THEM text 2002–2003

Pakistan, 24 JAN 2002

My Pashtun fixer fucked me. His arrangement of my transfer from Peshawar to Kabul was completely botched. It is a complicated story.

Jalalabad has been in the news as a lawless place and has been cited historically as a haven for smugglers. Alone in my room, thoughts of being victimized by bearded gunmen haunt me. Around 22:00, quarrelling street dogs were silenced by a machine gun burst not far from my window. Shortly thereafter, the hotel lost power again, leaving us in total darkness. About an hour later, I saw headlights reflecting on the curtains and heard a vehicle pull beneath the hotel’s grand covered entry. Loud banging on the front door was followed by a man’s voice speaking loudly in Dari. Footsteps echoing in the dark hallway snap to a stop near my door.

Earlier, I had arranged to pay a small grinning man to deliver me to the Spinzar Hotel in Kabul. His price was $ 1,000, one third of what I was carrying. He would not negotiate the price and was my last resort. All previously shared contacts were unavailable or missing. After a brief dinner with Peter Arnett and his crew, I had retired to my room to smoke a pack of cigarettes, drink tea, and contemplate my next move. I was alone with my anxieties for some time before a man with a Kalashnikov knocked on the door

Muhammad was working with the grinning man, and had been sent to retrieve the deposit for the morning’s adventure. We would be travelling in a Mitsubishi Pajero with Muhammad as the driver, the grinning man, and an armed guard. We would be travelling a road on which three journalists had been executed only a week earlier. Daniel Pearl had been abducted the previous day. Muhammad had kind eyes. He showed me pictures of his children. I showed him a picture of my girlfriend. He assured me we would arrive safely in Kabul.


Kabul, 25 JAN 2002

I am shown to Room 206 at the Spinzar Hotel in downtown Kabul. Spartan, it measures fifteen feet from wall to wall to wall. A metal bed is topped with a thin mattress, lumpy and depressed at center. A diamond-shaped hole is embroidered into the lower half of a pale blue, checkered love sheet. I place my notebook atop a gray desk situated below a bare bulb fixture. Across from the bed, a blue velour easy chair compliments an installation of 20 yellow tiles adorning a ceramic cold-water sink. One green and blue hand towel (stained) is immediately removed. A large, unframed mirror beside a pressboard armoire disguises a defunct five-gallon water heater. Supporting a buzzing electric coil heater is a white lacquered nightstand. Three beige walls enclose the gray door adorned with graffiti and a chrome skeleton key. Lowpile blood orange carpet passes beneath three large modern windows facing east and a window-mounted air conditioner. Floor to ceiling blackout drapes missing many hangers are piled atop two cold steam radiators and my luggage. Opening the drapes, I see five street dogs lounging in a shaded dirt courtyard.


Kabul, 26 JAN 2002

About 16:00, the light in Kabul warms and cuts diagonally through theconstant dust of the city. We arrived at 14:00, anticipating complications.The airport is an underutilized, bright, Modern building, sporting an entry wall of windows and carved mahogany ceiling tiles and is outfitted with rows of chairs that look like those designed by Eames. The airfield is heavily mined, and receives one UN flight a day. I have discussed photographing the location with a man in a suit. He asks that I wait five minutes to speak with the manager. Immediately upon his departure, I am harassed by two security guards who shepherd me from one row of chairs to another, affording me an impromptu tour of the facility. An hour passes before I am emboldened to shrug off my minders, passing through the same gate which the suited man previously disappeared. I opened the next door and was standing in the manager’s office. “Welcome,” he said sweeping his arm to a chair situated in front of his desk. “Tea?”


Kabul, 27 JAN 2002

Rafi and I are perfectly suited. He an enterprising young man, wide eyed in his own city, pure of heart, and like many of his countrymen, eager to work; I a freshly minted adventurer, enthralled with Asia, of good heart, and like many Westerners in Afghanistan, in need of an interpreter. He accompanied me through Kabul again today, carrying my camera bag that is a fourth his weight. He haggled with cabbies and bailed me out of numerous complicated situations. At the ministries, he endured the chiding of suited men for being too small, too young, and too inexperienced to be a fixer. Their chorus advises I find another interpreter, one who is all the things Rafi is not, including the most trusted person I know on the continent. Rafi, our driver, Mohammad Isa, and I leave Monday for Mazar-I-Sharif, some 300 kilometers north of Kabul. We are waiting for the Salang highway to be cleared of avalanched snow. It is a treacherous road that regularly claims many lives. To save time, I am staying with Rafi’s family in a northern suburb. For two nights, his mother sobs, fearing for the life of her young son.


