Remembering A Compassionate War Photographer

A few weeks ago the National Geographic lobby was so crowded with young schoolgirls I could barely make it to the elevators. The place was jumping with energy and I asked the ticket takers if the girls were here to see the Women of Vision photography exhibit. Indeed they were. It features the work of 11 National Geographic magazine photographers—Maggie Steber, Kitra Cahana, Jodi Cobb, Stephanie Sinclair, Amy Toensing, Lynn Johnson, Lynsey Addario, Beverly Joubert, Carolyn Drake, Diane Cook and Erika Larsen.

I was thrilled to learn that the young girls were here to see this wonderful work. At the same time it also brought a touch of sadness to my heart. I remembered another photographer who is no longer with us, Alexandra Boulat, who died after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2007 at the age of 45. She was a pioneer in her own right and her work belongs in the exhibit too. I miss her spirit, courage, wonderful eye and love of telling stories.

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Women take up arms in a military parade in Tikrit, Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a few weeks before the beginning of the Iraq War.

Boulat was born in Paris and in her youth studied graphic art, art history, and worked as a painter. In 1989 she joined Sipa Press, a French photo agency, and began her career as a war photographer. In 2001 she co-founded the VII Photo Agency, of which Sinclair and Addario are now members.

In a 2006 email exchange with me, she wrote: “Before I started to be a photographer I really had no idea yet about becoming a photojournalist. I became a photojournalist only because I was interested in stories, in journalism, in the life of people especially in extreme situations. My motivation to become a photojournalist was not influenced by pictures, but because of [the] incredible situation[s] some people were involved in.”

Boulat published six stories in National Geographic magazine and I was fortunate to have worked with her on four: Albanians: A People Undone, Feb. 2000; Eyewitness Kosovo, Feb 2000; Baghdad Before the Bombs, June 2003; and Diary of a War, Sept. 2003.

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Baghdad 2003. Inside an official sculpture studio, Alexandra Boulat found Saddam Hussein riding a horse straight out of the Arabian Nights. It was a time when no citizen felt free to criticize the government, so the workers were worried about letting her photograph this statue, covered in dust and in need of repair.

Boulat was no stranger to the battlefield, covering the Balkan conflict in the late 1990s. Always aware of the risk to her own life, she was driven to give voice to the unheard, to bear witness to the unseen, and to somehow make sense of all the madness. She was a rare soul who could take in the chaos of war and somehow make it viewable for the rest of us. In 2003, the magazine sent her to Baghdad ahead of the U.S. invasion to document the beginning of the Iraq War.

Before the invasion, Saddam Hussein’s government scrutinized foreign journalists carefully by monitoring all stories and photographs being transmitted out of the country. A lot of photographers were subsequently kicked out of Iraq because the government didn’t like the pictures they saw on the photographers’ digital cameras and laptop screens. Boulat, on the other hand, was shooting film—making it more difficult for the Iraqis to know what she was photographing. She knew this, was allowed to stay, and took advantage of it by traveling all over Iraq.

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Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat was escorted by her government minders to photograph a hundred or so foreign Arab fighters at a military training camp south of Baghdad before the Iraq War. She found them training as mujahideen to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers. Saddam Hussein was a secular leader and a less than devout Muslim, but that didn’t stop him from trying to mobilize the Muslim world for a jihad—or holy war—and a rerun of the Afghan conflict with the Soviet Union.
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Baghdad 2003. As Alexandra Boulat moved through the streets she felt that the American bombing had slowed a bit, probably because of the sandstorm that stifled Baghdad for the past two days, blanketing the city in an ominous red glow and lulling its residents into a strange lethargy. People couldn’t remember anything like it in their lifetimes. Men with guns wandered around in the haze. They said the storm was a gift from God because it was thwarting the U.S. troops’ advance on the city. It was bizarre because this dusty, oppressive weather is exactly the kind people usually hate, yet everyone had embraced it. They had hoped that the storm would never end.
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Baghdad 2003. Iraqis started oil fires in and around Baghdad as a desperate attempt to blind fighter jets and fool guided missiles at the start of the Iraq War—a medieval defense technique against 21st century high-tech weaponry.

Just before the American bombs began to fall, National Geographic editor-in-chief Bill Allen called Boulat and suggested that she leave for her own safety. She would have none of it. As other journalists left the country, she hunkered down in a central Baghdad hotel and watched the bombs from her balcony.

In her notes she wrote:

“Third day of bombing. Jet fighters started flying over our heads dropping their missiles over the presidential palace buildings across the river from our quarters at the Palestine Hotel. The power of the explosions was striking. Every minute the sky lit up with a new explosion. The bombing was bearable so I decided to keep my position on the 17th floor of the Palestine Hotel and not to rush down to the shelter. The strike ended after 30 minutes and left dramatic smoke in the air. Buildings inside the palace complex continued to burn all night long and few explosions could be heard from far away.”

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Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat got word that 50 people had been killed in an explosion in a shopping center outside of the city. Some of the victims had been taken to a nearby mosque. “Can I go in?” she asked when the door opened, not knowing what was inside. And maybe because she was a woman, she was ushered into a stark room where two women bathed the body of a young relative in preparation for burial. It was unclear whether the explosion was caused by a U.S. bomb or an Iraqi missile, but in the end it didn’t really matter for this 12-year-old girl.
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No one knew how the Iraqis would react when the Americans arrived in Baghdad. A hundred or so citizens gathered in Firdos Square outside the hotel to topple Saddam Hussein’s statue. When pulling on a rope around his neck didn’t work, an American tank came to do the job.
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Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat went to a neighborhood that had organized to keep away looters. Middle-class men had set up checkpoints and barricades on the streets, stopping cars and threatening anyone who looked suspicious.

Her images of Baghdad before, during, and after the siege remain a unique view of the invasion that few other journalists witnessed.

Legendary photographer Eugene Smith wrote: “To have his photographs live on in history, past their important but short lifespan in a publication, is the final desire of nearly every photographer-artist who works in journalism.” Boulat’s photographs live on in history, hopefully inspiring school girls, as well as young photographers, everywhere.

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Baghdad 2003. Alexandra Boulat wondered if there would be a moment when the Iraqis would celebrate the end of the war. On April 23, she realized this was it. Crowds of Shiite pilgrims poured into the city of Karbala, 50 miles from Baghdad, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, grandson of the prophet Mohammad. The most fervent cut their heads with knives to show their grief and sorrow. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, this ritual was discouraged as too extreme.
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Baghdad 2003. As the fighting began to wind down, Alexandra Boulat watched Iraqis dig up victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In a cemetery near Abu Ghraib jail, where hundreds of his opponents were executed, about a thousand people were buried with only a number to mark the graves. When a list of names corresponding to the numbers was released, families came to identify loved ones and give them a proper burial.