desperation I asked permission to walk around with the engineers. The GIs told me that I was an idiot; I could get killed out there, but it was my life. I hopped out, ran over to one of soldiers, and started taking pictures, dancing around him the whole time so snipers wouldn’t consider me an easy target. I got his unit—“18th engineers, 3rd (Stryker) brigade, 2nd I.D.,” my notebook reads—his surname (Gardner) from his flak jacket, his rank (sergeant) from a patch on his chest, and ran back to the truck. I just wanted to be back behind the armor of the Humvee. Another engineer was shouting at him, “Get off the sidewalk.” They were frightened of bombs buried beneath it.

Ten minutes before he was killed, Sergeant Freeman L. Gardner Jr. was assigned to watch this street as bulldozers cleared debris feared to conceal IEDs.

I was back inside the Humvee lighting a cigarette to calm my nerves when a massive concussion shook our truck. It was an IED. All I could see was a huge cloud of dust. The gunner made the only sound, a ratchet-click of the spinning turret, while he searched for the man who triggered the bomb. Then the radio squawked, “Gardner is fucked up! Get a CASEVAC! Gardner is fucked up!” Gardner had been split in two by the bomb.

The next time I saw him, he was under a camouflage poncho. Only his feet were visible, sticking out. If I had taken the photo, I would have been lynched by his comrades. When corpses are around, every eye in the zone, teary or angered, is on me, ensuring I don’t get too close and take a picture. I’m the outsider, but they don’t know that deaths like Gardner’s overwhelm me for days, months, sometimes years. It never gets easier. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t know the person or didn’t even have much contact with him: just being there when it happened is enough. With Gardner, though, I ended up being the guy who engaged him in his last conversation. I took the last photograph of him alive.

A few hours later, I was having lunch at the huge chow hall on Camp Liberty. The tent holds five hundred soldiers or more, and sitting there chewing on a gristly hamburger, I looked at their faces: some laughing, some engaged in intense conversation, others sitting silently, or chewing their food. I felt like crying, or screaming, or punching someone. Instead, I finished my burger and swallowed all that anger. Gardner was the empty seat at lunch that day. The next day it would be somebody else.

Later I found his full name—Sergeant Freeman L. Gardner Jr.—at the Department of Defense’s website, in a press release about his death. He was from Little Rock, went to the movies every Saturday with his wife, and loved video games and college football. The DOD release begins, “The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.” He was twenty-six years old.

*  *  *  *  

My next embed was with the Kurds. For the first time in recent history, the peshmerga were patrolling Baghdad, ostensibly because the Kurds’ neutrality to the sectarian rifts that divide the capital made them a particularly effective fighting force. But I knew better: Kurds and Arabs are enemies, and have been for many, many years.

I was winning a card game in the Kurdish headquarters when Times reporter Edward Wong rushed in to say a call had just come in from a Sunni woman in the process of being illegally evicted from her home. With no time to get our flak jackets and helmets, we jumped into the back of a Kurdish armored truck. At the scene, two men stood against a wall, arguing with a woman in a blue headscarf. One of the men was armed with a pistol, the other with eviction papers. The men would listen to the woman for a moment, then shout at her. Even after soldiers had arrived at the scene, the men spoke and acted with conviction.

The woman in the blue headscarf was Suaada Saadoun, a widowed Sunni mother of seven. After a year spent in Syria to escape sectarian violence, she and her family had returned home to one of only four remaining Sunni households in the Shiite Ali Salah section of Khadamiya. Suaada explained that the two men claiming to be from the Ministry of Finance carried fraudulent eviction papers, and that this was the second time since her return that they had attempted to forcibly evict her and her family. Exasperated and with nowhere else to turn, Suaada had called the Kurds.

Suaada Saadoun tells American and Kurdish soldiers
Suaada Saadoun tells American and Kurdish soldiers that the two Shiite men outside her house were trying to evict her from Khadamiya, a neighborhood in Baghdad.
A Kurdish soldier questions Shiite Abbas Radhi in front of Suaada's family.
A Kurdish soldier questions Shiite Abbas Radhi in front of Suaada’s family.

The soldiers eventually concluded that the men were probably Mahdi Army fighters. Working hand in hand with the Iraqi police, the Mahdi militia, under orders from renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was trying to ensure that no Sunnis or other “undesirables” entered their neighborhoods. Captain Morales, the US officer in charge of the Kurdish soldiers, sent the suspects back to base for questioning. Suaada sat down in her courtyard, smiling warmly at her family and the crowd of soldiers. She looked genuinely happy, elated even. I took a picture of the pleasant, unusual moment, and walked out to the street with the Kurdish troops, who were heralded with clapping and cheers from Sunnis living in the neighborhood. Many of them also had been threatened, and celebrated Suaada’s small victory as though it were their own. Later, Captain Morales told Ed that helping Suaada had been the most successful mission of the company’s tour.

