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Iraq War in Photos – Only a First Draft

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Pity the publisher who jumps too soon. Or guesses wrong.

In journalism, one of the worst examples of this came after the 1948 presidential campaign when the Chicago Tribune – racing an Election Night deadline in a time before exit polling and vote profile analysis – got its early front page headline exactly wrong, trumpeting "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Though getting it wrong may be the most embarrassing mistake for a journalist, jumping too soon is no great thrill either – for anyone.

Take President George W. Bush.

This week's Time Magazine, for example, sticks it in pretty good, with a smiling, bomber-jacketed President on the cover and the headline "Mission NOT Accomplished" – a none-too-subtle reference to the fact that, administration claims to the contrary, the war and the expensive postwar heavy lifting and nation-building that must follow, is anything but over.

So too, it might be argued, has jumping too soon been the fate of the spate of instant Iraq War photo books that have been rushed to print over the past several months.

Make no mistake: most are laudable efforts, with some first-rate photography by some first-rate photographers (many of whom, I am happy to say, are not the perennial household names we have come to expect from every war zone). The problem seems to be that, like the Bush administration, virtually all these books took as a given that this Iraq war would be a self-contained, mercifully short, effort that could be captured between two covers.

Obviously, that is not the case. And thus the instant Iraq War books that have blossomed even faster than those that came out after September 11th , must be viewed merely as the first draft of a still-unfolding story.

But at least two such books make valuable contributions to our visual history. Life Books' The War in Iraq – The Illustrated History ($24.95), and Desert Diaries – Photojournalists on the War in Iraq (Channel Photographics, $39.95) approach the war differently. Each succeeds and each will appeal, I think, to a different reader and viewer.

If I were to make a quick-and-dirty demographic call, I'd say the Life book, featuring an introduction by retired CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, as well as a layout that recalls Life Magazine of the 50s and 60s, will appeal to an older audience. Too, the book features what amounts to a How-We-Got-Here primer, outlining Saddam Hussein's rise to power, as well as an all-too-brief, color-illustrated description of Iraq as "The Cradle of Civilization." If all of this sounds a little over the top or self-important, remember: this is what Life did, and did better than anyone else, for decades as it pushed forward the borders of modern photojournalism.

By contrast, Desert Diaries, consisting solely of the work of photographers affiliated with the Corbis picture agency, is an almost austere work, featuring precious little text and laid out like a fine art photography book or museum catalog. Though the writer in me longed for more written exposition, what little there is in this book is first-rate: the often-eloquent first-person "diary" entries of the photographers themselves. These range from the utterly devastating: Peter Turnley describing how he watched a 10-year-old girl die a totally avoidable death in an Iraqi hospital, to the comically bizarre: Dallas Morning News shooter Cheryl Diaz Meyer's description of how she learned "the very strategic use of a poncho" to heed nature's call even during a battle advance with the Marines.

First-person reports can be valuable primary sources, and even in a sentence or two, they can provide important context to the reader. Consider this from Meyer, and what it says about the presence of a woman in a battle convoy:

"We drove through Baghdad and were met, ironically, by cheering crowds. Families positioned themselves in doorways to wave, smile and give us a thumbs-up. Women stared in disbelief and pointed me out to other women, waving excitedly. During other battalion advances through villages, Iraqi women seemed very relieved to see me – a woman – in the midst of all the camouflage. I suppose they figure the marines must be civilized if even one woman is present among them..."

The Life book, with its long text blocks and stories, tries to give the reader some sense of context as well. And in the process it offers its own, admittedly early, take on the value of "embedding" journalists with the military. Remember that "embeds", as opposed to "unilateral" (independent) journalists, traveled directly with allied military units actually going into battle – a tactic developed by the Pentagon to counter the press' legitimate howls of censorship and exclusion that occurred during the first Gulf War.

But such access came with rules: Embeds could not travel independently, officers could delay or censor reports for "operational security" and all interviews had to be on the record. [The latter sounds great, but in practice that meant that fewer people, especially lower-level grunts, would likely speak freely.]

More insidious though, was the all-too-human fact that journalists traveling so closely with soldiers inevitably developed a rapport with them. Did this affect coverage? Life quotes CBS' Jim Axelrod's admirable frankness: "There was some initial mistrust and suspicion: 'who are you guys and what are you gonna do to harm us?' But we got great stories and they got very positive coverage...."

Of course, one person's positive coverage is another's jingoistic propaganda. The maddening thing is that I can argue this either way. Only with time – and more distant analysis – will a truer picture of the effect of "embedding" emerge.

But what of the pictures themselves? Frankly, in neither of these books are there many pictures that take away my breath. Just sitting here writing this column I am thinking of the great pictures out of Vietnam by Larry Burrows, Dirck Halstead and Dave Kennerly. Or David Douglas Duncan's work in Korea. Or Bob Capa's and Gene Smith's and Constance Larrabee's and David Seymour's work during World War 2. Or much more recently, Claus Bjorn Larsen's photos from Bosnia.

Were these people better photographers? Not necessarily. My candidates for culprits during the War in Iraq are two. First, the crushing weight of deadlines every minute during a made-for-TV-war, combined with the bittersweet technological blessing of being able to transmit images almost immediately from the field, in all likelihood prompted some photographers to go for the easier shot, the one they could make n' move ASAP.

Notes the Magnum Photo Agency's James Danziger in the current issue of American Photo: "...in the age of ever-faster picture consumption, we've lost the opportunity to consider anything other than the most obvious image..."

Compounding the problem is the often-laudable desire of publishers wanting to get books about such important events as the war in Iraq into print as soon as possible.

My suspicion is that not even the best, fastest, most encyclopedic, picture editor on the planet could have digested the kind of image volume that came out of Iraq and come up with the best picture book of all time in such a killingly short span of time.

My guess: good though these two books may be, better ones are still to be made – with pictures that already have been shot, and that will be discovered, in the fullness of time.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

Two of the several Iraq war books that have come out in recent months. Each is a well-done, serious effort. I personally prefer the Life book for combining valuable early history of the volatile region with well-reported stories, not only from Iraq, but from all over the world. By contrast, Desert Diaries is more of a fine art photography book, combining riveting work from Corbis photographers with equally riveting personal diaries from the shooters themselves. "I never saw such cataclysm," writes French photographer Christophe Calais; "We're not on earth anymore..."


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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