Konduz, 29 JAN 2002

Muhammad Isa picks us up at 6:00 in a yellow and white Toyota Camry station wagon. The words “Marco Polo” are painted large in black on the passenger doors. We are headed to Jabber-O-Serrach, a small village north of Kabul, to see a mine-clearing operation. Along a busy thoroughfare, we meet a man dressed in military uniform, wearing white athletic shoes, and holding a German Shepherd on a short leash. We stand in a small cul-de-sac of white painted rocks just beyond the shoulder of the road. He explains that on either side of the road are many mines, and that the bit of earth on which we stand was recently cleared. Signage nearby proclaims: “One Mine Kills Many People,” and “Mines, The Secret Enemy of Human Kind.” About two kilometers further on, we spotted the burned-out remains of a passenger van. Seven members of a clearing team all died when the driver backed onto the shoulder of this busy northern artery, detonating an anti-tank mine.


Pol I Khomri, 1 FEB 2002

Visited Konduz, Mazar-I-Sharif, Baghlan Province, and Pol-I-Khomri. Photographed many battlefields, minefields, and some indigenous architecture. Everywhere we went, I was warned: “Remove your optics.” Something about my glasses was overtly Western, and we were trying to travel with as little suspicion as possible. As a result, much of my time in public places was a blur.

We stayed one night in Mazar, at a hotel of Mohammad Isa’s recommendation, in a room with three beds and windows overlooking the Blue Mosque. After settling in, we descended to the dining room, entering through the only door to a sea of seated men staring upward, away from their meals. We passed beneath their gaze, and settled in the rear of a large hall, sitting on pillows beneath a low table. The room contained hundreds of men, all of whom were fixated on a small ceiling-mounted television. I returned my glasses to my face to see what was so entrancing. A Bollywood musical was playing through the television speaker, and all sat silently, except for Mohammad Isa, who hissed at me, “Your optics!”


Kabul, 2 FEB 2002

After a night in Pol-I-Khomri, we wake before dawn to be one of the first in line for the Salang Highway, which passes through the Hindu Kush at an altitude of 11,200 feet. The road has only recently reopened due to heavy snowfall, and is passable in one direction at a time. We are somewhere near the front of a convoy that pulls out around 8:00.

As we ascend, the weather grows noticeably colder, with snow drifting in places onto the road. On either side of the asphalt are small red metal signs that warn of mines. The Salang Tunnel is famous for having been the site of a great blow to the occupying Soviet Army, wherein it was sealed and all inside burned to death or suffocated.

As we approach the mouth of the tunnel, our convoy is halted. A cargo truck has stalled just inside the entry arch. Mohammad Isa is out of the car in a flash. The temperature outside is bitter. My nostrils immediately freeze. Approaching the cab, extracting the driver, and speaking hurriedly to all men within earshot, Mohammad is frantically looking for a towrope. Bad weather is forecast, and snow at this elevation comes many feet at a time. Within minutes, we have assembled into a group of tugging men, shoulder to shoulder, dragging an Iveco cargo truck out of the tunnel’s single lane and onto the shoulder. The rest of our day is uneventful, descending through the magnificent landscape, unaware of the hundreds of people that were trapped by a landslide and perished in the tunnel not long after us, or of the fate of Daniel Pearl, beheaded in Pakistan.


Kabul, 3 FEB 2002

Due to the placid calm of the Spinzar Hotel staff, I am going to assume that the heavy machine gun bursts heard moments ago were not the signal of the siege of Kabul.


Kabul, 4 FEB 2002

The past five days out of Kabul were enlightening. Initially, the purpose of my adventure was to photograph the battlefields, minefields, and remaining architecture of a country surviving more than 20 consecutive years of warfare. A Mujahideen soldier who had served in the north under Ahmad Shah Massoud accompanied us on the trip from Kabul to Kunduz to Taloqan. He pointed out the areas along our route where fighting had occurred. He spoke almost incessantly, pointing at the horizon, providing details of battles too numerous to recount. Every vista was a memorial. Every road was mined. The entire landscape was a reminder of the war that consumed the country. Gutted tanks and charred personnel carriers are to Afghanistan what convenience stores are to America.

The land here has been so thoroughly mined that one would be reckless to proceed on an open plain. Many miles of roadway are dotted with small red signs or red and white painted rocks that warn of mines. Many structures are painted with white check marks, signaling that they have been cleared of mines. Only established roadways and fresh footprints are safe for traversing this landscape.

Almost all the remaining architecture bears signs of fighting. Many small structures are made from battle detritus. Between Mazar and Pol-I-Khomri, I saw a home, the roof of which was made of sod laid over used artillery shell casings. Discarded tank tracks are laid across the roadway and covered with earth to serve as speed bumps. Children play atop rusting tanks, pushing each other around on the turret like a merry-go-round.

I have made 1,600 exposures thus far. If there is one frame that contains a building unscarred by bullets or shrapnel, and even one landscape devoid of mines or other war machines, it will be a sweet surprise.


New York, 27 SEP 2003

Being away from the City had altered my perspective of it. The buildings were taller, streets more crowded, advertising larger and more ubiquitous. Anxiety permeated downtown. A trip on the subway was more stressful than before. The communal civility pervasive in the days following 9/11 had expired.

In Washington, the Homeland Security Administration was founded, and began issuing color-coded terror threat levels. Osama Bin Laden was rumored to be living either in a cave in Tora Bora or somewhere in Pakistan. Links between Bin Laden and Sadam Hussein were published and widely broadcast. Colin Powell made the case for chemical weapons in a speech to the UN. We were gearing up for a preemptive attack. The Bush administration’s talking heads appeared regularly on Sunday morning talk shows, screaming their warnings of an Iraqi chemical attack on an American proxy in the Middle East. Credentialed journalists were required to attend nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons defense training prior to being embedded with invasion forces. Video of Ted Koppel following behind a convoy of tanks rolling in to Baghdad was shown on Nightline. The dominant discourse of the day highlighted the differences between Us and Them. Regular warnings were issued, almost as threats, that one was “…either with us or with the terrorists.”


Baghdad, 12 SEP 2003

I remember vividly the way an M2 .50 caliber machine gun shakes the upper body in a rhythmic, pulsating massage emanating from the hands, continuing up through the arms, throughout the torso, and down the spine. A butterfly-shaped trigger is located between two cylindrical wood handles. One grasps the handles and depresses the trigger with both thumbs. A loud “phut” signals successful expulsion of a round, roughly the size of a man’s finger measured to the second knuckle. Continuous pressure of the thumbs creates a rhythm of several beats per second, accompanied by a twinkling symbol of brass jackets gathering below. This lethal composition was created near the end of World War I by John Browning to pierce German armor. Today, these weapons are installed above our military vehicles in a swiveling ring mount, and are often loaded with depleted uranium tipped rounds.

As we pass a Humvee on the road to Baghdad, I am aiming my Mamiya at the soldier standing up through the roof, his hands gripping the handles of a .50 cal. Initially, his back is to me, but as we approach he turns, his head signaling his direction, his eyes are looking directly into the camera. The thick barrel follows, its downward swing a graceful, economical motion. It comes to rest when pointed directly at me, the little black hole of the rifled interior visible. I depress the shutter release and slowly lower the camera to show my face to the soldier. My driver, Jassim, says nothing, and continues looking ahead, a few miles west of Fallujah.


Baghdad, 13 SEP 2003

I walked through the remains of the Iraqi Olympic offices this morning. One very large bomb exploded near the base of the Modernist six-story, block-long structure, fracturing it from top to bottom, ripping a crater 20 feet deep, and collapsing portions of the floors above. There are no interior walls remaining on the first two floors. The melted and disintegrated exterior is reminiscent of a Claes Oldenburg sculpture. On the upper floors, remnants of office activities lay scattered chaotically, but most are ashen. The area smells like Ground Zero did on the evening of September 11. A family now lives on the premises and is constantly involved in scavenging any useful materials. One man walked with me through the floors, making charade gestures of airplanes dropping bombs, explosions, and men firing rifles. Occasionally, he would stand with arms raised, palms up, and frown at me quizzically. He asked me where I was from. I answered, “Mexico.”


