Prisoners of War Iraq 2003


These photographs of Iraqi prisoners were taken in the summer of 2003 when I crossed paths with a unit of American Soldiers from the Fourth Infantry Division. Originally shot on an early edition Digital SLR camera, the images have been deteriorating over time. Because of the historic importance of the photographs and the gravity of the subject matter, I believed they needed to be preserved in a permanent photographic process. Once again, I’ve collaborated with master printer Bob Carnie to create a collection of archival prints in platinum-palladium with applied sepia pigment.

The story that follows was my contribution to Julian Stallabrass’s book on art and war, Memories of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images (London: Photoworks, 2013). I describe the months leading up to when the photographs were taken, the details of the night of July 19th 2003, as well as related subsequent events including the tragic murders and drownings in the desert perpetrated by some of the soldiers I had photographed that night.


Embedded with Murderers
by Rita Leistner

Published in Memories of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images
by Julian Stallabrass


If I am known for anything, I think it is mostly for my co-authorship of Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.[1] We took a little bit of flack for that title, because of course we were not the only journalists to work unilaterally in Iraq. Some photographers have been surprised when they heard that I did one of the longest embeds of the war, as if it were ironic or hypocritical. They saw Unembedded as a criticism of journalists who embedded, and I think found it doubly objectionable because we were independents. But that is to miss the bigger picture.

The point was not to criticize embeds as much as it was to emphasize that there are different ways of covering conflict. The book wasn’t meant for other journalists, it was meant for people who had never been to war, and didn’t know about how much the military embed system in Iraq created coverage that was heavily weighted toward embedded material. This was something that worked out very well, at least at first, for the US military and government. They created censorship by controlling access.

Yet I did do a lot of embedded work, and what follows is an account of the circumstances, limits and opportunities that the system allowed, and also of my time with a unit of the US Army that went on to murder Iraqi civilians in one of the best-documented atrocities of the war.

Unembedded Into Iraq

I first went to Iraq on my own, “unilaterally,” or “unembedded,” mostly because I didn’t have the means, knowhow, or contacts to get an embed with the US Military. Everyone knew that embedding was the easiest, safest, surest way to get into Iraq (on the shirt-tails of the invading forces). In the end, it probably worked out for the best, as I ended up with a different story than most. This is what independent journalists should do, after all: fill in the spaces where journalists on tighter deadlines and with more specific mandates (a cover photo for the story of the day, for example) can’t get. So I started in eastern Turkey along with some two-thousand other journalists (who were also working unilaterally) who’d registered with the Press Office there during the month leading up to the invasion. When Turkey decided against opening the border to US troops (the 4th Infantry Division had initially been given the role of invading Iraq from the north), most of the journalists went home or flew to other points of possible entry into Iraq. I had no job to go home to, and a very small budget for the trip, so I stuck it out near the border, watching the war go by on television (which was of course very frustrating and demoralizing). Then on April 10th, my friend and fellow Canadian photojournalist Steve Morrison met a guy at a taxi stand in Cizre who offered to smuggle us into Iraq for $1,200 a piece (a few weeks earlier, it would have cost at least five-times that). The trip was considered extremely dangerous, because the Turkish border patrol had shoot-to-kill orders. In fact, a British private security forces guy (who went only by the name of “Blue”) threatened to report us to the Turks if we decided to go, “for our own safety.” So we lied to him and everyone we knew, except a few of our closest friends, and set off the next day before dawn.