Suaada smiles after Shiite militia were stopped from evicting her from her house.

The next morning, Suaada was shot dead in an alley near her home. A distraught Captain Morales and his platoon drove to Suaada’s house where her hysterical daughters and grandchildren lined the driveway. While they interviewed her calmer family members, I stayed outside with the funeral party. It was heartbreaking. The day before, her grandchildren were playing pranks on me, joking around while Suaada defended their home; her smiling daughters had held my gaze for longer than usual for Iraqi women, to the point of actually making me uncomfortable. I felt like a bastard taking photographs of them now, framing their pain, but I had to tell their story.

Suaada had been walking home from the market when she was shot eight times. Some neighboring bakers said they’d heard the pistol fire, but saw nothing. By the time we arrived, Suaada’s body had been taken to the morgue, and all that remained was a pool of blood sinking into the soil around a tree’s roots, one brass shell casing, and Suaada’s upper denture plate. The dentures were disturbing. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, and standing there, it occurred to me that once again I’d made the final photographs of a murdered human being. Reporters began telling me I was bad luck. I was starting to believe them.

Suaada's dentures lie on the ground after she was assassinated.
Suaada’s dentures lie on the ground after she was assassinated.
Suaada's daughter wails after hearing her mother had been executed.
Suaada’s daughter wails after hearing her mother had been executed.

This murder troubled me on many levels. Suaada’s story contained a simple truth about Iraq today: the Americans, regardless of how hard they try, are powerless in combating sectarian violence. And the soldiers know it. Throughout my entire rotation I’d hear a variation of the same bleak outlook from officers, noncoms, and enlisted men. With few exceptions, American soldiers I came across felt their mission to quell the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was pointless. “What can you do?” Captain Morales’s first sergeant said after Suaada’s murder. “It’s their problem. This is their country, and they need to work it out among themselves. There’s nothing we can do about it.” The soldiers don’t dwell on this, but after Suaada’s death, after all the deaths, I do. My photographs of Suaada’s last hours and death might make a poignant point, but they can’t bring her back to life.

*  *  *  *  

When I return from a rotation in Iraq, the thing people ask without fail is whether the country is more dangerous or less dangerous than it used to be. It’s more complicated than that. The streets of Baghdad are constantly metamorphosing, and you never know what they will look like, what’s going to happen, or how afraid you will or should be. There’s always some threat—driving down a sniper-infested alley, getting caught in a car-bomb explosion, encountering trigger-happy Americans on patrol, or (my worst fear) being taken by kidnappers. There are neighborhoods that are more dangerous, others that are less.

And then there’s Ghazaliya.

Ghazaliya was one of the first neighborhoods in Baghdad deemed too dangerous for the press to cover. High-ranking army officers from Saddam’s rule called Ghazaliya home, as did al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Islamic Army in Iraq. It makes perfect sense, then, that Ghazaliya also became home to Baghdad’s first JSS, somewhat ironically named Casino.

The opening of Casino did a fine job of quelling violence in its immediate area, but just six blocks south of the outpost, insurgents still controlled the streets. Command decided to build a JSS there too, and in March 2007, Delta Company, 2/12 CAV was sent in to open JSS Thrasher.

“It’s twenty times quieter than when we first arrived,” a machine gunner told me from his perch in a guard tower. Our conversation was interrupted by a sniper taking pot shots at us, but I believed him. Just trying to get to the objective buildings back in February, Delta had been ambushed and hit by seven IEDs. It was quieter now, but far from quiet. The week before I arrived, four Americans were killed by an enormous IED while driving on nearby Route Alpha, and another IED disabled a tank. In the two days that I had been there, the violence was so constant—ambushes, IEDs, the unrelenting threat of snipers—that I couldn’t imagine how bad it had been back then.

Delta shared Thrasher with the Iraqis of the Third Battalion, Fourth Brigade, Tenth Division, a Shiite outfit from southern Iraq. In their year down south, they hadn’t seen a single loss of life, but shortly after arriving in Ghazaliya, their two commanding officers were killed. As a result, they were scared to leave the base without the Americans. That drove the Americans mad. At the best of times, I don’t have much faith in the Iraqi Army, but in this case, I felt as though I understood their unwillingness to go it alone. The Americans drove around in the newest and safest Humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles, and the terrifying M1 Abrams tanks. The Iraqis only had old Humvees and small armored personnel carriers.

