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Twenty years ago next week, I witnessed the opening salvos of the U.S. invasion of Iraq from the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. I was among the few foreign journalists not embedded with the American military who remained to cover the start of the war from the capital. It was not my first war as a photographer, but it was the first time I had experienced bombardment in a densely populated urban center.
I recall the unnatural silence blanketing the city before the first American cruise missiles were launched. I saw them before I heard them, heading across the river from us toward their targets into what the U.S. military would later call the Green Zone. The silence ended with the reverberation of Iraqi antiaircraft guns, their green and red tracer rounds flashing in the sky like shooting stars. Out of the corner of my eye, a huge flash of light revealed where the first missile hit. Seconds later, the deep rumble of the explosion echoed across the city, its monstrous energy setting off every car alarm in the neighborhood.
Most of the photographs that my colleagues and I took on the hotel roof were out-of-focus shots of fire and smoke in the distance. They captured the spectacle the American military must have imagined when it called the operation "Shock and Awe." They did not show the families huddling in Baghdad that night. They could not capture the uncertainty and fear, and they could not grasp the significance of the moment for Iraq, the U.S. and the world. Still, those blurry pictures were published the next day on the cover of essentially every major Western newspaper, visually framing the public perception of those first days of the war.
As I continued to cover the war, I chased dramatic shots of violent conflict, the kind that make a war photographer's career. I was driven almost entirely by the demands of the daily news, and by the need to prove myself. But events along the way began to complicate my role as a chronicler of the war, and I was forced to reassess my work as a photojournalist.
During the first weeks of the invasion I was arrested by Saddam Hussein's secret police and held in Abu Ghraib prison for eight days. There in the darkest cells of Hussein's terror apparatus, the sounds of men being tortured filled the hallways. The battered bodies of fellow prisoners were occasionally paraded past my cell in the foreigners' wing of the complex, making me wonder if I would be next.
Never had my field of vision been more limited, more controlled than it was in prison, but ironically it was there that I got a glimpse of something usually hidden from view. My role had changed. I was still a witness but without a camera. I was still a journalist but now also a prisoner. I had become a character in the hidden narrative of the war.
Experiences like this one marked the start of a 20-year evolution of self-awareness, and my understanding of what the philosopher Judith Butler has called "the framing of the frame." Butler wrote about the underlying systems of state power that define the frame of our narratives, that dictate what is kept in or out of it and that ultimately determine "which human lives count as human and as living, and which do not."
Covering the war until its formal end in 2011, I saw the emergence of many competing narratives that made up an often incomprehensible web of "what was really going on." I saw the lines sometimes blur between victim, bystander and perpetrator.
In 2006, when Sunni Iraqis joined forces with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida, I saw how quickly the Americans were able to redefine the narrative frame of the war. Insurgent leaders with blood on their hands became noble warriors in the "Sunni Awakening." I needed a different approach to my work as a photographer to capture their ambiguities.
Some of these changes were aesthetic. I recall one day in 2008 when I traveled to Kharma in Anbar province to meet Abu Zakarya, one of the most feared former Sunni insurgent leaders, who had flipped his loyalties to work with the Americans. I noticed that when we met, he was wearing an unusual hat, very similar to one worn by Hussein in murals I had seen around Baghdad before the invasion. With those echoes in mind, I photographed Abu Zakarya holding a shotgun much in the same way Hussein had in some of the murals.
In 2014, I was aboard an Iraqi Army helicopter that crashed while on a mission to rescue people from the Yazidi minority stranded on the Sinjar Mountains. ISIS was closing in. Here I was thrust into two roles at once — journalist and human being affected by the war's danger and violence. After getting over the shock of the crash and realizing that I was OK, I sprang into action to document the scenes. This is an example of a change in my work that was forced upon me by circumstance. I hope that my photographs of this event convey not just the spectacle of the crash, but also the human dignity of the Iraqis most affected by the conflict.
Over time, I became interested in capturing the personal, family and national histories of Iraq and the lives of its people in what Butler has called "alternative frames." I turned away from spectacle produced at the moment of violence to its aftermath — quieter moments defined by nuance and ambiguity. In these photos I often tried to center human dignity and resilience, to give face to Iraqis who lived and still live every day with the immense challenges of insecurity, violence and poverty. I have also tried to make visible the political action and demands of the new generation of Iraqis who are fighting to break with this past.
I am a photojournalist, with the highest respect for my colleagues and my profession. But like any job or vocation, it needs to be critiqued and reflected on. The 20 years that have passed since I took those shots on the hotel roof in Baghdad have shown me the limits of documenting war. I no longer believe that it is possible to be an objective, uninvolved witness to war. I'd like to bring other photojournalists into a more honest and open conversation about the ambiguities of our work, and how we might reframe and redefine the stories we tell about violence, conflict and human dignity.
In assembling my photographs for a book to mark the 20th anniversary of the war, I included words and text — military dispatches, quotes, pop culture references; redacted official transcripts, lists of the Iraqi dead — that invite questions about the competing narratives of the war.
Who has the power to narrate a conflict? Who determines the parameters of the frame? Which crimes or victims will be visible, and at the expense of what? I don't provide any answers. But I argue that it is essential to keep asking the questions.
Moises Saman is a photojournalist, a member of Magnum Photos and a 2023 Nieman Fellow. His new book, "Glad Tidings of Benevolence," focuses on his work covering the Iraq War and its aftermath. This article was first published by the New York Times.