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portraits of Iraq

Portland photojournalist Joel Preston Smith lived in Iraq for four months in 2003, documenting Iraqis' daily lives, rituals and struggle to survive - both before and after the U.S. invasion. In two separate trips, he aimed to introduce Americans to Iraqis

What events led up to your overseas work?

In 1996, through a series of events right after I moved to Portland, I wound up doing communication for Northwest Medical Teams. So I said, 'If you ever need anyone to travel as a photographer on one of your trips, I'd like to go.' A few weeks later, they called me and invited me to travel to Chiapas, Mexico as a photographer. The trip got canceled, but a few weeks later, they called and asked if I'd like to go to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to provide medical care for Rwandan refugees. The trip changed into just a trip to Rwanda instead, but it was my first time overseas. It pretty much hooked me on doing work in developing countries but also emphasizing social justice.

Why did you decide to go to Iraq?

I've been a soldier in the U.S. Army, and I was pretty disgusted with the culture of violence and a lot of the associated treatment of U.S. troops. Bush talked about invading Iraq. And I thought if I could get there it would be a rare chance to see what it was like for the other side. I got my visa through Voices in the Wilderness, an organization opposed to the U.S. sanctions. They were trying to get journalists in the country, so I traveled in by car with peace activists.

What was your angle? What story were you trying to tell?

Most journalists focused on weapons inspectors. Some journalists were trying to cover the Iraqi military. I knew that stuff was well-covered, and I didn't have the resources to motor around the country chasing weapons inspection teams. So, I hitched rides, took buses and taxis and just wandered the streets. I went to see what it was like for Iraqis who were under the threat of invasion.

What was it like reporting from Saddam Hussein's regime?

Journalists were required to have minders to tell you who to talk to and guide you around. Voices of the Wilderness had a minder everywhere they went, and sometimes I would go with them. But I did a lot independently, too. Eventually I got in trouble for that and got kicked out of the country.

What is your preferred modus operandi as a photojournalist?

I prefer to work where there are not white people, and I don't speak the language. I think the people have to have a sixth sense about you. I'd rather be judged on if a person has an instinctive trust of you. They can look you up and down, see how you interact, and make a judgment on who you are without words. I also emphasize more and more building relationships with the subjects I photograph.

How would you describe the Iraqi people?

Despite fear and stress, they're still very hospitable and kind. I feel safer and more welcome in an Arab town - despite the political history - than in most American cities. It's far easier to be invited into an Iraqi home than it is in this country. When I approach my American subjects, they can't look at me and say, 'but your people are going to kill my uncle.' Iraqis can.

I could be out until 2 a.m. with two visible cameras wandering down alleys and never be bothered. No one tried to rob me or threaten me. Once I left my camera at a restaurant and the waiter chased me down the street to give it back to me.

Was there ever any animosity?

It was very rare on the first trip. When I did experience animosity, I brought it on myself by unintentionally offending someone.

One time I was shoved by an Iraqi army officer. He was behind a man carrying a framed photo of Saddam Hussein. The sun was shining through it in such a way that it looked like an old faded Italian fresco. Its colors were muted; it was beautiful. Now that I look back on it, he thought I was taking an offensive photo of Saddam. He came over and put his hand on my chest to push me back. Because he was angry, I took another photo, and then I photographed him. That's not the first time I did something I'm embarrassed about.

What was the difference before and after the U.S. invasion?

The second trip wasn't so good. There were a couple of times when I was being shot at. There was a lot more fear in the second trip. There were shootings and explosions.

I don't mean to imply that it was a country at peace in the first trip. When Hussein was in power, people knew what the rules were. There was no speaking out against the government, but it was still a very stable environment. The sanctions made it look like a barebones system, but the people knew what it took to survive.

On the second trip, people did speak out against the government. But people talked about how much they hated Hussein, how much happier they were now, and how they wanted the U.S. to leave. Some were opposed to the violence of the U.S. invasion because it wasn't safe enough anymore to send their kids to school. There was a lot of sadness and disorder that existed every day.

Even though there were sad times, what sticks out is the kindness of people.

I met the Mathoub family in Baghdad that had seven family members. They lived across the street from my apartment. Their father was killed in 1996 in a highway accident. The best times with them were playing and going swimming, eating dinner, going to the ice cream parlor.

Do you have plans to return?

If I had the resources, I would go to Kurdistan tomorrow. I couldn't travel south of there safely the way I like to work. I'd be putting a lot of people at risk. With the threats on Americans, some Iraqis wouldn't hesitate to harm other Iraqis just so they could shoot an American. And, I couldn't risk that. I couldn't go back and visit these people I really love.

What do you hope Americans learn from your work?

I hope that they're inspired to be much more compassionate to people in the Middle East. To develop a sense of distrust of any person or institution that would compel them to fear Middle Easterners or people from other cultures. On a personal note, I would really hope that more Americans would work for withdrawal of American troops. My personal sadness comes from the suffering of Iraqis and the damage to American troops in particular.