Fear turns into a fact of life in Iraq, and the threat of being killed or wounded is simply part of the territory. There’s really nothing you can do about it, so you learn to live with it. That said, Ghazaliya was scary. There was such a strong chance of being blown up or shot that even the American soldiers weren’t comfortable in their own JSS. Generally speaking, if the troops are cool, I’m cool—but when they worry, I freak out. The soldiers patrolling Ghazaliya acted as if every foot of road was going to detonate underneath them and every house was filled with insurgents waiting to attack.

I was out—and freaking out—when the patrol came upon a dumped corpse. It was the first and only body I’d seen in Ghazaliya, which was strange because seeing dumped corpses had become such a common occurrence in Iraq that part of my justification for returning was to photograph this seemingly irreversible part of the war. The body, partly eaten by dogs, lay in a trash-strewn clearing. I was told that in the nine days this single anonymous corpse had been there, two Iraqi soldiers had died trying to collect it and a tank had been blown up.

A rotting corpse is devoured by dogs after having lain there for at least nine days.

The Iraqi unit accepted its mission to collect the body, but only with heavy support—an American tank, a Bradley, an anti-IED truck, an American bomb-squad team, and an entire infantry platoon. Even then, the Iraqis left, rather than try to recover the body. Eventually, another Iraqi unit arrived and the two soldiers who went in to retrieve the corpse vomited almost immediately after reaching it. The lieutenant later explained his unwillingness to send in US troops. “There’s no reason to die over a body that’s already dead,” he told me. “Especially, an American life. We just got too much stuff to go back to.”

extinguish  flames
Two soldiers, a man and a woman, try to extinguish the flames engulfing a Buffalo truck.

After the body was finally collected, the unit spent the afternoon putting out fires. A car bomb had ignited an anti-IED truck, and the unit was charged with quashing an insurgent ambush while firefighters extinguished the flames. Once the fire was out, American and Iraqi troops started searching for insurgents; soon, an Iraqi unit found some. The Iraqi soldiers were pointing their Kalashnikovs over a fence, screaming ferociously. After they disappeared into the house’s courtyard, the American’s interpreter ran over to see what the commotion was about. “Lieutenant, come over here,” he shouted; “they’re abusing the man,” but I was the only one who heard him. I sprinted through some heavy bushes and found the Iraqis dragging a barefooted man out of the house. Like every Sunni I’ve ever seen being detained by Shiites, he look deathly frightened.

Iraqi army soldiers detain Ziad Sabah Jasim, after finding him in a house near the scene of a car bombing.
Iraqi Army soldiers detain Ziad Sabah Jasim.
Iraqi Army soldiers detain Ziad Sabah Jasim.

*  *  *  *  

The detainee was Ziad Sabah Jasim, and he tested positive for recent exposure to gunpowder. Back at JSS Thrasher a second man, Mustafa Subhi Jassam, had been detained and had also come up positive for explosives. The Iraqi captain conducted his interrogation behind closed doors, interrupted only once by American soldiers who recorded the suspects’ retinas and fingerprints with their new high-tech biometric scanner. The Americans used to just take down detainees’ names and photograph them, which Ziad and Mustafa had surely experienced before. This new contraption seemed to make them even more nervous.

American soldiers take a biometric scan of Ziad.
American soldiers take a biometric scan of Ziad.

The next day, Ziad and Mustafa were blindfolded, handcuffed, and put under guard on a cot outside the JSS. Ziad, the heavier of the two, was rocking back and forth. He looked as though he was in pain. Mustafa hunched next to him, with bright red lash marks clearly visible at the top of his back. Through an interpreter, I asked an Iraqi what had happened. “He has sensitive skin,” the Iraqi soldier said through a mischievous smile, “and he got a rash.” I lifted Mustafa’s jacket to get a better look. I’m no doctor, but it seemed pretty clear: Mustafa was allergic to being whipped by electric cables. When I tried to photograph Mustafa’s welts, the Iraqi soldier grew angry and stepped in front of my camera.

Mustafa blindfolded and awaiting interrogation.
Mustafa blindfolded and awaiting interrogation.
Mustafa's back shows signs of abuse.
Mustafa’s back shows signs of abuse.

I offered the two men cigarettes. Ziad accepted. I knew they were bad guys, but they were also human beings. They didn’t deserve abuse—or did they? As usual, Iraq was shredding my logic and my sense of right and wrong. Al Qaeda members are bad guys, but so are the Shiites. The Kurds certainly aren’t angels, and even the Americans with the best intentions aren’t helping. Sometimes they’re actually inflaming the situation. There are no good guys in Iraq, and while I was there witnessing the disaster as it further unraveled, my emotions kept swinging between sympathy and hatred.

