When is the price too high?

September 18, 2007

What is the price we are ready to pay to get the picture? When do we say stop, enough, it is not worth it? When the danger and the price are too high no matter what the picture could be? Remember the frog in hot water? In Iraq I feel like that frog, somebody has turned up the heat and the water is beginning to boil.

Unless you are totally crazy or one of those larger than life war photographers, the only way to document the biggest running news story of the last decade or so is the famous ’embed’, the U.S. military program which allows journalists to live with and shadow their soldiers on the ground 24/7. Forget about trying to operate on your own as a unilateral as the new vocabulary styles it. Working with just a driver, a fixer and yourself may seem like an option only if you havent been around there recently, are seriously deluded or harbour suicidal tendencies. No, in circumstances where even local photographers with small cameras cannot operate safely, the embed offers the only possible way to document the mayhem of Iraq.

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So, this is how it works. You apply through your Baghdad office and the YES reply comes in a couple of days, together with the first set of ground rules for you to sign. It is essential to know what you are applying for. If you dont specify the unit you want to stay with, then its pure luck, a lottery. It could be very good unit, active, not too dangerous allowing you a chance to have good and varied images every day. Or you could end up in a corner of the big story, patrolling around in tanks or armored vehicles all day long, fishing for IEDs and a picture or two, maybe. Knowing what you want is very important.

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Now, who has all the most up-to-date information,who knows where to go and all the small secrets that could save lives? Our Baghdad people of course, they really know what is going on, but you need to actively seek their advicet. If you don’t talk to them they will quite reasonably assume that you already know what to do and you are straight back in the lottery again. So to the internet where you trawl the agencies’  websites, photo forums and portals, checking blogs and following the usual suspects. There are a very small number of news photographers going to Iraq nowadays and it is easy to contact them. They will willingly share information, give you tips and make your choices easier. To minimize the danger and maximize the results, preparation is extremely important.

But, the logistics. Man, how I hate even looking at the bags I have packed for Iraq. All the body armour, satellite modems, long cables, sleeping bags, spare lenses, entertaiment for the long nights of waiting for something to happen. Ive been there many times and packing should be easy because I know exactly what to take. Maybe just another book, loudspeakers for iPod, couple more DVDs, extra torch Then just before flying out, another look at the four huge bags, remembering where Im going to, I decide to re-pack. Everything goes, leaving just two cameras, two lenses, armour, laptop and basic hygiene. OK and a small fancy film camera for a black and white project thats never going to be finished.

The U.S. army provide everything. Maybe not for free, but their camps are small towns built for pampered soldiers and you can get everything you need. Cheap army shops are very good. For small change you can turn your corner of that huge army tent into a nice, private room to live in for next couple of weeks.

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So, now Im outside the wire with troops and its time to take pictures. Knowing what the mission is for the day will help. In the beginning the platoon leader does not trust me and I work at getting to know him. Talking about the wars I have covered, other experiences and travel does not impress them much. But a double page spread of one of my old pictures of Jennifer Lopez in a sent from home magazine they keep under seats of their Humvee does the trick. I explain that we do cover other things, not just conflict and big news stories. They like sports and they like gossip about celebrities even more. Now, they talk to me

And the talk is about what theyll do after the war is over and then about their worst nightmare, an enemy no army ever fought on this scale before  improvised explosive devices. They talk about the fear. They say the third vehicle in a convoy is more often hit by IEDs then the others, they say Iranian-made roadside bombs are killers. Not long ago they found an old fridge, filled with explosive, buried under the road targeting convoys of humvees. They say they look for a small box by the road with a video camera that the bad guys place near the bombs to film explosion.

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Soon afterwards, I experience my first IED targeting the convoy, just as everyone else taking chances with the U.S. army in Iraq probably will. Local Iraqi police have informed the U.S. military about the device and the bomber appears to have run away without detonating it. I am in the second vehicle as we stop close to the suspicious yellow bag. We wait for twenty minutes but nothing happens. “Okay, hes gone”, says the officer calling for a disposal expert to diffuse the bomb. The robot comes, cuts wires attached to a mobile phone and detonates the bomb. “It’s a small one”, they say, “no need to take cover”. None of the windows in the neighborhood survive the explosion of the small one.

And the pictures of the blast? No pictures, only portraits of soldiers happy that another day has passed.

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The pictures come later. I manage to get into a combat hospital, an embed I had pursued for a long time. This is the place where all the wounded from Baghdad area are brought. It is a fantastic opportunity for a photojournalist and probably the most frustrating. Some of my best, most telling pictures still sit in my laptop, waiting for military approval to use them because of concerns that a tattoo or the faces of a screaming soldier may be recognisable. There are things I was not allowed to shoot or even speak about.

So, the cost of telliing the story of Iraq gets ever higher and part of that price may be that our best shots have to remain silent, unseen. Still, being with coalition troops is a safer bet than the alternatives  just ask our Iraqi colleagues!

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 Damir Sagolj


A very insightful account. Thanks for sharing.


Censorship is sooooo 1980’s.
But then again, if putting up with rules like that mean that you can make some great shots no-one else has, that dó make it to ‘the wire’, i guess you’ll just have to :)

Posted by Ralph | Report as abusive

Good story. It gives us a chance to read what it’s like there as a photographer…

Posted by Rick | Report as abusive

Thanks for sharin Damir, c ya when I c ya in Sarajevo.


Thank you for this entry. I also liked your earlier article about the children treated in the combat hospital as it gave a very human face to the suffering at war. And, of course, the pictures you provided throughout your stay there were wonderful.

Posted by Susanna K. | Report as abusive

From Mexico: I’m a doctor who practices photography when it’s possible; thinking in how frustrating can be staying at these hospital, if Even under normal conditions (no war) is a very stressing status I imagine the tension of those surgeons trying to save the people. Congrats for those images, A photo always says more than a lot of words.