Leader Blues

Monday, February 05, 2007

TOP STORY >>Photo assignment: Iraq

IN SHORT: Thorne Anderson shows another view of Iraq in his new book and at an exhibit called “Unembedded.”

Leader staff writer

A 1985 Cabot High School graduate whose war photographs have appeared frequently in TIME and Newsweek magazines returned to Central Arkansas Wednesday to show what he called the human side of the tragedy in Iraq.

Thorne Anderson, 40, who attended middle school, junior high and high school in Cabot, is one of four freelance photographers whose most evocative photos are compiled in the book “Unembedded.”
The others are Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford and Rita Leistner.

Anderson appeared Thursday at the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health in Little Rock for a reception marking the opening of a photographic exhibition including 60 of the pictures from the book of the same title.

The college invited Anderson and the exhibition because “war, wherever it occurs, has a profound impact on the well-being of individuals, communities and nations,” according to James M. Raczynski, dean of the college.

“The war in Iraq has had and continues to take a huge toll on human health and the environment in Iraq,” Raczynski said.
He said the photos help document the grave public health consequences of war.

Anderson, who now lives in Amsterdam, and the other three photojournalists were among the few war photographers who chose not to be embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq, but with the Iraqi people, the Shiites and the Sunnis, staying with families or in hotels, in a mosque in Najaf and only occasionally with U.S. troops.

It was a dangerous choice, where they faced arrest from Iraqi police or sudden death from a sniper or an explosive in the streets.

The photographers’ self-assigned duty was to provide an alternative perspective of the war, not in conflict with the view of embedded photographers and writers, but in addition to that view, Anderson told more than 100 people who attended not only the showing, but an hour-long slide presentation and discussion that followed.

Perhaps the most compelling of Anderson’s photos, chosen for the book cover, presents a look at fractured life in Iraq now taken through spider-web cracks of a bullet-riddled windshield.

Others include a youngster, maybe four, watching intently and up close as his relatives repair a damaged rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a bloody emergency room view and a man picking through the remains from a mass grave, looking for friends and relatives.

A menacing portrait of a Sunni guerrilla fighter holding a small scythe is not the threatening image it first seems, says Anderson, because the scythe is actually a tool for harvesting dates and the man is trying to show that he is just a humble farmer.

Another picture shows clumps of Iraqi men smoking water pipes and playing dominoes in the garden of a teahouse in Baghdad during a break in hostilities.

“Working unembedded, exclusively with Iraqi people themselves, presenting a new perspective,” he said, was not political, but “a more human and humane view of the Iraq war.”

He began his Iraq coverage in 2002, documenting the effects of sanctions on the country.
One such effect, which he said moved him profoundly, was a young boy who bled to death following a circumcision because among the U.N. sanctions imposed by the U.S. was one against importation of coagulants.

Although it’s been financially stressful to him, he thinks his efforts right now are “best served in expanding the reach of the exhibit and book. It really is a labor of love.”

Anderson, born in Montgomery, Ala., has covered international news since 1999. He attended Rhodes College in Memphis and holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of journalism.

While covering the war in Baghdad, he was arrested and twice expelled by Iraqi intelligence. He covered the beginning of both the Sunni and Shiite resistance movements and at the peak of the U.S. siege of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, he spent three days inside with pilgrims and members of the Mehdi Militia.

Anderson said Time and Newsweek aided and abetted the Bush administration in demonizing Saddam Hussein at the expense of helping readers understand the consequences of war upon the 26 million Iraqis who were not Saddam Hussein.
The human element and the complexity of the cultures were lost as the emphasis was all Saddam all the time, he said. The job was even more frustrating when their important photos and stories were hidden inside the cover with Spiderman, the movie, as the cover art.

Anderson’s brother Bruce lives in North Little Rock and his parents, who now live in North Carolina, came in for a mini-reunion, he said. At least one of his old high school friends, Fred Wood, attended Wednesday night.

Anderson cited among his Cabot-era influences, wide ranging discussions with Wood and his attendance at Hope Presbyterian Church, where his father was chief of chaplain services.

Discussions with Wood and in coach Mickey McLaughlin’s civics class “kind of opened me up to the world and trying to understand it and see it better. “

The church was “very open to applying their values to politics for example,” Anderson said. “It was a place where there was a lot of encouragement for open discussion, especially in terms of issues of justice.”

He said growing up in a small town whetted his appetite for travel and adventure. Anderson has interrupted his work as a photographer.

“This is such an important story for me and for the country,” he said. “I’ve taken a year off to spread this story around.” He said he had expected the exhibit would be finished by now, but “there is still a really strong hunger for alternative perspectives of what’s going on in Iraq.”

“The Iraq War is a hugely personal experience for me. In this country, it’s treated primarily as a domestic political argument between parties.”

Attendance has been good at the Unembedded shows, with about 600 people coming to see it and hear his presentation in Flagstaff, Ariz. He said that even from the beginning, people have shown skepticism about the reports they were getting from Iraq. They would ask, “Are things really getter better in Iraq?”

“Now people seem to know that conditions are quite miserable,” he said. “We’re very lucky that we have the freedom to send our children to school,” he said, “and live our lives largely unmolested. The Iraqis want the same thing.”

In the book, Anderson talks of his Haider, his guide/keeper, who helped keep him safe and get him access, but not to everything.

“We were an odd pair, presumed enemies. I’m an American. I love my country. He was a member of a guerrilla movement that battled American soldiers. We were divided by a political, cultural, and economic gulf, but we respected each other and even enjoyed each other’s company.”

The 60-photograph show, funded by a grant from the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation (the ice cream moguls) is sponsored locally by the Institute for Peace and Justice and by the College of Public Health.

This exhibit includes statistics researched locally by College of Public Health students including former Leader reporter Nancy Dockter.

For instance, before U.N./U.S. sanctions were imposed, the death rate for Iraqi children younger than 5 years old was 43 per 1,000, but after sanctions were imposed, the death rate tripled to 129 per 1,000. An estimated 500,000 children younger than five died because of sanctions, the college reported.

Not only the bombing and fighting, but also the disruptions in water and electricity are among the public health issues.
Residents have high rates of depression, anxiety and mental illness attributable to the fighting. Hospitals were closed or looted, medicine hard to get—this is a public health issue on so many levels, according to the text the college juxtaposed to the photos in the exhibition.

It’s estimated that before sanctions, an average of 3,200 calories a day was available per person. After sanctions, that fell to 1,100 calories.

The exhibit will run weekdays, 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. through Feb. 15 and will be open the weekend of Feb. 10 from 1-5 p.m. at the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health.

Then it goes to Philander Smith College. The book is available from Wordsworth Booksellers one block north of the intersection of University and Cantrell avenues in Little Rock.