A soldier walked by and expressed his disgust, “Why give those motherfuckers a cigarette?” At least his venom was directed at me. One of the guards explained to me that a member of the American tactical human intelligence team had walked by and called the men “murderers.” Usually, the guard explained, American interrogators say that suspects brought in by Iraqis are innocent, so he asked the intel officer if he got any information from him. “You kidding?” the officer replied, referring to Ziad. “This guy killed us.”

Ziad (center) confessed to being a member of the Islamic Army in Iraq, and Mustafa Subhi Jassam (right) said he was a driver and IED placer for al Qaeda in Iraq. The man on the left was declared innocent by American and Iraqi forces and was soon released.

Mustafa confessed, too. He told the Americans he had worked as a driver and IED placer for al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Like Ziad, he had talked to the American interrogators after the Iraqis had prepared him. Between them they gave up locations in Ghazaliya where roadside bombs were planted, the names of other insurgents, and an al Qaeda safe-house location. A large contingent of Americans suited up for a raid, and Mustafa was brought along to positively identify the house. They made almost no attempt to conceal his identity. If ever released, Mustafa was a dead man.

Before the bomb squad was called in to safely remove a huge cache of weapons, an Iraqi flicked a lit cigarette next to a pile of highly unstable TNT and the house was evacuated. Still, the raid was a success. I crossed the street and relaxed in the afternoon sun on a patio swing between Captain Bassim Hassan, the commanding officer of the Iraqi battalion, and the interpreter who had alerted his lieutenant that Ziad and Mustafa were being abused. Captain Hassan was thrilled by how events had unfolded since his men dragged Ziad and Mustafa from the house. He boasted about the raid and relished what he viewed as his own success as an interrogator. “When I was beating the hell out of Mustafa, I let Ziad watch. I asked Ziad if he wanted this too and he started talking,” he said, laughing. “Ziad, we only spoke to with slaps. He talked after he saw what we did to Mustafa.”

The swing kept rocking back and forth, but my world stopped. I asked the interpreter to remind Bassim that I was working for the New York Times, that I was writing down everything he said. Bassim didn’t care. “I prepared him for the Americans,” he said, “and let them take his confession.” He was chomping on nabook while his soldiers were gathering more of the small, sour fruit from a nearby tree. As they threw axes, chairs, and shovels to knock down fruit from the branches beyond their reach, Bassim reflected on his line of work. “It’s a good job,” he said.

I left the courtyard stunned, intensely conflicted. By breaking up this al Qaeda cell, the raid had saved lives. No question about it. And the information couldn’t have been gathered in a timely manner if the Geneva Conventions had been followed. Again, no question. But I hate torture and will never condone it. Still, the Iraqis themselves see it as necessary. They say they must instill more fear than al Qaeda does or they will never get a suspect to talk.

“We know how to make them talk. We know their back streets. We beat them. I don’t beat them that much, but enough so he feels the pain and it makes him desperate.” That one moment crystallized the whole war for me. No matter what strategy America tries, no matter whom we choose to ally ourselves with, cruelty would always be Iraq’s currency.

Ziad waits to be processed.
Ziad waits to be processed.

The last time I saw Mustafa and Ziad was right before they entered the Iraqi justice system. Should they even make it to trial (insurgents are said to be routinely tortured inside Iraqi detention facilities), they will certainly face the death penalty. And as I took their pictures, I couldn’t help wondering whether these would become the last images of them alive.

*  *  *  *  

My shrink warned that one more trip to Iraq wouldn’t satisfy me. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s probably right. Feeding my craving only left me wanting more. There’s something about the story that I can’t turn away from—even now that I’m safely back in New York. I still lose sleep. I lie in bed, listening to sounds outside our apartment, and my mind races, going over and over what happened, imagining what must be happening now. I see all the people, the places, all the photographs I’ve taken. Sometimes I wish they were someone else’s, or at least that I had another person’s pictures to go with them, another person’s perspective on all the things I’ve seen. Sometimes, I lie there hating what I do, even as I’m longing for it.

It’s something I need, but for different reasons now.

Covering the war used to make me feel like I was doing something important, but I have grown to accept that Americans will not stop dying because I take their pictures; sectarian violence won’t end because I photographed one woman’s death; and abuse won’t stop because I witnessed the aftermath of one interrogation. I’m just recording history now, documenting the decline, in the hope that the people who don’t recognize it now may one day look back at my pictures and see the war for the mistake-riddled quagmire it was—and is. In the meantime, I’ll continue to struggle with how to define the conflict in Iraq without letting it define me.


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