I started off a decade of travel as the first war tourist in the 2003 war in Iraq, travelling into the war with foreign correspondent Peter Wilson and photographer John Federer of The Australian.
John handed me a camera one day and asked that I take a picture of him to illustrate an article for The Australian on how correspondents were filing stories about the war from the Iraqi desert. It was the first picture I took for media purposes and would trigger a chain of events that lead to a catastrophe that nearly ended my photo work before it ever got started.
The picture I took made the front page of The Australian newspaper. I was elated that I’d been published. We later learnt that the same picture had circulated among Australian authorities and the Red Cross to identify our vehicle when we went missing in Basra. It was then used in Peter’s book ‘Long Drive Through a Short War’ that documented our experiences covering the war. Wow, I’d become a photographer and my very first picture got so much play!
As John put it when he heard I was photographing for the Associated Press (AP), he had ‘created a monster’.
Immediately after the war I bought a Toyota Prado Landcruiser from Kuwait and drove back into Iraq on a job for the AP and ended up staying with the agency for about six months. I drove all over the country, sometimes alone and sometimes with other AP staff taking pictures almost daily. It was an extraordinary experience. A country that had been closed to the outside world for over thirty years was flung open for me. I documented everything I found, and there were some extraordinary things.
In retrospect, this was extremely dangerous. I would drive to anywhere where post war fighting flared up, into the desert in search of exploded pipelines or rumours of a mass grave. I’d park on the side of roads to photograph things that caught my eye and wonder around different cities by day and night taking pictures of daily life in Iraq.
I visited historical and archaeological sites and spent time with the marsh Arabs all over southern Iraq. I visited holy Shi’ite cities like Najaf and Karbala. Went to Nassiriya, and Samawa, the smuggler’s central of Iraq, I slept in Babylon and stayed with nomads in the desert. I drove through the fertile farmland of Mesopotamia and accepted offers to visit and stay with tribal leaders in Falluja, ground zero of the Al Qaeda insurgency. I picked up hitch hikers to make friends and get into places I would miss on my own, some of those were armed, other were recently released prisoners and prisoners of war. I knew how to score beer in most cities and had what I considered save houses and zones I could lie low in for a break every once in a while.
All the while, cameras in hand, I photographed, photographed and then photographed some more. I had been handed a calling of sorts by one John Feder in the form of a Nikon, and a virgin canvass the size of Iraq.
I carried on as though I was on a touring holiday of Europe, but this was Iraq – post war Iraq – an Iraq where foreigners were viewed as fair play, poverty and lawlessness reigned, gangs and militias roamed, insurgents thrived and everybody was armed. And people were angry.
Everybody was angry. They were angry at the thirty years of brutality at the hands of Saddam, they were angry at the brutality of the war and what they saw as an invasion, they were angry at the loss of life that almost every family suffered, they were angry at the shortages of water, food, electricity and security, they were angry that after the world pounded their country it just seemed to turn its back on them. I had watched as America and her allies won the war and now I was watching how they were losing the peace.
So, in early October 2003 as I was driving south for ‘decompression’ in Kuwait, I stopped at a roadside petrol seller to fuel up just south of Basra, less than an hour from the safety of the Kuwaiti border, when disaster struck. I didn’t really need the fuel, but habit had developed to top up whenever possible in Iraq because you never knew where you would end up or if you would find your next top up.
By now I’d accumulated hundreds of CD’s containing thousands of photographs of post Iraq. Some things and people that had never had a camera pointed at them before. A wide and deep documentation of a country, and a people that had been frozen in time, in some cases since the middle ages.
So I stopped the car to get some fuel and as always I was surrounded by a loud and boisterous clutch of unruly kids. This happened so often I almost took it for granted. But these situations could turn mean in a blink. Mostly it just wore my nerves down as I tried to control an increasingly forceful crowd without any threats or unfriendliness. I’d experienced how any strong reaction from my part could turn them, as a pack, against me. I was unarmed, alone in a strange and lawless land, and surrounded.
The guy selling me gas and some other adults helped a bit and drove the kids off, again as had happened on other occasions before. But it was only after I got into the car and drove some distance away that I sensed something was amiss. I turned to look at the back seat and my world fell apart.
Somehow, in the nick of time, one of the kids must have managed to get his hand into the car and grabbed the backpack containing all the CD’s with my pictures. Thousands upon thousands of my pictures.
To this very day, some ten years later, this feeling still washes over me when I contemplate what happens, and the thought of it exhausts me. Which is why I now need to sign off.