Volume 18 • Issue 44 | March 17 - 23, 2006

Photography

“The War In Iraq: Year 4 – Day 1”
Photos by Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, Rita Leistner and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
March 18 – April 30
PhotoGraphic Gallery
252 Front Street, just east of Peck Slip
(212-227-2287, www.photographicnyc.com)

Photo by Kael Alford

The photos of four photojournalists — including the work of Kael Alford, above— will be on display at PhotoGraphic Gallery starting this Saturday as part on a exhibit titled “The War In Iraq: Year 4 – Day 1.” The exhibit represents only a sample of the photos featured in “Unembedded: Four Photojournalists on the War in Iraq,” a book published by Chelsea Green last year.

Looking back at Iraq, three years into war

By Steven Snyder

Hubert H. Humphrey once observed that “freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate.”

But when it comes to such politically-charged issues as America’s war on terror and invasion of Iraq, any sense of discussion or debate seems muffled by the vitriol of partisan posturing. Its polarizing nature can be seen in the headlines of only the last two weeks, one camp describing Iraq as on the brink of civil war and another claiming things are “going very, very well.”

As the two sides continue to fire shots from afar, what’s missing is any sense of a middle ground where a reasonable, logical debate can unfold.

At least that’s the claim of Kael Alford, a Brooklyn-based photojournalist who has watched the Iraq debate through a lens of first-hand experience. She started living and working in Iraq in 2003, and has returned to the country since in hopes of chronicling the growing violence that has become part of everyday life in the war-torn country. As politicians debate the realities of an ever-shifting Iraq, Alford has seen it, and lived it, for months on end.

Alford is one of four photographers featured in a new exhibit set to open at PhotoGraphic Gallery this Saturday — the third anniversary of America’s 2003 invasion. She said she participated in both the touring exhibit and its accompanying book, “Unembedded: Four Photojournalists on the War in Iraq (Chelsea Green, 2005),” because she felt her photos contributed to a larger conversation about a country and a battlefield that were not being discussed honestly.

“The majority of the reporters who were working in Iraq were working from inside positions,” Alford said. “And the four of us were working unembedded and that side of the story just wasn’t getting reported.
“There are things in this exhibit that people haven’t seen — there are two pictures of soldiers in this show and all the rest is what you’d see wandering through Iraq with Iraqis.”

Jim Wintner, co-founder and curator PhotoGraphic Gallery, said he specifically wanted to coordinate the opening of “The War In Iraq: Year 4-Day 1” with the conflict’s third anniversary, and to use that milestone as both an entry point to the discussion and a record of how far the war has progressed.

“The anniversary is significant because three years in Iraq is a very long time, particularly with no agreed reason,” Wintner said. “The liabilities have begun to exceed the assets and it feels good to somehow be part of the dialogue and not feeling helpless, which is how I feel most of the time.”

Wintner said the exhibit’s layout builds upon the “controlled chaos” these photographers – Brooklyn’s Alford, Alabama’s Thorne Anderson, Toronto’s Rita Leistner and Baghdad’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad – found as they surveyed the country. Beginning with eight large, 40x50 framed works from each artist, the exhibit culminates in the gallery’s back room, which is filled not only by a collection of images about death and dying, but augmented by an audio soundscape of Iraqi life.

Alford said the photos, taken over several years by all four photographers, were captured during a much safer time in Iraq, when Westerners could still walk the streets holding a camera. She said that environment has since changed, with the start of what she and several other American publications have called the country’s civil war.

She said each photographer chose works from their collection to be included in the touring exhibit. With her selections, she tried to evoke the sense of hospitality and strength that she felt during the majority of her time in Iraq.

“In my photographs there’s probably more daily life,” she said. “I wanted to show more of the subtle tensions and contrasts and how the social breakdown of Iraqi life affects everyday situations.

“Still, it’s hard to walk through the gallery and not get a sense of how violent Iraq is – particularly in the Baghdad region, it is terrifyingly dangerous.”

Wintner said the exhibition is being used by a number of organizations, including Reporters Without Borders, to assist with local fundraisers. Additionally, two documentaries expected to appear in the Tribeca Film Festival — “The War Tapes,” directed by Deborah Scranton and “The Blood of My Brother,” directed by Andrew Berends — will screen in conjunction with PhotoGraphic’s exhibit.

Wintner also noted that “The War In Iraq: Year 4 – Day 1” adheres to the gallery’s mission of highlighting local artists and local issues, not only though featuring the work of Alford, a New Yorker, but also through addressing the legacy of Sept. 11, which is a distinctly New York tragedy.

“It began here, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that the tragedy is not misused,” Wintner said. “We are connected to this through 9/11, it was the foundational event on which the war in Iraq has been pursued.”

While Alford can see the show’s relevance to today’s heated political rhetoric, she said that her vision of Iraq is of a much warmer and welcoming place. In fact, she said her early education as an archaeologist at Boston University has helped her to appreciate the greater losses caused by the war.

“This is the cradle of civilization,” she said. “This is the place we should be all be curious about if we want to know who we are, but all that has been eclipsed by the conflict of the moment.

“I first wanted to learn about Iraqis because they were the early agriculturalists, but now it’s all about war and death.”


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