Baghdad, 14 SEP 2003

Saadoun Street is bordered by the most fortified hotels in Baghdad. Its two lanes are often clogged with three or four lanes of traffic. My journalist friend Gert’s was probably the only vehicle amongst thousands with exclusively Western occupants. We were definitely the only car with A Tribe Called Quest booming from the stereo. Gert remarked that driving in Baghdad was much the same as driving in Los Angeles; you try not to piss off the other drivers because they might pull out a Kalashnikov and shoot you.

Abdu Massir Salim and his twin brother George are in their seventies. They were photographers when they were younger, doing all the portraits for the King of Iraq who proceeded Sadam. We sit smoking cigarettes constantly in Abdu’s living room for hours. Abdu’s 18-yearold daughter, Alia, was serving us tea with fluffy pastries. We spoke of the possible motivations of the United States’ occupation of Iraq, what Baghdad was like before the war, the World’s Fair of 1956, Native Americans, and at least a few other topics. When asked whether Iraq was better under Sadam or America, there is a long contemplative pause. “Under Sadam,” says Abdu. George agrees, adding that they both hated Sadam, and that he had faith that the situation would improve soon.


Baghdad, 15 SEP 2003

During a fruitless visit to the convention center to register with the coalition press authority, I am told that mine is a necessary, but futile effort. A 46-year-old staff sergeant from South Carolina evaluates my request for access to the presidential palace complex: “They never answer these things; not that it’s right, but they rarely do.” Within the hour, I am again in Gert’s wreck, idling along in the slowly moving flow of the morning Baghdad traffic jam. Tupac blares from the door speakers. California knows how to party. Gert lets me out in the old city, near the smuggler’s market. I walk north without a translator, feverish, sweating, waiting for the Cipro to start working.


Baghdad, 17 SEP 2003

On the roof of the Al Safeer, our evening conversations are punctuated with scotch, and gunfire. Tracers illuminate the sky, sometimes striking close enough for us to lie flat. We talk of international politics, the American soldier’s paranoia, safety in numbers, and the bloody foreign policy we trudge through every day. We make our way back down the ladder single file to the relative safety of our two-bed rooms. Mine is slightly spinning as I notice the sunburn on my right arm, the result of hours spent in the passenger seat of an old Mercedes crawling through central Baghdad.

I rise early every morning for good light, watch pre-dawn Baghdad burst from blue to pink to brown to white, the temperature rising by the minute like a dirty convection oven. I am smoking at least a pack a day to pass the hours waiting, and the anxiety of random violence. During today’s epic traffic jam, a taxi driver was shot in the head, his body left at the curb, his car stolen. I dream of this man lying facedown on Saadoun street.


Baghdad, 19 SEP 2003

Al Rashid is the oldest of three massive military complexes in Baghdad. Before the American occupation, it was used primarily as a training base for Saddam’s regular army, the Fedayin Sadam. Within its borders are many bunkers and an airfield. The U.S. Army has set up a base in the southeast corner; but besides that, the rest of the place is completely accessible by car. We found unexploded ordinance in all shapes and sizes from Iraqi missiles to hand grenades. A three-foot length of depleted uranium-tipped .50 caliber rounds was left beside one of the bunkers, definitely American.

About 1,000 people live on the base, mostly Shia from the south. One man told me that these people live there as a sort of protest. They are very poor and are hoping to be provided with better housing. Every day, the architecture of Al Rashid becomes less, as the residents harvest bricks for resale. 

