Snapshots Of Life In Baghdad
Three bodies lie beside a
Three bodies lie beside a
It is a cell-phone picture, for now only the cell phones of the Iraqi people can record their tragedy. Another shows a young man's body, taken from beside a car wing mirror, hands tied behind his back with his own shirt. Bombs explode across the
But there are also families; even a Muslim family celebrating Christmas, all dressed in Santa Claus hats, and a graduation party where the girls wear Bedouin black dresses with gold-fringed scarves and the boys wear Arab headdress and white abayas – something quite foreign to the middle classes of what was once one of the most literate and educated cities of the Middle East.
But it is the cell phone that has captured this terrible, fearful, brave face of
We Westerners need the locals to photograph their tragedy and their ragged, often fuzzy, poorly framed pictures contain their own finely calibrated and terrible beauty. The fear of the cell-phone snapper is contained in almost every frame. Most of the Iraqis are refugees-to-be, for the Dutch photographer Geert van Kesteren, who collected 388 pages of photographs for his book Baghdad Calling, wanted to catalogue the tragedy of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who are the largely ignored victims of our demented 2003 invasion and occupation.
Van Kesteren, an unassuming but imaginative journalist whom I met recently in
Some were rejected because of their suspect provenance – alas, we therefore do not see the picture of an American soldier, apparently firing a rifle from atop a donkey, but which might have been digitally edited – but others cannot be anything but the truth. The smiling families, hiding in their homes as the killers roam the darkness outside, the young men relaxing in the safety of Kurdistan, swimming in the lakes, revelling in the nightlife, the plump nephew of one of the anonymous cell-phone photographers sitting on a bright red sports car, have to be real.
It must have been hard for Van Kesteren, a news photographer in his own right, to have submerged his own work for this brilliant amateur collection. A few of Van Kesteren's own professional pictures appear in Baghdad Calling but they are taken in the safety of Syria, Jordan or Turkey and – save for a group photograph of courageous Iraqis captured after illegally crossing the Turkish border but still determined to escape from their country again – they lack the power and immediacy of the Iraqi snapshots.
The refugee statistics are so appalling that they have become almost mundane. Four million of
This collection of pictures is therefore an indictment of us, as well as of the courage of Iraqis. The madness is summed up in an email message sent to Van Kesteren by a Baghdad Iraqi. "This summer," he wrote, "a workman wanted to quench his thirst by putting ice in his tea. A car pulled up, the driver stepped out and began to beat and kick the man, cursing him as an unbeliever. 'What do you think you're doing? Did the Prophet Mohamed put ice in his water?'
The man being attacked was furious and asked his assailant: 'Do you think the Prophet Mohamed drove a car?'"