Reporting From Iraq: The Toughest Assignment

Jun 32010

For the past six weeks, I have worked as the bureau photographer for The New York Times in Baghdad. This was my first visit to Iraq, and although I have worked in Afghanistan, Gaza and Yemen, I have found Iraq to be among the most difficult places to do my job.

A child squeezing through the blast walls with a bag of eggs for breakfast. The blast walls enclose entire neighborhoods and run the length of many of Baghdad's main streets.

For now, much of the violence seems to have subsided and life is slowly improving. Markets, commercial areas and nightlife are blossoming. Occasional explosions and gunfire briefly shatter the calm, but people maneuver around the roadblocks and continue on their way to work or university.

I have accessed some glimpses into the lives of Iraqi women. As a foreign female, I walk a tightrope between the worlds of women and men. I can go where men cannot—to photograph women praying at Muqtada al-Sadr’s headquarters, for instance. I went to the market where women haggle for meat, spices and fabric. I spent an afternoon photographing women in a Baghdad beauty salon.

But fear lingers. Seven years of brutal violence have left their mark here. Iraqis are haunted by bombings, kidnappings, murders and gun battles. They don’t trust the government, the media or each other.

The fear is what makes working here difficult. When I talk to people, they often deny my request to use their names. Iraqis of all stripes are extremely wary of cameras and nearly always request proof of formal permission, usually from a ministry or other government entity. Even then, people are not eager to put themselves in the public eye.

Women at Friday prayers in Sadr City

It is nearly impossible to photograph the aftermath of a street battle or IED. In most cases, the scene is blocked by police, and cameras simply are not allowed. The government has decided that published photographs of deadly bombings aid the cause of insurgents.

In any conflict zone, personal safety must come first. Finding the balance between being able to work and being secure in Iraq has proven a challenge. When I work, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I try to make myself small and quiet—to blend in. For the first time in my career, armed bodyguards and two cars follow me wherever I go, a fact that has changed the dynamic of my work dramatically. Moving from place to place is complicated by checkpoints, IEDs and blast walls. I often worked wearing the abaya and a scarf to cover my hair. It took nearly a month for me to figure out how to work under all of the security measures.

Despite all of this, Iraq has grown on me. My rotation here is ending and I am sad to leave. Iraq’s story remains compelling and most Iraqis are warm and hospitable. Iraqis have witnessed unimaginable horrors, but they keep going.

Holly Pickett is a freelance photojournalist based in Cairo, Egypt. Her work has appeared in TIME, Newsweek, The London Times, Los Angeles Times, NPR.org, Elle, and Stern, among others. Previously, she worked as a staff photographer at The Spokesman-Review daily newspaper in Spokane, Washington. She spent her fellowship in 2008 at Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich.