A sense of calm. Thorne Anderson remembers that at times, Baghdad, in the days leading up to the U.S. invasion, felt calm.
Such serenity was relative, of course. Anderson, a photographer, had entered Iraq first in Oct. 2002 and returned in late winter/early spring 2003 to document the affects of U.S. sanctions. Those sanctions resulted in Iraqis suffering from malnutrition. Anderson's shutter opened and closed. Medical equipment sat inoperable. He clicked away. And as February 2003 shifted into March and the invasion inched closer, Anderson found himself an unembedded journalist.
In truth, he says all journalists back then were. Herded into the same area of Baghdad, no one knew if, or when, the country would slide into chaos. "We were sitting ducks," Anderson, 41, recalls.
But the Iraqis: most didn't sit still, opting to dig wells in their backyards. Others tried to flee with their families. The ones who remained, however, merely waited. Things in Baghdad felt, not normal, but... calm. "And the next day," he remembers, "all hell was breaking loose."
The earth shook. Hospitals exploded. Smoke coiled to the sky. Anderson watched it all. "It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck for days," he says. Yet he kept taking pictures.
The calm, the chaos. A collection of the photos Anderson took that reveal this bifurcated reality of modern-day Iraq are on display in "Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq," at the University of Washington's Odegaard Undergraduate Library until Dec. 5. Sponsored locally by Health Alliance International, the traveling exhibit combines Anderson's work with that of three other photographers -- Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford, and Rita Leistner --?in the hopes of offering a different perspective on the five-and-a-half year conflict.
The more than 60 photos present the country's opposing forces. Some record the ordinary moments in a day -- a street filled with men kneeling in prayer, a boy riding a bike through a puddle -- those unremarkable events that make up a life. Others present the polar opposite --?a man crying over the bloody bodies near his feet, black-clad women wailing at the approach of a wooden casket -- capturing the despair and anguish that, in an instant, shatter a life to bits.
For Anderson, an independent photographer with meager resources, the need for accommodations proved crucial. He found them courtesy of NBC News, who in the war's infancy had rented an entire hotel, complete with private security. Anderson and other independents rented rooms in an apartment building attached to the hotel. The residence provided a boon: "It was easier to get in and out of [there] and stay connected to people around you," he says.
Not beholden to U.S. military protection, he took sorties into different Baghdad neighborhoods. Sometimes, if he missed the hotel's curfew due to covering a nighttime event, a family would host him for the evening. Interactions with ordinary Iraqis grew. So too did his fondness for them. And while not wanting to generalize an entire nation, he recalls that "Iraqi people tend to be sweet in the way they welcome you: They hold your hand, they say, 'I will protect you like I will protect my own eyes.'"
He says their willingness to be photographed made his job easy at times. He remembers a man he befriended in Baghdad. When the man joined the Madhi Militia -- a social movement, under the auspices of Shi'ite cleric Muktada al-Sadr, that Anderson says delivered medicine or performed circumcisions in the city -- he invited Anderson to travel with the militia on a patrol. He tagged along, camera in tow. "It's the same thing as if you're covering the Boy Scouts," he says. "It's no different, except the Madhi Militia carries [rocket propelled grenade launchers]."
His decision to travel with them upset some, but he says that, as a journalist, he had to. "I think it's important for journalists to cross those lines, so that we can learn what we can," he says.
He says that most of the reporting Americans see on Iraq, such as debating the success of the surge, comes through the official filters: the White House, the Pentagon. That sacrifices other stories, like the four million displaced from their homes and the ethnic cleansing sweeping the country.
Exhibits such as "Unembedded," he says, show what it looks like when photographers step outside of the American Humvee. "If you really want to understand what's going on in Iraq," he says, "you need to seek out news that looks different than what you're used to."