Circumstances were against us. The full moon illuminated the landscape and changes had been made in the border patrol routes, so what was meant to be a half-day hike turned into a grueling three-day journey. We were continually fearful of being apprehended by Turkish border guards who had zero tolerance of illegal border crossing. Things were made far more difficult by the mountainous terrain, which was often so steep that we were three-point climbing with no safety ropes, and several hundred-foot drops below us. I have some climbing experience, and have spent years tree-planting in Canada, including in the Coat Mountains, but these were some of the most challenging climbs I’d ever done. We were also carrying a lot of gear (I had a forty-pound pack on my back). On top of that, time was a factor. We were moving at a fast pace, and rarely stopped to rest. We also walked at night when it was easiest to go unseen, which all seemed part of the complex strategy to avoid being apprehended. The first night I slipped on a steep cliff, badly twisting my knee. Had I fallen, it would have been to my death. Three hours later, we were at the base of the Tigris River drinking tea in a cave, but my knee was in agony. By the time I woke up, it was badly swollen and I couldn’t bend my leg. Fortunately, I had painkillers with me, and with the help of a stick and our smugglers, I was able carry on. We didn’t share a language with our Kurdish guides, and we never knew how much further we had to go. We’d planned to use Steve’s satellite phone for translation with a contact back in Diyirbakir, but we never managed to get through. The guides kept repeating the only words they seemed to know in English, “two more hours,” which we joked about for a long time afterwards. Back in Cizre, we’d been told it would be a half day’s hike, but two days-in, we were still deep in the mountains. Sometimes at night you could see the lights of the Turkish border-patrol towers on the snow-capped mountain crests. The patrols had obviously been ramped up, something even our experienced smugglers hadn’t predicted. In the mountains, it was the three of them plus the two of us, but there had been a lot of middlemen at the front end of the trip, and would be more before we got to Iraq. I’d never met more experienced climbers. They had spent their lives in these mountains. On occasion they would pause to study the routes of mountain goats to glean ideas for future passes. One time we ascended through waist-deep snow under the light of the full moon, too exposed to view for anyone’s comfort. It was unusual to see fear showing in our smugglers’ demeanors. We ascended as fast as we could. I dug my stick with all my might into the snow and pulled myself up the steep incline. My knee was in agony. When we got to the top, we all collapsed in exhaustion, snow-soaked, sweating and cold at the same time. As we looked over the crest, all we could see were miles of rocky snow-capped mountain ranges extending into the night. Even then, there was little time to rest, and no sooner had we caught our breath than we were on the move again. With only the snow and the moon to light our way, we leapt blindly downward, stumbling, running. I would have gone back home right then, if it were possible (it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have regrets at a moment of danger). When we finally stopped to rest, I sat down and wept.

A day later, on April 14th 2003, three weeks after the US first crossed the Line of Departure into Iraq from Kuwait, Steve and I were in northern Iraq, watching the fall of Tikrit—and the end of the first phase of the war—on an old TV set in a hotel room in Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan. When people ask me why I went back to Iraq so many times (four trips in a year-and-a-half, all as a freelancer), I say that it’s because it was so hard to get in the first time. Once I’d made that trip, every other trip seemed easy by comparison. I was committed to the story.

No one understood the risks we’d taken more than the Turkish Press Corps, who I’d met on my second night in Bagdad, while out looking for food. Bagdad was under curfew when Steve and I arrived. There was no food anywhere. A Jordanian interpreter for NBC snuck us some Cup-O-Noodles from their stash, which they were under strict orders to share with no one (although later, the NBC crew would be very generous, particularly with their whiskey). The Turks took me under their wing, fed me, and showed me the ropes in Baghdad, and even gave me a place to stay. In the last leg of the journey, the smugglers had handed us off to the Peshmerga—literally meaning “those who face death,” these Kurdish guerrilla fighters are legendary for their bravery and honour), but we had to pay them extra before they’d lead us out of the mountains. As a result, I was nearly out of money when I finally arrived in Iraq, and because of the war and the complete upheaval of the country’s infrastructure, the banks were all shut and there was no way to get money from the outside.

An Unusual Embed

That all changed when I met Richard Pendlebury of The Daily Mail—the next person in a long line of individuals who helped me in Iraq. Richard hired me for a day rate, half paid in cash. I have him to thank for meeting ‘Crazy Horse’, the soldiers of Charlie Troop, 3rd Squadron, 7th US Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. On April 29th, The Daily Mail had sent us to cover Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to Camp Victory, the big US military base near Baghdad Airport. However, we weren’t in the press pool and couldn’t get past the Cavalry scouts guarding the front gate. It turned out Crazy Horse had a lot of stories to tell, so we hung out and talked to them instead. In March they had led the ground incursion from Kuwait into Iraq: in their parlance, they were “the burning tip of the spear.” They claimed to have captured the first Iraqi flag, and to have killed over a thousand Iraqi troops before reaching Baghdad. It was a definitive encounter for me: I didn’t know it then, but I would end up spending most of the next three months with them.