Two structures of interest at Al Rashid were a bunker blown out in the shape of a flower, and an office situated on the edge of the airfield. The bunker had been transformed by a direct hit from a bunker-busting bomb. What happened to the office building is less obvious. Two-inch thick glass windows, exploded outward, lay in melted shards in front of the structure. A man living amongst the ruins with his three sons told us that the building was once a U.N. building used by weapons inspectors. He also said that the U.N. had come out to inspect the site recently with a Geiger counter. U.N. officials told the man that the bomb had contained uranium, and that if he were to stay in this place, that he would probably die from radiation poisoning within a month. He and his sons waved to us as we drove off.


Baghdad, 20 SEP 2003

The name of the school was “Future.” Situated in the Saydiya neighborhood of Baghdad, it was a school for girls. In April, Fedayin Sadam set up a rocket truck on the grounds, using the school for their encampment. Around 7:00 on 9 April, the U.S. Army, using attack helicopters, killed at least 41 Iraqi soldiers and many civilians in a battle that was over quickly. The neighboring houses are all damaged, and many destroyed. The school is almost entirely without any glass in its window frames. Mortars and small arms rounds litter a field adjacent to the school. A man who witnessed the battle gave me his account as we toured the school and surrounding neighborhood.

While walking through the school, I cried. To think that much of what I have witnessed here is the result of ideological differences saddens me. I do think that by removing Sadam, the Iraqis are even “liberated” of a tyrant, but the blood shed in the process was excessive, and our motives are questionable. I have been walking amongst the dead, through their abandoned houses, over their unmarked graves, and fear that their lives will be discounted by my people as “collateral damage.”

This afternoon was spent amongst the ruins of one of the palace compounds formerly occupied by Sadam and his two sons, Uday and

Qusay. Baghdad is littered with Sadam’s palaces. I was told that there were 51 in total, but cannot confirm that number, since the coalition press information center extends me all the priority of an illegal alien. There are five massive structures that sprawl along a large plot on the Tigris. They remind me of houses seen in the hills of Los Angeles, or perhaps a Vegas casino. The entryways are grand, large columns and numerous high, domed ceilings. Every building has a pool. These particular palaces have been picked clean by looters. One room contained only one wrecked chair, positioned to look out on the river. Sadam’s palace, the grandest of the five, is domed, but now its axis tilts to the west, as if melting under its own weight. Some intense bombing has left it without structural support on one side.

When the military police left the palace grounds for another encampment, they left the gate open. Now a poor man with a family of seven lives in the guardhouse above an underground palace. He happily provides guided tours to anyone who is willing to pay $20.


Baghdad, 21 SEP 2003

Today, I took my third driver in Baghdad. He is very pro American occupation. Abu Rheem is 52 years old and lived most of his life under the thumb of Sadam Hussein. Given the choice of Fedayin Sadam with guns or American soldiers with guns, he would gladly take the Americans and considers them far more ethical than their predecessors. Abu Rheem spent the bulk of our travels extolling the joys of coalition protocol, comparing and contrasting his captors.

This afternoon, I asked him about one of Baghdad’s most popular conspiracy theories, the mysterious events and intense attack at Sadam Airport. I have heard many conclusions, but mostly the same story of Americans using a new weapon that immediately killed hundreds of Republican Guards, littering the airport with their seared corpses, but not effecting the airport architecture. Abu Rheem was silent for some time before answering, “Nuclear weapon.” He then fleshed out some of the details: tactical nuke, low yield. He cited an Al Jazeera video of charred and headless bodies, something not shown in the States.

Al Fidaa weapons factory near Dora, an engineering institute situated in the north-east corner of a 20 acre complex, has suffered significant structural damage. Entire floors have been vaporized by what looks to have been impacts from two very large bombs penetrating the roof and detonating on the floors below. Three separate people have explained to me matter-of-factly that this is a place where chemical weapons were developed. The engineer presiding over the ruins flatly denies any such activities.


Baghdad, 24 SEP 2003

After checking flights from Amman to Kuwait City, I now have to leave Iraq one day earlier than planned. I think I have some good pictures and maybe a few that might even be important. I don’t know how many conclusions I can draw from my trip here. Many stories still end in shadowed cul-de-sacs, but a few persistent conspiracy theories have been demystified.

