Opinion | The War Outside the Frame:20 Years Photographing Iraq

Twenty years ago this week, I witnessed the opening salvos of the United States invasion of Iraq from the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. I was among the few foreign journalists not embedded with the American military who remained to cover the start of the war from the capital. It was not my first war as a photographer, but it was the first time I had experienced bombardment in a densely populated urban center.

I recall the unnatural silence blanketing the city before the first American cruise missiles were launched. I saw them before I heard them, heading across the river from us toward their targets into what the U.S. military would later call the Green Zone. The silence ended with the reverberation of Iraqi antiaircraft guns, their green and red tracer rounds flashing in the sky like shooting stars. Out of the corner of my eye, a huge flash of light revealed where the first missile hit. Seconds later, the deep rumble of the explosion echoed across the city, its monstrous energy setting off every car alarm in the neighborhood.

A view of Baghdad after being hit by an American cruise missile during nighttime bombing on March 21, 2003.

Most of the photographs that my colleagues and I took on the hotel roof were out-of-focus shots of fire and smoke in the distance. They captured the spectacle the American military must have imagined when it called the operation “Shock and Awe.” They did not show the families huddling in Baghdad that night. They could not capture the uncertainty and fear, and they could not grasp the significance of the moment for Iraq, the United States and the world. Still, those blurry pictures were published the next day on the cover of essentially every major Western newspaper, visually framing the public perception of those first days of the war.

Oil fires set alight along the Tigris River on the evening of the invasion to obscure the view of U.S. warplanes flying over Baghdad in 2003.

As I continued to cover the war, I chased dramatic shots of violent conflict, the kind that make a war photographer’s career. I was driven almost entirely by the demands of the daily news, and by the need to prove myself. But events along the way began to complicate my role as a chronicler of the war, and I was forced to reassess my work as a photojournalist.

During the first weeks of the invasion I was arrested by Saddam Hussein’s secret police and held in Abu Ghraib prison for eight days. There in the darkest cells of Mr. Hussein’s terror apparatus, the sounds of men being tortured filled the hallways. The battered bodies of fellow prisoners were occasionally paraded past my cell in the foreigners’ wing of the complex, making me wonder if I would be next.

Never had my field of vision been more limited, more controlled than it was in prison, but ironically it was there that I got a glimpse of something usually hidden from view. My role had changed. I was still a witness but without a camera. I was still a journalist but now also a prisoner. I had become a character in the hidden narrative of the war.

Forces loyal to Saddam Hussein joined the search for an alleged American or British pilot shot down over the Tigris River in Baghdad in 2003. Nobody was found.Students supporting Saddam Hussein during a rally at Al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad in 2002.

Experiences like this one marked the start of a 20-year evolution of self-awareness, and my understanding of what the philosopher Judith Butler has called “the framing of the frame.” Dr. Butler wrote about the underlying systems of state power that define the frame of our narratives, that dictate what is kept in or out of it and that ultimately determine “which human lives count as human and as living, and which do not.”

Covering the war until its formal end in 2011, I saw the emergence of many competing narratives that made up an often incomprehensible web of “what was really going on.” I saw the lines sometimes blur between victim, bystander and perpetrator.

U.S. Army vehicles destroyed during an insurgent attack in the Waziriyah neighborhood of Baghdad in 2004.

In 2006, when Sunni Iraqis joined forces with the U.S. military to fight Al Qaeda, I saw how quickly the Americans were able to redefine the narrative frame of the war. Insurgent leaders with blood on their hands became noble warriors in the “Sunni Awakening.” I needed a different approach to my work as a photographer to capture their ambiguities.

Some of these changes were aesthetic. I recall one day in 2008 when I traveled to Kharma in Anbar province to meet Abu Zakarya, one of the most feared former Sunni insurgent leaders, who had flipped his loyalties to work with the Americans. I noticed that when we met, he was wearing an unusual hat, very similar to one worn by Mr. Hussein in murals I had seen around Baghdad before the invasion. With those echoes in mind, I photographed Abu Zakarya holding a shotgun much in the same way Mr. Hussein had in some of the murals.

Abu Zakarya, a former Sunni insurgent leader who became friendly to American forces, inside his compound in the village of Ibrahem Bin Ali, between Baghdad and Falluja, in 2008.

In 2014, I was aboard an Iraqi Army helicopter that crashed while on a mission to rescue people from the Yazidi minority stranded on the Sinjar Mountains. ISIS was closing in. Here I was thrust into two roles at once — journalist and human being affected by the war’s danger and violence. After getting over the shock of the crash and realizing that I was OK, I sprang into action to document the scenes. This is an example of a change in my work that was forced upon me by circumstance. I hope that my photographs of this event convey not just the spectacle of the crash, but also the human dignity of the Iraqis most affected by the conflict.

New and old graves at a cemetery on the outskirts of Samarra in Salahuddin Province in 2010.

Over time, I became interested in capturing the personal, family and national histories of Iraq and the lives of its people in what Dr. Butler has called “alternative frames.” I turned away from spectacle produced at the moment of violence to its aftermath — quieter moments defined by nuance and ambiguity. In these photos I often tried to center human dignity and resilience, to give face to Iraqis who lived and still live every day with the immense challenges of insecurity, violence and poverty. I have also tried to make visible the political action and demands of the new generation of Iraqis who are fighting to break with this past.

U.S. troops on patrol along Route Irish, the renamed 7.5-mile stretch from Baghdad’s Green Zone to the airport, once dubbed the world’s most dangerous road, in 2008.Almost three years after the discovery of remains of a missing relative killed during the sectarian violence that engulfed Baghdad, female relatives mourned during a funeral service in Najaf in 2010.

I am a photojournalist, with the highest respect for my colleagues and my profession. But like any job or vocation, it needs to be critiqued and reflected on. The 20 years that have passed since I took those shots on the hotel roof in Baghdad have shown me the limits of documenting war. I no longer believe that it is possible to be an objective, uninvolved witness to war. I’d like to bring other photojournalists into a more honest and open conversation about the ambiguities of our work, and how we might reframe and redefine the stories we tell about violence, conflict and human dignity.

Wael, 25, suffered serious wounds from shrapnel after a rocket attack in Samarra. He is undergoing treatment at Doctors Without Borders’s Reconstructive Surgery Hospital in Amman, Jordan, in 2022.Ahmed, 52, lost an eye during an attack by armed men in Baghdad. He was receiving treatment at the Reconstructive Surgery Hospital in 2022.

In assembling my photographs for a book to mark the 20th anniversary of the war, I included words and text — military dispatches, quotes, pop culture references; redacted official transcripts, lists of the Iraqi dead — that invite questions about the competing narratives of the war.

A TV in the home of an Iraqi refugee living in Amman in 2021.Credit…Photographs by Moises Saman/Magnum Photos, from “Glad Tidings of Benevolence,” Gost Books

Who has the power to narrate a conflict? Who determines the parameters of the frame? Which crimes or victims will be visible, and at the expense of what? I don’t provide any answers. But I argue that it is essential to keep asking the questions.

Moises Saman is a photojournalist, a member of Magnum Photos and a 2023 Nieman Fellow. His new book, “Glad Tidings of Benevolence,” focuses on his work covering the Iraq War and its aftermath.