I got to know Crazy Horse through regular visits to their compound near the airport. The compound had no electricity, no running water, no toilets, no fresh food, no internet or phones. They were waiting to go home, but instead they were called north to Balad where the insurgency was brewing.

At the same time, an event taking place on the other side of the world—the outbreak of the SARS virus—was about to change things for me again. I was living in Baghdad and only visiting Crazy Horse during the day, when I got word from journalists coming from Jordan and Kuwait, that those countries had closed their borders to Canadian nationals because there had been cases of SARS in Canada. It meant that my only way out of Iraq was Turkey, and because of my illegal border crossing, I was rightly afraid to go back that way. I also had little money left, and no way to get funds into Iraq. When I told my story to the soldiers in Crazy Horse, they suggested I come and live with them, where I would have no expenses, and would be able to leave the country with them. Their Commander agreed, and that was that.

Ironically, I eventually did end up going back to New York via Turkey. A few weeks after I’d moved up to Balad with Crazy Horse, my one DSLR seized up with sand. The trip back through Turkey was not good. I was detained over-night, interrogated, strip-searched, intimidated, and threatened by the Turkish border guards. But at least they didn’t put me in jail. I went back to New York, replaced my gear, bought a satellite transmitter, and was back in Balad with Crazy Horse less than a month later.

By the time I’d left, night patrols and skirmishes with insurgents were becoming a regular occurrence. One day (June 13th, 2003) before a particularly dangerous mission, it occurred to me that I hadn’t taken a photograph of all of the 150 soldiers of Crazy Horse. At dawn I set about to remedy that, systematically going from Squadron to Squadron, beginning at dawn and ending at dusk. It was the first time I’d taken posed portraits of the troop, and they were quick to recognize the grim motive of my endeavor (that I wanted to take their pictures in case they didn’t live through the next day), but they complied. In most cases one frame was enough—“Relax and look into the camera,” I said. Flash, then on to the next.

Detainee Photographs—July 15th, 2003

Crossing paths with Alpha Company, 1-8 Infantry Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, of the Fourth Infantry Division

When I arrived back in Balad on July 15th, Crazy Horse was sharing the base with their replacements, soldiers of Alpha Company, 1-8 Infantry Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, of the 4th Infantry Division. Like me, the 4ID had arrived in Iraq after the invasion was over. They were the unit being denied access from the north by the Turks in March, and in whose wake I’d originally hoped to ride into Iraq. It seemed fitting I’d finally cross paths with them. It was through my relationship with Crazy Horse that, just by being there, I gained access to Alpha Company.

The 3ID soldiers made a big deal of the difference between their expectations of Iraq and those of the incoming 4ID soldiers who had arrived after the invasion, and had not seen combat. The 4ID soldiers did not feel the same sense of betrayal by their government, because they hadn’t been lied to yet—at least that is how it was explained to me by some of the soldiers in Crazy Horse. Nor had they had time to gain respect for the Iraqis.

On the night of July 15th, I accompanied 4ID on patrol. There was one of the Crazy Horse soldiers I talked to a lot—Sergeant Jason Neely, who had a degree in psychology. He was angry at me for going on patrol with Alpha Company: “What did I think I was doing going out on patrol with these fuckers, and taking photos of some poor farmers they’d mistaken as enemies?” More disturbing was hearing how the Alpha Company Commander, Captain Matthew Cunningham, on arriving at Camp Crazy (later renamed Camp Eagle) had ordered his men to kill Crazy Horse’s pet dog, because it was “unsanitary.” Nawatay, as they’d called the dog, was drowned and his corpse left smouldering in the camp garbage pit, where Crazy Horse found it the next morning. Five months later, Cunningham would be implicated in ordering and covering up revenge killings of three Iraqis on the nights of January 2-3, 2004.

