AT THE FRONT: A break from convoy work by Station Breidenthal of the Democrat-Gazette.
While photographs have served as the defining images of war since Matthew Brady started lugging his cameras and developing equipment to Civil War battlefields, it seems that the Iraq war has been nearly unique in the degree that photographs have served to stir public outrage.
With so much riding on the click of a shutter — and so little operating infrastructure in Iraq — it’s easy to understand where taking photos on the front lines and getting them back to the home front could be the worst kind of logistical nightmare. In Arkansas, probably nobody knows this better than Barry Arthur. As the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s assistant managing editor over photography, Arthur has supervised efforts to send, work with and bring home the photographers the D-G sent to Iraq with the Arkansas National Guard’s 39th Infantry. In all, the paper sent five photographers to the war zone, rotating them out as they wanted to come home. They’re all back on U.S. soil now, but from the sound of it, the experience afforded Arthur more than a few additional gray hairs.
“It’s a challenge when you send people — I don’t want to say to a third world country, but overseas,” Arthur said. “You have to do a lot of homework.” Before Arthur’s troops even shipped out, part of this homework included shopping around for the essentials required to keep his people bullet-hole-free (level-four body armor and Kevlar helmets), healthy (a trip to the doctor for inoculations) as well as technological concerns like satellite phones and modems.
According to Arthur, nothing required to outfit a photographer for an assignment half a world away is exactly cheap. To boot, the environment of Iraq was especially hard on camera equipment. Though he said that “redundancy was a big issue,” with photographers supplied with two of everything — camera bodies, sets of lenses, laptops, satellite phones — breakdowns were common. Arthur chuckled when recalling a long-distance chat with photographer Karen Segrave, who said one of her lenses was malfunctioning, but it worked if she completed a number of extra steps — “a stand on your head and rub your belly” kind of thing, Arthur said.
“I’m thinking, oh my God, here you are trying to get a spontaneous picture, but you have to jump through three hoops just to get this one lens to work right,” he said. “It gives you a much better appreciation for the photographs she did come back with, considering some of the fiascos she had to go through.”
Beyond simply getting the photos in, Arthur spent a lot of time worrying about the well-being of his people. It was enough that one of the earliest protocols they developed was the ironclad rule that everyone had to check in every day.
“I had to know that you were safe, how you’re feeling, what you were going to file the next day,” he said. “Mostly, it was just to have somebody talking to them every day from the office and knowing they were okay.”
Luckily, Arthur said that though they had some close calls, none of the D-G photographers was ever in a life-or-death situation — that he knows of. “They got shot at, they got attacked several times, but nothing they told me too in-depth about,” Arthur said. “I don’t know whether that was a governed response on their part to keep us from being too worried.”
D-G photographers sent to Iraq were allowed to rotate back to photographing city council meetings and car accidents whenever they got their fill of life in Iraq, though one — Staton Breidenthal — went back for a second tour. Arthur himself sounds almost envious when he talks about their experiences. In the end, he said, it was all about bringing Arkansans the personal side of war.
“Readers were suddenly seeing not just an obscure soldier, they were seeing a soldier from Arkansas on the front page,” Arthur said. “Maybe a brother or a father or son that they’re seeing. It may not be a dynamic image every time, but it might be someone they knew. I think it made it more real.”
(We should add that reporter Amy Schlesing of the Democrat-Gazette served the entire deployment of the Arkansas infantry unit. She reported and also wrote a weblog about her experiences. She’s back in the country along with the 39th and we hope to check in with her, too.)
A collection of several hundred photographs taken by D-G photographers in Iraq is available online at: www.ardemgaz.com/ Prev/Iraq/photo.asp.