Jehad Nga, freelance photographer
On arriving at the beginning of the war
When we arrived in Baghdad, as you can imagine, Baghdad was basically ablaze. The Americans had created a safety zone around the Palestine Hotel; otherwise the city was in a state of anarchy.
As you can imagine, every journalist on the face of the earth kind of descended on Baghdad. There were only two hotels, it was one the most chaotic situations, we couldn’t even move in the Palestine [Hotel]; there were just people throwing money at reception trying to get rooms.
Back in 2003-04, we were able to live as we’d live here in New York: We went out, went to dinner parties–it was not a problem. We could move freely, live comfortably. My brother asked me at one stage, I think it was January of ’04, what are you doing in Iraq, what are you still doing? I wasn’t too active, I was freelancing shooting for myself to sell the pictures, and it was great. It was cheaper than New York. It was comfortable, cost-of-living was obviously low, so, why not?
I think it’s a common misconception that we are really monitored and really censored [on an embed]. My experiences have always been quite the contrary. They’ve always been like, you want to get someplace? We’ll get you there. If, say, during an operation, me as a photographer, I really pushed to be on the front line….We really need to be as close as possible to get decent pictures. They’ve been, it’s been a positive experience. But it varies. There’s so many soldiers there, so many units, it’s a crapshoot.
If something happened to you, they [the U.S. military] would be the ones to help you, it would be their Black Hawks. OK, yes, your tax dollars but, they are the ones that would treat you like an equal, they would push you to get the proper care, they wouldn’t throw you to the wayside at all.
It’s a two-way street: They respect you and respect that you will make the right decisions, and then let’s say you do get pictures that are sensitive, it’s your responsibility to come back and say, “Look I’ve got these pictures, and I need to let you know that we are going to release these pictures,” and if it’s an operation they can apply a 24- to 48-hour embargo. If there’s an operation, just so people don’t know what’s going on because news travels fast, and if they’re after an enemy they don’t want people to know, and you respect that, obviously, because you put people’s lives in danger.
On Iraqi vs. Western journalists
I think that an important platform that we need, in my opinion, is some sort of thruway for the information from local journalists to be channeled into our media here. The likelihood of that happening, I couldn’t say. They are really the ones out there doing jobs. It’s us too, Western journalists, the magazines, but you know, in 2005, 2006 when no one was able to go out, it was, I think back to the photographs of the contractors in Fallujah who were hanging from that bridge, had it not been for an Iraqi photographer, there is no way those photographs would have been taken. And he, he just barely escaped with his life, so I can’t stress enough to myself and others, how important it is, the work that they are doing. It’s a challenge. They don’t have the resources that a lot of the Western journalists have. A lot of the Western journalists live like kings in Baghdad. They have enormous budgets and they are obviously doing their work, and the Iraqis, they don’t. They don’t have bodyguards, they don’t have hard cars, they don’t have the resources that if something were to happen that they could get out of there.
On what journalists can cover
When I first arrived in Baghdad, I could take a photo of anything, you could do a feature on anything and they were just gobbling it up….It was one big black spot, so people were kind of desperate to learn more. Gradually, that would subside and that’s natural. So there’s that and the safety has gone up and down. In the “good old days” it was easy, you wanted to go and do story, you just went and did it. There wasn’t a lot of red tape there. So it comes as surprise to me sometimes–what do you mean we can’t do it? Well, we need to get permission.
That’s what we know, that’s what we’ve been told, that there was a decree that we couldn’t show up to the scenes of bombings and take pictures of dead Iraqis. What they would do is, after the IP, after they would respond to bombing, clear the scene, go through the various stages, clearing and trying to recover, if there had been any casualties, and then after that they would allow us to do our jobs, but yeah it’s not something you can do anymore. Those scenes are serious, it’s usually, “Kaboom,” and then a couple minutes of gunfire, then they respond and they are clearing the crowd, but they are quite trigger happy and understandably so because there have been secondary explosions. There’s been and explosion, people respond, and then there’s another explosion.
On getting the story out
Right now in America, we are kind of bottlenecked because of the elections. I find it very frightening that there is this enormous global blackout, if you’re watching American news networks. It just does my head in right now and it’s not to say there’s nothing going on now, it’s not to say that in Iraq, everything is cool. I understand that, viewers, and all that stuff, demands, but there’s a lot of information out there. There are a lot of Iraqi journalists, and not just journalists–writers, people out there who are doing phenomenal work, and in many cases, digging. They may break through and go deeper than we can ever go and we need to create some sort of gateway. To tap into that information more freely would be a great benefit to people.