But that night, I went out on patrol with Captain Charles Sememko, an artillery officer temporarily stationed with Alpha Company. A half-hour into the patrol, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle ahead of us in the convoy was struck by a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG). We came to a stop. A second RPG struck, disabling another Bradley. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. What followed was a standard cordon and search procedure of nearby houses, culminating in the detention of about a dozen Iraqi men. The soldiers entered a house near where the RPG appeared to come from, rounded up all the men inside, “bagged and tied” them (which meant that white burlap bags were pulled over their heads, and their wrists were tied with plastic cuffs), and brought them back to the base. The base was an old Ba’ath military outpost, so the prisoners were put in the former Ba’ath Party jail.

The Photographs

This was very much straight journalism, spot news—I was simply there and I was photographing what was in front of me, things as they were. I added light, but that was it. There was a lot going on, and I had to make selections as I went. The old man being dragged off, the man sitting against the wall bleeding, the feet of the men in a circle – those images struck me as important details at the time. I’m sure if I didn’t have photographs, I would have a hard time remembering what I’d seen because my memory can fail or play tricks on me in moments of heightened emotion—at least, that’s what I fear, and I think is a big part of what draws me to photography. What I would have remembered most was the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. No one was telling me not to shoot. The only thing that could have got in the way was my own feelings. In a situation like that, practice and professionalism really pay off. I was on automatic. The Iraqis probably didn’t even notice I was there at that point because they were too afraid.

When I took their photos inside the base camp prison, it was a different matter. I didn’t speak a word of Arabic back then. I can’t imagine what they must have been thinking. These were people who had already lived lives of struggle and tyranny. By then, since they hadn’t been killed, maybe they thought they were somewhat safe at the hands of their captors. There was much more I didn’t see. After a few days, some of the prisoners were released. Others were taken away—I don’t know where. A few days later, I left with Crazy Horse for Camp Udari in Kuwait to cover their return home—a decision I would later question: should I have tried to stay with the 4ID?

When you are on your own somewhere, there is a lot of responsibility to report the story. It’s nothing like the media scrums at big urban events, like the bombings in Tyre I’d photographed in the summer of 2006, or the kinds of photos I’ve seen from the last days of apartheid in South Africa, with scores of journalists photographing the same thing (albeit often at great risk). You’re all by yourself, and you know that if you don’t take the photograph, no one else will. You step into the moment and shoot.

There is also a big difference between taking photographs of armed militants, and going with troops into someone’s home, while they separate the men from the women and children and arrest unarmed civilians. It may be that the people being detained are insurgents, but you can’t tell to look at them. Most of these raids are based on suspicion and the word of questionable informants.

It may also be that I did not feel the same sense of attachment to the soldiers of the 4ID as I did with Crazy Horse, who I’d been embedded with on-and-off for over two months. It’s not that I lost total objectivity with Crazy Horse, but it’s undeniable that living with people who are protecting your life creates a kind of allegiance. I didn’t have that allegiance or sense of belonging with the soldiers of Alpha Company. Besides, Crazy Horse didn’t like them.

I also think situations feel differently to different photographers. My personality, on a very basic level, seems to identify with the sympathetic side of a situation, and the vulnerabilities of those I am photographing—whether they are women wrestlers in the United States; loggers in Canada; drug addicts; the Lebanese during the Hezbollah-Israel conflict; Israelis living with the constant fear of being attacked; Palestinians confined behind walls and barricades; or soldiers fighting far from home. By July 15th, I was already on my second trip to Iraq. I’d been shot at and had seen bodies torn apart by rocket fire. Courtesy of the Turkish border patrol, I knew first-hand it what it felt like to be on the receiving end of an interrogation. I was a changed person from when I landed in Istanbul on March 15th 2003, hoping to make it to Iraq to cover the war. [intimate Crazy Horse pic here]

Over the preceding months, I’d been on a number of patrols (day and night), and had witnessed some altercations with locals, and the kinds of brief questioning that takes place at checkpoints. Everyone knows what it feels like to be in trouble: pulled over by the police for speeding, or sent to the Principal’s office as a child—these kinds of encounters with authority never lose that fearful sense of having your destiny in someone else’s hands. It is the same uneasy feeling in your stomach. You can be scared sick. When the people in positions of authority are carrying weapons, when they are quick to point these weapons at you, when they are yelling at you in a language you do not understand, when you’ve already seen them haul off some of your neighbours never to return, and when maybe you’ve been tortured by Saddam Hussein in the past, the feeling must be intensified many times over. It always made me feel queasy and a little dirty just for being there. I hid behind my camera, wondering if it was comforting to the people being questioned to at least know that there was a civilian witness present (though many must have assumed I was part of the military, for why else would I have been there?).

Even routine checkpoint searches could be disturbing. In this photo, soldiers are “confiscating” money from Iraqis with the explanation that anyone carrying that much money must be using it to fund the insurgency (Image 01). What the American soldiers did not know was that because of the devaluation of the Iraqi Dinar, a huge stack of bills was not actually worth very much. Moreover, because the banks had all closed, it was not so unusual to carry large amounts of money. The American soldiers never had enough information to really assess what they were seeing. Even if the soldiers wanted to know more about Iraq (and I met many who did), it was not part of their training.

On one occasion, a soldier at a checkpoint, citing the Geneva Conventions, told me I was not allowed to take pictures during arrests—on this scorching hot morning, a group of drunk young local men were being handcuffed and detained because they had “insulted America.” [photo here of young men being handcuffed on the roadside, and possibly second photo of black soldier sitting next to handcuffed detainee] There is a long history of perpetrators of violence documenting their victims for the purpose of further humiliating them by prolonging the moment indefinitely. I believe that the claim that the Geneva Conventions forbids such photography is to prevent this type of humiliation.[2] However, much depends on the intentions of the photographers and the uses made of the photographs. When used as evidence, photographs say more about the perpetrators than the victims, and can be used to authenticate claims of mistreatment. At the time I took these photographs, and others of Iraqi detainees, I believed that the Iraqis I was photographing felt comforted that there was a photographer present, and may have felt this presence as a kind of safety net.

One of the most unsettling things about the scene at the house that night with Alpha Company was the imbalance of power, and what seemed to me the complete inability to tell one thing from another. Compared to my first weeks in Iraq, there was a lot of hatred on both sides. The soldiers I’d been living with for the better part of two months had voiced their disappointment at realizing that not all Iraqis were happy at their presence. Even they knew how naive they were to expect to be “greeted with showers of flowers.” But they didn’t expect to be shot at either, not after they’d been told they had just liberated the country.

There is a popular image of troops living on the huge military bases with television, mess halls, McDonald’s restaurants, showers, media centres and internet access. This is not the reality for many soldiers on front lines or remote Forward Operations Bases (FOBs)—which could just mean a few tanks surrounded by some concertina razor wire and sandbags. In fact, when Richard and I first met Crazy Horse, they had had no contact with home for months, and so Richard lent them his satellite phone. One soldier called his wife, only to have her ask him for a divorce. He never recovered from the news, and was morose and distant for the remainder of the deployment, refusing to remove his wedding ring. In the first phase of my embed with Crazy Horse, I had no satellite transmitter, so I also had no access to news from the outside world either. It was not uncommon for journalists to have a poor sense of the news back home (pre-Twitter, pre-widespread internet) and I was often surprised when I did make visits back home, at how distorted a version of the war most people had.

The Use of Flash

Some photographers look down on the use of flash. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said that a photograph should never be taken with the aid of a flash-light, “if only out of respect of the natural light—even when there isn’t any of it.”[3] I would not have been able to make any of these photographs without a flash. There were circumstances when the soldiers would have objected to me using flash. But here, because they were rounding up prisoners and had control over the situation, the flash did not risk giving away our position. I was charging my batteries off the Bradley Fighting Vehicles with an AC-DC converter. I also use a Quantum battery pack connected to my flash unit so that there is no recharging delay. You have to be able to use all your technology like second nature, so that you get it right in the intensity of moments when things happen quickly. As Cartier-Bresson says in another quote from his famous essay “The Decisive Moment,” “We cannot do our story again once we’ve got back to the hotel.”[4]

I practiced a lot using the flash in total darkness. The new TTL (through the lens) brand-designated flashes have an infrared sensor that enables auto-focus in total darkness, but it was tricky to use the way I wanted, bouncing light so it wouldn’t be so harsh against the deep black of the night. I practiced bouncing the flash off the sand to give it a softer feel and to avoid directing it straight at subjects. The soldiers had flashlights on their helmets which cast enough illumination to round-up their prisoners, but it wasn’t enough light by which to take a photograph. Marshall McLuhan was right:

The electric light is pure information. . . It could be argued that [activities that take place in the dark] are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.[5]

Without the medium of electronic flash there would have been no message.


I thought these photographs were important enough for me to stay up late into the night under a clear patch of sky over the desert filing them from my Inmarsat RBGAN (Regional Broadband Global Area Network) Satellite Modem back to Sipa Press, my agency in New York. At fifteen dollars a megabyte, this was a significant expense for a freelancer.

It would be seven months before any of them were published (two were printed very small as accompaniments to a story I wrote about Crazy Horse in The Walrus in February 2004) and another three months before they were picked up by any international press. Antonio DeLuca, the brilliant designer who was then Art Director at The Walrus, had wanted to put the “Hooded Prisoner” photo on the cover, but I thought it would be misleading, given that the photo was taken with soldiers of the 4ID, not with Crazy Horse.

There was so little interest in the detainee photographs, I didn’t bother submitting them to World Press 2003. Instead, I submitted a series of atypically vulnerable portraits of the Crazy Horse soldiers. However, when the Abu Ghraib story broke at the end of April 2004 (nine-and-a-half months after I first filed the photos), there was a lot of interest in my detainee photographs from editors at Time and Newsweek who had remembered them from the Sipa news feed the previous summer. It was interesting that they did remember them—obviously, the pictures did have some merit, after all. I guess that when I took them, shortly after the swift and apparently successful invasion, the political climate was unfriendly to their publication. The Abu Ghraib story changed all that.

I remember that Time magazine was annoyed that Sipa sold them so quickly to Newsweek. The foreign desk editor at Time had emailed me directly. But, as it happened, the Abu Graib story broke when I was in the midst of my own personal crisis. On April 11th, along with my good friend and colleague Adnan Kahn, in the middle of a firefight in the town of Latifiya south of Bagdad, I’d been detained, threatened and interrogated by Fedayeen Saddam (paramilitary loyal to the Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government). I was certain that we were going to die (they held guns to our heads, screamed insanely, and told us that they were going to kill us). When we did survive the ordeal, I was in shock and spent most of the next week drunk. The insurgents had taken most of my camera gear, so I was on my way back to New York to replace my gear, overland via Turkey again, when Time Magazine was trying to reach me. In the meantime, Sipa Press had sold first rights to the whole series to Newsweek for a thousand dollars, of which I would get my usual fifty percent. Newsweek ran one interrogation photo on the inside, and Time ran a graphic by Matt Mahurin of a hooded prisoner on the front cover.[6]

When the Abu Graib accused went to trial in January 2005, there was another brief flurry of publications of my photographs. The Hooded Prisoner was published for the first time on the inside of Newsweek. A series of the photographs was published for the first time in 2006 when John Knechtel, editor of Alphabet City 10: SUSPECT (2006) published six of the images alongside an essay by Slavoj Žižek—which I was very happy about, because I knew Žižek’s work and had read his 2004 book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle.[7]

The Drowning in the Desert

Subsequent events made me wonder if I should have tried to stay in Iraq with Crazy Horse’s replacements. On the night of January 2-3, 2004, five months after I left Camp Crazy, Captain Cunningham’s guys from Alpha Company 1-8 (the same Company that I had photographed taking detainees in July) murdered three unarmed Iraqi men in orchestrated revenge killings. The afternoon of the killings, Captain Eric Paliwoda, a popular soldier, notably a favourite of Cunningham and of the Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, was killed in a mortar attack. The cover-ups (that went as high as Sassaman), and the military’s efforts to thwart justice and deflect media attention from the killings has been chronicled in detail in an extraordinary book by US Army lawyer Captain Vivian Gembara, who served in Iraq as the prosecutor and legal advisor for the 4th Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team during the time of the killings.[8]

One of the murdered Iraqis was 19-year-old Zaidoun Fadel Hassoun. He and his cousin Marwan were stopped at a checkpoint for being out after curfew. Both were forced to jump, handcuffed, off a bridge in Balad into the Tigris River. Zaidoun, who couldn’t swim, drowned (First Lieutenant Jack Seville was charged with assault in this case). Around the same time, another unarmed man, Zadan Khalaf was accosted in his home in Balad and executed. A bloodied gun found in his hand was later revealed to be a plant in the attempted cover-up. Cunninghman and Sassaman admitted to being present during the murder. No one was ever charged. A third man, Ismail Nasser, was killed by Staff Sergeant Shane Werst, the leader of a Squad of Engineers attached to Alpha Company, 1-8 Infantry Battalion. The third killing was not even brought to light until the Fall of 2004, when a soldier under Werst’s command confessed to his wife and a psychologist about being part of what he described as an execution. Werst was charged in the murder. In Drowning in the Desert: A JAG’s Search for Justice in Iraq, Gembara wrote: “I will always be disappointed by my chain-of-command’s cowardly handling of the murders.”[9]

Gembara faced ostracism and hatred many 1-8 soldiers for refusing to go along with their cover-up. She writes about how hard she’d tried to be accepted by the men in the first place, about “the lure of camaraderie,” especially for a woman who was already on the outside because of her gender and because she wasn’t fighting on the front lines.[10] It must have been extraordinarily difficult to continue her investigations. She drew a lot of her courage to trust herself and to do the right thing from her father, a retired Special Forces officer.

On January 16th, 2004, just as Gembara’s investigations in Iraq were making progress, the US Command released a terse statement to the press about investigations into abuses at Abu Graib. The Abu Graib story only broke four months later, but the statement meant the end of Gembara’s murder investigation. Shortly after the January press release, the CID (Criminal Investigation Command) in Iraq denied her permission to secure crucial evidence, needed to effectively prosecute the perpetrators. This included exhuming the body of drowning victim, Zaidoun Hassoun—without the body, there was no proof of murder.[11]. So it is unsurprising that I wouldn’t even hear of the murders until several years later, and had no way of connecting my photographs to the soldiers involved.

As we have seen, involvement in the murders and cover-ups went as high as the 1-8 Infantry Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, his right-hand man, the Battalion XO (Executive Officer) Major Robert Gwinner, and Alpha Company 1-8 Commander Matthew Cunningham who I’d filmed interrogating detainees, and who I’d written about in The Walrus ordering his men to drown Crazy Horse’s pet. Within Alpha Company, the perpetrators were 1st Platoon, under Platoon Leader Sergeant First Class Tracy Perkins—who, according to his soldiers and Gembara’s investigations, ruled his men by fear and intimidation.

When Gembara began to doubt the value of her own investigation, her friend and confidant in Iraq, Captain Tom Roughneen, reassured her:

They’re murdering people! They went from soldier to executioner and no one blinked. When does it stop? . . . Do you really think this was the first time for any of this? Of course not. Someone looked the other way the first few times, and 1-8 took that as a sign to do as they pleased.


[1] Abdul-Ahad, Ghaith, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson and Rita Leistner, Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2005.

[2] Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War of August 12, 1949 (Geneva Convention III), Article 13. The Article does not mention photography but it does state that prisoners should be protected ‘against and public curiosity’.

[3] Cartier-Bresson, Henri, The Mind’s Eye: Writing on Photography and Photographs. New York: Aperture, 1999. p. 28.

[4] Ibid, p.27.

[5] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, pp. 8-9.

[6] Time, 17 May 2004.

[7] Slavoj Žižek, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Verso, London 2005.

[8] Gembara, Vivian H. and Deborah A. Gembara, Drowning in the Desert: A JAG’s Search for Justice in Iraq. Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2008.

[9] Ibid, p. 298.

[10] Ibid, p. 188.

[11] Ibid, p. 226.

[12] Ibid, p. 257.