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Books: Photojournalists on War, by Michael Kamber

I just received my copy of Michael Kamber's recently-released book, Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (released May 2013). The book is wonderfully printed, which is of course important for a book of photographs. But I find it hard to know how to describe the book less superficially—that is, to describe the content. The story is painful but you'll find the images hard to get out of your head. The images in the book bust open a hornet's nest of emotions: amazement and horror, admiration and sorrow, gratitude and pain.

The book mainly showcases photographs taken in Iraq by about forty different photographers. Every single photo stops you in your tracks, makes you linger and look. But the book isn't just photos. Michael Kamber interviewed all the photographers, and each chapter includes both photos and interviews. The interviews are not padding, they're as important as the photos. You can only photograph what you can see, but you can talk about anything, including things you aren't allowed to photograph. Some photos need no explanation, for example, Todd Heisler's photo of the young widow sleeping in front of the casket of her dead fiancé, Lt James Cathey, the night before his funeral, while a Marine quietly stands guard. If that one doesn't break your heart in a glance, you need to see a cardiologist or an ophthalmologist or both. But many of the photos in the book need some context.

Since I'm a wedding photographer, I have to mention that the book includes one of the most unforgettable wedding portraits ever, a photo by Nina Berman of photo of Marine Sgt Ty Ziegel and his bride Renée on their wedding day in 2006. Sgt Ziegel had been very badly burned in an IED blast in Iraq. This photo—and the whole story of Ty and Renée—seems to me to fall right into the category of classical tragedy, which always calls for great heroes who make great and amazing choices, then fail, but in their failure, show us something about what human beings are capable of. All that, in a photo or two. I should add that I'm not sure Berman would agree with my interpretation; from her comments in the book, I gather she is more inclined to see waste and futility than classical tragedy. (Classical tragedy is never about pointless suffering.) And I will admit that it's easier for me to see things the way I do, because I haven't photographed the damaged warriors that she has. Anyway, you can see the portrait and a number of Berman's other photos in this series on her website.

PHOTOJOURNALISTS ON WAR: The Untold Stories from Iraq, by Michael Kamber. The outside dust jacket (shown partially on the left) displays a photograph by Scott Peterson of Marines on a recon mission in Falujah in 2004. The inside cloth cover contains a sobering surprise: a 2003 photo by Patrick Baz showing a bloody camera dropped by a photojournalist who was wounded when an American tank, mistaking the journalists for enemy combatants, fired on the hotel where they were staying. Two other journalists were killed. 

You can get it from Amazon for a dollar or two less right now, but I recommend that you buy this one direct from the publisher, University of Texas Press. The UT Press page also has a small slide show that will give you a taste of what's inside. (The little slideshow includes, at least at this moment, a couple of the great photos by Todd Heisler that I blogged about at Wordpress a year ago.)


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