The popular conspiracy of what happened at Sadam Airport is probably not a nuclear weapons cover-up. The airport has been renamed and is operational today. Such a situation would not be possible if even something as small as a tactical nuke had been used. Additionally, if a nuclear weapon had been employed, someone would have seen the blast, probably 90% of Baghdad. No one has reported this. What probably happened was that a new type of weapon, yielding considerable force, was used, the Iraqi Army was slaughtered, and a conspiracy arose from the vanquished to lessen the sting of a humbling defeat.

We are cocking up the occupation by not learning and respecting Iraqi customs. The longer I stay here, the more I come to enjoy the company of the locals. They are a very warm and generous people. This culture has a profoundly different concept of time that typically stretches into centuries instead of days. We Americans, with our fast-food attention span, could stand to learn much here, but instead are behaving like storm troopers of a merciless dictatorship. Why we still have infantry in Baghdad confounds me. I think the current administration is afraid to call this a police action, for fear of adding to the Viet Nam comparisons so popular lately. But Iraq needs more police and less nervous 18-21-year-old boys trained to fight a war with unquestioned deadly force.

Iraq is stable because the Shia are tolerant of the situation. If (and when) the Shia lose their patience, everything changes. They will probably remain accepting of our occupation up to the point of a pending election, when they will most likely gain control. If the older and more moderate clerics continue to get picked off, this relationship could slowly vanish. Such a situation could cost many young American infantrymen their lives.

We have violated the Geneva Convention repeatedly. I travelled to Haditha to meet Sadek Zolman Ibrihim, a former hospital administrator and Bath Party Adu Fadr (chief), who was reduced to a permanent vegetative state while being held prisoner by task force Iron Horse. Sadek’s hands and feet show stigmata, seared puncture wounds consistent with electrocution. His medical records report that he suffered from heat stroke.

I wonder what our plan is for getting out of this mess and liberating Iraqis from our occupation. I wonder what the continued imperialistic behavior of our current administration will do to America’s global stature. We have sacrificed more soldiers for this war than all who perished on September 11. How many young men will return from this war, broken, disenfranchised, wracked with PTSD, and become the next David Berkowitz, Timothy McVeigh, or John Allen Mohammed; all veterans turned serial killers? There is a saying in Baghdad that isthe answer for all such questions: “How high is the sky?”


AMMAN, 27 SEP 2003

Jassim and I departed the Al Safeer yesterday morning at 5:30 to beat the crowd crossing at the Jordanian border. Stocked with frozen water and Gatorade for the long ride, we set out. I was feeling morose about leaving Baghdad so soon, and missing the “Wedding of the Decade,” between an Iraqi woman and a Chicago journalist staying at the Al Safeer. My mind was crowded with things not seen and photographs untaken. Perhaps due to depression, exhaustion, or the tinnitus-laced hangover, I was comatosely slumped shotgun by the time we reached the suburbs. My trusted brother Jassim at the wheel, I finally had a safe place to sleep.

I woke up two hours later to take tea with Jassim while the car rested. The temperature was already on the rise, sun beaming fiercely upon us, searing my eyes. Jassim’s Chevy offered very little protection, as the windows were without cover or tint, and the air-conditioner uncharged. Our stop lasted perhaps ten minutes before we were back on the highway. We soon halted again, unexpectedly.

About 200 kilometers from the Jordanian border, our trusty steed sputtered, shook, slowed, smoked heavily, and coasted to a rest. We unloaded our gear to a space safely in front of the Caprice, as oil poured out of her, down the shoulder, and pooled behind the sad relic. As if summoned, another taxi approached, and offered assistance. A man named Ali offered to take me the rest of the way to Amman. As the man was Jassim’s cousin, like seemingly half of Baghdad, I accepted the offer.

Ali’s car was the same make and model of Jassim’s, but a little newer, cleaner, and decorated in magenta velour. Burgundy curtains on each window kept the car cold. I was reminded of the Law of Unexpected Consequences. Ali spoke no English and chain-smoked Pine menthols, one of the worst smelling cigarettes in the world. His ashtray was a volcano of butts, and represented the only clutter in the vehicle. He smiled broadly whenever I tried to communicate, but our attempts were futile. I scribbled in my journal while Jordanian pop drowned out the faint whistle of an open window.

