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Unembedded in Iraq

Photojournalists share their visions of life behind the scenes at Lewis and Clark College exhibit
by: Thorne Anderson, A young boy in Sadr City watches his relatives repair a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the home of a Mahdi Army fighter. Photo by Thorne Anderson; Aug. 7, 2004.

Though not violent or bloody like some of the others, the image went straight to Joyce Morgareidge's heart.

A young Sunni guerilla fighter sits cross-legged on the ground, his head wrapped in a colorful scarf. In his clenched fist he holds a scythe, typically used by date farmers.

His mother, who stands at his right, rests her hand comfortably on his shoulder.

Out of the 60 pieces in 'Unembedded: Four Independent Journalists on the War in Iraq,' a photo exhibit at Lewis and Clark College, this one disturbed Morgareidge the most.

In the caption, the fighter is quoted as saying, 'Our mothers are not afraid for us. When we join the resistance, they encourage us in our attacks.'

Morgareidge, a Lake Oswego resident, could not believe a mother could condone such violence, but she appreciated the photo's message.

Like dozens of others, Morgareidge and her friends visited the exhibit's opening reception last Thursday to view the photos on display in the college's Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art.

The images, which will hang through March 18, tell stories of heartache and tragedy while emphasizing that life does go on amid chaos and catastrophe in Iraq. It's the first Portland-based exhibit to focus on the country.

'In their unflinching look at war-ravaged Iraq, (the photographers) show that life there is brutal, yet poignant; that compassion co-exists with anger, hatred and fear,' according to the gallery's Web site.

The exhibit's four photojournalists - Iraqi Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Americans Kael Alford and Thorne Anderson and Canadian Rita Leistner - spent months in Iraq as freelance 'unembedded' journalists, capturing daily Iraqi life, from deadly bombings to joyous wedding days.

Anderson, who lives in Amsterdam, and Alford, who lives in Atlanta, were both onhand to discuss their work during a question-and-answer session.

Alford, who is also the show's curator and promoter, was based in Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003 and captured images of women in beauty salons and on their way to a henna party.

Anderson spent 10 months of the last two years in Iraq, where he was arrested by Iraqi intelligence and expelled from the country. He returned to cover occupation resistance movements and Shiite uprisings.

'We got to see the real, personal and human side (of Iraq), not what embedded journalists are seeing,' Alford said.

As far as reporting jobs go, it was highly dangerous - more journalists have died covering the war in Iraq than in World War II. Moreover, most of those journalists were 'embeds' attached to the military, not on their own, like Alford and Anderson.

'Journalists are clearly being targeted,' Anderson said. 'I don't have answer as to why.'

Over time, Alford and Anderson watched as resentment toward their country grew and the civilian death toll climbed.

Meanwhile, the American press failed to tell the real story, they said, and freelance journalists began to lose their foothold on the front lines as the bloodshed worsened.

'There is a battle between independent journalists who want to tell the truth and their government, who wants to control as much of that narrative as possible,' Anderson said.

They expressed their frustration with American publications, such as Newsweek and Time, which trivialized the situation in Iraq by plastering menacing cartoon caricatures of Saddam Hussein - and Spider Man - across their covers.

'What we see about ourselves and the rest of the world is different than what the rest of the world sees of us and Iraq and Afghanistan,' Anderson said.

The 'Unembedded' journalists came together out of that frustration to put together a book and traveling exhibit of their work.

Primarily, they wanted the exhibit to offer viewers an educational glimpse into an unfathomable world far removed from the comforts of American suburbia.

For many, the exhibit painted a grim picture of the civilian cost of the conflict that the regular media did not offer.

'It just moves me to tears,' said Beverly Hedin of Camas, Wash. 'It's just horrible to see … Until I came here, I hadn't seen these types of images.'

In one photo, a mother lays in a hospital bed covered in blood-soaked clothes and dying as her son watches. In another, young couples smile with glee on an amusement park ride. Many of the photos show the dead or wounded.

Lake Oswego resident Matt Briggs, who came to the exhibit with his brother, said people are hungry for the images because they're angry at how the war is affecting the Iraqi people.

'You can only keep reality at bay so long before the real reality overwhelms it,' Briggs said.

Lewis and Clark College fine arts photography major Rebecca Maxwell was inspired by the exhibit and realized that she could use her talent to change the world.

'It's very well done,' she said. 'I almost value an outsider's perspective more than an insider's perspective. I'm more concerned about what's going on with the people.'

The Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art on the Lewis and Clark College campus is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Admission to 'Unembedded' is free. For more information, call 503-768-7687 or visit www.unembedded.net.