The new art exhibit, “Unembedded”—a photojournalists’ account of the Iraq War—has been featured at several prestigious universities amid widespread applause as to its self-described “nuanced view of the civilian instability and increased violence in Iraq that has followed the US-led invasion in 2003.” A very popular University-sponsored exhibit since its January 2006 New York debut, the collection has been displayed at the University of Northern Arizona, Orange County Community College, Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music, Wayne State University, Philander Smith College, the College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas, Lewis & Clark College, and, currently, Messiah College.
Predicated on the assumption that freelance, unembedded journalists have greater access to the uncensored truth about the Iraq war than their military-escorted news counterparts, Americans may be more likely to trust the works of Canadian Rita Leistner, Iraqi Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, and Americans Thorne Anderson and Kael Alford than the politicized mainstream media. “I almost value an outsider’s perspective more than an insider’s perspective. I’m more concerned about what’s going on with the people,” fine arts photography major Rebecca Maxwell told the Lake Oswego Review after viewing the Lewis & Clark College “Unembedded” exhibit this January.
If the Lewis & Clark exhibit was the same as the one featured in Messiah College’s Aughinbaugh Gallery this October, it is unlikely that Maxwell got the complete story about the war in Iraq. Upon entering the Aughinbaugh Gallery, viewers are confronted with a large sign proclaiming “War is Violent” and some scenes herein are unsuitable for children. The display was partially funded by the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation (BJF), as well as supported by the pacifist Messiah College Sider Institute. The BJF offers grants to projects which “help ameliorate an unjust or destructive situation by empowering constituents” and are considered grassroots conduits for “progressive social change.”
Far from a neutral, outsiders’ account of the war in Iraq, the “Unembedded” gallery display utilizes the shock value of wartime horrors to produce an emotional antipathy toward war in general, and conspicuously omits any positive depiction of American or coalition forces. The Messiah College exhibit featured uniformly disturbing photos of militiamen shooting at U.S. soldiers, the wailing of grieving mothers, and up close displays of Iraqi civilian casualties—with the exception of a single photograph of an Iraqi bride, face covered, leaving a beauty parlor. The Iraqi citizens within the photos were either portrayed as victims at the hands of American brutality or, conversely, angry militants forcefully opposing the coalition forces and engaged in sectarian violence.
One photograph taken by Abdul-Ahad in Baghdad on September 12, 2004 shows a dead young Iraqi boy garbed in white with his bloody face fallen towards the camera while smoke rises from the gutted remains of a burning U.S. vehicle. The numbers 91 are barely visible from underneath the smoke. Taken by Abdul-Ahad, the caption beside the photo notes that “Twenty-two Iraqi civilians were killed and forty-eight injured when U.S. helicopters opened fire on crowds celebrating around the burning vehicle, which was disabled by an insurgent attack. No American soldiers were killed in the fighting.” (emphasis added).
A Saddam army deserter and trained architect, Abdul-Ahad began filming the war’s destruction in Baghdad before coalition forces arrived at the capital, escaping arrest under Saddam through bribery. After the coalition forces arrived, Abdul-Ahad continued his intrepid journalism by travelling with the Iranian-trained Mahdi Army, which American Enterprise Institute Fellow and Iranian expert Michael Rubin describes as a Hezbollah-like terrorist group. “Just as the Revolutionary Guards helped hone Hezbollah into a deadly force, so too have they trained the Badr Corps, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)’s militia and the core of Shia firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army),” said Rubin in his March 2007 speech at Israel’s Haifa University (emphasis original).
Far from an unembedded, impartial journalist, Abdul-Ahad embedded himself with the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s anti-American forces, photographing numerous intense battles between U.S. and Mahdi forces, often in the same room as Mahdi snipers targeted U.S. troops. “A Shiite sniper loyal to Muqtad al-Sadr fires at U.S. troops from an empty building on the outskirts of the Najaf cemetery,” reads the caption of a photo taken on August 22, 2004. In another June 5, 2004 photo—in which the photographer appears to be standing less than 10 feet away from an armed militiaman—the caption reads “A fighter loyal to Muqtada Al Sadr fires a mortar round at a U.S. army position.” Abdul-Ahad’s willingness to photograph Iranian-trained militias and his penchant for photographing dead Iraqi civilians or destroyed Iraqi cities demonstrates little affection for American forces.
Similarly, American Thorne Anderson photographed a group of men lighting the ground on fire in the dead of night. The caption reads “Mehdi militiamen light tarmac to camouflage explosives in Sadr city streets. These roadside bombs (known as IEDs in the military) are the biggest killers of American troops.” No mention is made of whether Anderson later notified the troops of the bomb’s location, in order to prevent further troop casualties.
Leistner’s photography seems intent on exposing American and coalition force hypocrisy by photographing interrogations, bound Iraqis, limbless women, civilian victims, and destroyed cities. “While coalition forces were careful to minimize damage to the shrine of Imam Ali for fear of more widespread retaliation by angry Shia, little mention was made of the vast destruction of the city that Imam Ali once called ‘The Valley of Peace,’” reads one of her captions. In contradiction to assertions of neutrality and independence from coalition force influence, the Unembedded website describes her as covering “ the opening days of the 2003 US-led [sic] war in Iraq” while documenting female Pashmerga militants, later becoming the “first freelance journalist to embed with the US[sic] military without the support of a news organization.” It seems unlikely that Leistner was able to photograph official interrogations without U.S. or coalition force supervision.
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.