We sped 40 minutes in an acrid cloud across the frying pan of Anbar before the water pump seized. Beneath the hood of Ali’s swank Caprice, a huge rubber belt was knotted about the simmering engine. Ali immediately flagged down another vehicle passing us in the opposite direction. After the two men embraced warmly, our new driver was introduced as Ali’s cousin, Arkhan.

As we unloaded our baggage from Ali’s car, the other driver began removing his interior door panels with a screwdriver. “Ali Babbas!” he said, slashing his index finger across his throat. I thought he was making a clandestine place for our valuables until Ali returned from his vehicle with a black gym bag filled with money. Arkhan methodically loaded small, brown, shrink-wrapped packages into the hollow doors Sensing my curiosity, and growing skepticism, he handed me three documents. One was written in English. “Please extend to Mr. Arkhan all privileges afforded an American citizen,” it began, and was signed by an Army Captain. The letter instructed anyone concerned to give Arkhan passage at checkpoints, even after curfew, and granted him permission to travel with weapons, as he was a frequent courier of large sums of cash. The two other documents, written in Arabic, had only one phrase I could discern: “$ 300,000.” I took the document back to Arkhan, still loading dollar bricks, pointing to the number. He smiled broadly, almost laughed, raised both hands to the sky, and nodded.

Soon, we are back on the road, another Pine cigarette chain smoker at the wheel. Static overwhelmed the musical broadcast filtering in from Jordan. The sun blazed mercilessly through my window. There were 70 kilometers of Iraqi highway ahead of us

The log jam at the Jordanian border was some 200 cars deep, bottlenecked at a small steel gate roughly the width of an old Cadillac. Arkhan slipped out of the car. He returned, gestured forward, held hishand up with all fingers joined and said, “five hours.” He then gestured again for me to get out of the car, pointing in the direction of the gate. We were to get our passports stamped. The time was 12:30.

Arkhan’s estimation proved to be accurate. A little after 17:00, following luggage inspection, another visa purchase, and a nap in the sun, we were flying along Jordanian asphalt. Many were liberated of souvenir Sadam propaganda, but not all. Our door panels were never opened. Arkhan was visibly relieved, and took the opportunity to yell into his mobile phone for an eternity, while navigating the road at frightening speeds.

I awoke this morning to a pigeon nesting on my windowsill. The ancient city behind her stretched across hilltops beneath a cool, cloudless sky. I shared boiled eggs and coffee with a traveler from Japan. He was headed to Petra, and I was off to wander the hills of Amman.







Dedicated to Julia and Magnolia who inspire me every day. 

Thanks to: Rafi, who found his calling in saving the lives of others; Jassim, my bravest brother; Kimberley for shouldering my weight andanswering the call at any hour; Sheryl for always finding a connection when I had none; and to Jeffrey for the many hours and days.

 Special thanks to Julia, whose unexpected gift brought this to fruition, and to Julian for selecting these very pages, and making them sing.






--In 1927, August Sander writes about photography. In speaking about the special nature of photography, he explains:“Photography can show things in grandiose beauty but also in horrifying honesty, while at the same time deceiving you in themost cunning of fashions. We must be prepared to endure seeing reality; but more importantly, we must pass it on to our fellow people and to future generations, regardless of whether it speaks well of us or not.

 “If I, as a man in good health, am so arrogant as to see things the way they are and not as they could or should be, then I ask that the world forgives me, but I must.”

This body of work shows us reality, with all its consequences.

-Julian Sander, 2017





--Sean Hemmerle’s THEM is a powerful reminder of how important photographers are in telling the story of ordinary people engulfed in war. His former military training gives him a unique vantage point to explore Afghanistan and Iraq with his camera in hand.

Hemmerle’s imagery focuses on the power of the portrait, and his subtle and sophisticated eye is always eager to tell us a deeper story about his subjects. His photographs are persuasive and personalized images that provide an intimate view of people in conflict zones. His haunting photographs of the young and old show us resilience first hand. We can feel the war in their eyes, and yet there is something propelling us to believe that they see something bigger than the wars they must confront. Hemmerle does more than document the wartime experience in Afghanistan and Iraq; he breathes some humanity into it

-Robert K. Brigham, PhD, Vassar College, 2017