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ONE PHOTO – ONE STORY

17.11.2014

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“I took this picture six months before the White House declared that all American troops would be withdrawn from Iraq. The event was an Iraqi Army press junket, or what we call a Dog and Pony show. A spectacular, staged fake military operation designed to show that the Iraqi Army was in control of the country’s security, and totally capable of doing so without the help of the US military.

We were off the coast, south off Basra, and the scenario had something to do with ‘terrorists’ capturing a hut on a small uninhabited island, about the size of a football pitch, in front of us. The Iraqi military would then unleash a coordinated air, naval and ground forces assault to liberate the hut. I can’t remember if there were hostages or not, but if there were, no doubt, they were going to be rescued. Basically, it was a PR stunt. One that I was being brought in to photograph. But I never did end up shooting it.

We were taken up to an observation deck. There, in lavish chairs spray-painted gold, Iraqi military officers sat, like Caesars, ready to watch the show. That image, to me, succinctly summed up everything that had gone wrong with the US invasion of Iraq. After everything – all the lies told, all the blood, all the treasure and all the morality wasted – one thing that was supposed to have been achieved in Iraq was getting rid of Saddam Hussein and the vicious authoritarian culture of the Baathist regime. The US went so far to achieve this aim that, in 2003, they disbanded the Iraqi Army, putting hundreds of thousands of armed angry men onto the streets of a country that no longer had the security forces necessary to maintain law and order. It was a momentously catastrophic decision that continues to be felt today. Still, the decision was made, according to Paul Bremer, in order to destroy the foundations of the previous Iraqi dictatorship and show ‘to the Iraqi people that… neither Saddam nor his gang are coming back.’

But there they were, sitting right in front of me: the new officers of the new Iraq, wearing aviator sunglasses, sporting moustaches and smoking in golden thrones. I felt like I had walked onto the set of an early-1990s Sylvester Stallone action movie, and everyone around me was auditioning for the part of the bad guy. I mean, you wouldn’t look at a picture of these guys and think that they were the servants of the ‘Democracy’ American officials claimed to be leaving behind.
I spent all afternoon photographing the officers in their chairs, never once turning to shoot the military display behind me. It’s a picture that, I think, suitably illustrates an Iraqi street phrase still popular today, ‘We used to have one Saddam, now we have many…’”

Ayman Oghanna

The photographer with Iraqi roots was born in London where he also grew up. Today he lives in Istanbul and Iraq, where he documents the current situation. His photos have been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Vice Magazine, among others.

www.aymanoghanna.com
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