Monday, July 5, 2010

The most difficult place

(At the end of my New York Times rotation, I wrote an essay for the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship newsletter about working in Iraq.)

For the past seven weeks, I have been the bureau photographer for the New York Times in Baghdad. This was my first visit to Iraq, and although I have worked in Afghanistan, Gaza and Yemen, I have found Iraq to be the most difficult place to do my job.

For now, much of the violence seems to have subsided and life is slowly improving. Markets, commercial areas and nightlife are blossoming. Occasional explosions and gunfire briefly shatter the calm, but people maneuver around the roadblocks and continue on their way to work or university.

But fear lingers. Seven years of brutal violence have left their mark here. Iraqis are haunted by bombings, kidnappings, murders and gun battles. They don't trust the government, the media or each other.

It's the fear that makes working here difficult. When I talk to people, they often deny my request to use their names. Iraqis of all stripes are extremely wary of cameras and nearly always request proof of formal permission, usually from a ministry or other government entity. Even then, people are not eager to put themselves out in the public eye.

It is nearly impossible to photograph the aftermath of a car bomb or street battle. In most cases, the scene is blocked by police, and cameras are simply not allowed. The government has decided that published photographs of deadly bombings aid the cause of insurgents.

In any conflict zone, personal safety must come first. Finding the balance between being able to work and being secure in Iraq has proven a challenge. When I work, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I try to make myself small and quiet. I try to blend in. For the first time in my career, armed bodyguards and two cars follow me wherever I go, a fact that has changed the dynamic of my work dramatically. Moving from place to place is complicated by checkpoints, IED's and blast walls. I often work wearing the abaya and a scarf to cover my hair. It took nearly a month for me to figure out how to work under all of the security measures.

Despite all of this, Iraq has grown on me. My rotation here is at an end and I am sad to leave. Iraq's story remains compelling and most Iraqis are warm and hospitable. Iraqis have witnessed unimaginable horrors, but they keep going.

(Photos: An Iraqi National Army soldier guards a neighborhood in Mosul, Iraq; a death announcement hangs outside the bombed former home of poet, painter, translator and novelist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra in Baghdad; a sandstorm colors Baghdad's blast walls yellow.)

No comments: