Baghdad Calling: cell phone photographs from Iraq

Baghdad Calling: cell phone photographs from Iraq

6th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world today for journalists. Over 130 reporters have been killed there since the US-led invasion in 2003.

As a result, few Western journalists go there to report on the enormous humanitarian tragedy that has left hundreds of thousands dead and forced over four million people to flee their homes.

Geert van Kesteren

One journalist who covered Iraq before and after the invasion was Geert van Kesteren, one of Holland's most acclaimed photojournalists. By 2005, he realised it was too dangerous to return, but he wanted to continue covering the story, so he travelled to Syria, Jordan and Turkey to interview and photograph Iraqi refugees.

Stray shot
One night while he was interviewing some Iraqi doctors in Amman, one of them showed him a picture on his cell phone of his best friend. He was a doctor who had been injured by a stray bullet in  Fallujah and later died of his wounds.
Photograph © Geert van Kesteren

 Baghdad Calling

Photograph © Geert van Kesteren

The picture, which was taken with a mobile phone, was the inspiration for Van Kesteren's new book Baghdad Calling.

"I start asking around," says Van Kesteren, "and it appeared to be that the people who stay behind in Iraq make photographs on their mobile phones."

"They show their gardens, their dogs, their families, sometimes the misery in the street and send them to those who fled the country abroad. I found the pictures much more interesting than my own photographs, as I could not enter Iraq myself at that period." Van Kesteren received thousands of pictures through his contacts, Facebook, and Iraqi chat groups. People were eager to share their photos because they feel misunderstood by the rest of the world. They believed that by showing these pictures in a book or an exhibition, people would be able to relate to Iraqis as normal human beings.

Here under four photographs from an extraordinary book by photojournalist Geert van Kesteren showing the lives of Iraqis from 2005 to 2007. (All photographs © Baghdad Calling/Geert van Kesteren)



"If you look at this image with Western eyes, you miss an important detail: in the middle there is veiled Muslim woman. This is the mother of the family. It appeared to be that this whole family is a Muslim family who celebrates Christmas. What most people don't know is that in the old days in Iraq, it was very, very normal that Shia, Sunni, Christians were all living together. They are married together. For me this image represents the strength of people in war because these are the type of people who don't want war. But imagine what would happen to these Muslims if they were to step out onto the streets with those hats on..."
"We are sitting inside a car because you still see the door of the car and a little piece of the mirror looking outside what appears to be garbage in the street and between that garbage there are three dead bodies. I found these images very, very important because also Baghdad Calling consists of several interviews of Iraqis who fled and they are explaining why they fled and what is going on in their country. The press often refers to ‘sectarian killings', but the media should be saying ‘ethnic cleansing' because that is what has been happening. In Iraq, there are whole areas which have been ethnically cleansed, where either Christians were chased out by Muslims, or Shi'ites were chased out by Sunnis or vice versa. This happens on a very, very large scale and this is one of the reasons why so many people are being killed."


"He was working as a doctor and as his friend said, ‘he was an amazing guy. He was handsome, he was strong. He was a very smart doctor and he was the person to put Iraq back on track.' While working in the hospital, the mujahedin and the American army, they fought out a battle outside of the hospital and one of the American bullets went through four stone walls, hit a ceiling, then came back in the thigh of this doctor. He had a huge wound which they couldn't operate in the hospital in Fallujah. Doctors put this guy in a car and took him to a specialist in Baghdad. Just as they arrived there, a nurse started telling them ‘I'm sorry the doctor cannot do the operation because he's just been kidnapped'. They then pooled together their savings and had him flown to Jordan. But the wound was too big and unfortunately he died."

"Nothing beautiful about war, is there? For me making this book, one of the amazing things was I spoke with about 60 or 70 Iraqi families who all told me their stories, and then about eight months later, these images started coming in. When I got the picture of the skeleton on my screen the first day, I thought ‘Oh my god, the stories people were telling me must be true'. These and several other images were a kind of proof of that. I had a very cruel picture like that that I had taken in Iraq and which is in my other book. I asked one Iraqi, ‘do you think people can look at an image like this because it's so gruesome?' He answered, ‘well every Iraqi child can look at it because they've seen it for dozens of times for real'."


While cell phones enable Iraqis to keep in touch and exchange photos, they are a dual-edged sword. At any moment they can ring to announce the death of a loved one or that a family member has been kidnapped.

"There was somebody who told me his uncle was kidnapped," recalls van Kesteren.
"The kidnappers called the family on the mobile phone because that's how it works. They kidnap you. They find the number of your father or mother and they're going to give a call. Those kidnappers first made the call and said ‘can you recharge the credit on the uncle's phone?' It was because they didn't want to spend their own money on phoning the family to make their ransom demand. Two years ago, you paid ransom to get your son alive back. Today you pay ransom to be able to bury him."

Unique record
Baghdad Calling is a unique record of life in Iraq from 2005 to 2007. It's also the first time that the life of a country has been captured on mobile phones.

Geert van Kesteren believes that cell phones will play an increasingly important role in documenting life and human rights, not only in Iraq but also in other conflict zones.

"Abu Ghraib photographs were made on a mobile phone," says van Kesteren. "The hanging of Saddam was seen on a mobile phone. I think it became an essential tool in modern warfare. We as professionals we have all these restrictions in doing our work, and civilians have taken over a big part of that role we play within democracy." "I think the cell phone plays a very essential role in protecting human rights because it tells a truth. But therein lies the difficulty because the photographers are not professionals. So people can make images or make up images. So pictures taken with mobile phones are a very important tool to protect human rights. But they can also be a very important tool for propaganda."

 6 January 2009

Eric Beauchemin

Radio Netherlands

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