Q & A: War Photographer Moises Saman

"If you do this long enough, you will eventually find yourself in a bad situation"

Freelance photographer Moises Saman’s pictures from Iraq made the cover of The New York Times both days last weekend. Taken in May and June 2008, as the Sunni Awakening movement took hold, Saman’s photos were chosen to accompany the Times’s reporting on the Iraq War Logs provided to them by WikiLeaks. It was something of a coup for the photographer, but there was no time for a pat on the back—on Saturday, Times contract photographer and Saman’s colleague João Silva was seriously injured after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan. Saman spoke with CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about Iraq, Silva, and his life capturing war. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Can you tell us the story behind the picture of the Iraqi man being prepared for burial that appeared on the front of Saturday’s Times?

This was [taken during my] first assignment for the New York Times. I think I spent about eight or nine weeks in Iraq between May and June 2008. I spent time in the north in Mosul, and in Baghdad and down south in Najaf. The Saturday cover was a photo I took in May 2008 in the city of Najaf, where most of the Shiite fighters and people killed in Sadr were being brought down for burial. It was a period of fighting in Sadr City between American forces and the Iraqi army and Shiite fighters loyal to Moqtada Al-Sadr. The picture shows a male civilian who was killed during a rocket attack in Sadr City, being prepared for burial under Islamic tradition.

How did you get the shot?

For most Shiites in the area who are observant, their last wish is to be buried in Wadi-us-Salaam cemetery in Najaf, which some say is the largest cemetery in the world. It was a particularly bloody day in Sadr City and I spent most of the afternoon in the morgue—it was one body after another being brought down. There was a brother of the man whom I photographed there, and the man who was washing his body, and somebody helping him. It was kind of difficult to get into that room, especially as a foreigner. If you’re not Muslim, being present in this very private situation takes some work. I was working with our local translators and journalists from the Times, and they were able to get me in. We spent several hours there and we spoke with the morgue officials and explained what we were trying to do. As I said, it was an especially bloody day and we wanted to depict that. You had to introduce yourself and see if they were okay with me taking pictures while they were in a very intimate moment.

The picture used on Sunday’s cover is very different—a man stands in the distance, coming down the road from a Fallujah checkpoint with two guns in the air. What was happening at that moment?

That was also in 2008. It’s the picture of a checkpoint in a former insurgent stronghold between Fallujah and Abu Ghraib. It was a very difficult area to go to because it was at the time when this awakening movement was kind of new. These Sunni militias had switched sides to work with the Americans, but in this area it was kind of sketchy. You still didn’t know if they were truly on the American side or not. We went there to interview a former insurgent leader who had turned to the American side. We were walking down this road toward the checkpoint and this is how this gentleman basically greeted us—with two guns up in the air. It was nerve-wracking at first but it turned out to be okay.

Were you afraid, or was this routine?

It was scary for a second—you don’t know what this guy’s going to do—but at that point it wasn’t like we could just turn around and run. We were expected there, so we were hoping that he knew who we were; we were coming there to see his commander.

Did you know that the photographs were going to be on the covers?

The New York Times contacted me a couple of days before the WikiLeaks report was going to come out. They didn’t really tell me what the report was about, they just contacted me and asked if I could look through my archive and send them some pictures that would represent the madness and uncertainty of those years, especially 2007 and 2008. They were very careful not to tell me what the stories about. I think they contacted other photographers who were there at the time. I sent between fifteen and twenty pictures. Then on Friday night they told me what it was about.

How do your recent trips to war zones compare with earlier trips?

My first trip was in 1999, and I went in the summer to Kosovo. I had just finished an internship at Newsday and I was in my mid-20s. I was just starting to get into photography in a serious way, I didn’t know anybody, and I wasn’t affiliated with any news organization. I basically just made my way there and spent about a month traveling through Kosovo taking pictures but really not knowing what I was doing. I completely self-financed the whole trip and I didn’t sell a single picture afterwards. You might call it an exercise done to see if this was what I really wanted to do or not. When I returned to New York after that trip I was offered a staff job at Newsday. They really gave me a lot of chances to travel soon after I was hired. After 9/11, all I was doing was covering the wars.

What did you learn as you continued to visit war zones?

The hardest part about this job is figuring out where to be and when to be there. A lot of it is pure luck and a lot of it is trying to trust your instincts, which takes time and experience. You also have to have a very open approach and personality, particularly when you are traveling in places where there is a conflict going on. And another important thing is to try to be as informed as possible. You have to be super careful just by being informed and knowing what you’re getting into. And with every assignment you have to try to get some experience and apply it to the next conflict you go to.

Dealing with people, you have to be very dignified in your approach, for example, by not jumping in front of people in an unsettling way. Especially when you’re dealing with death, it’s a sensitive subject matter and you have to approach it that way.

I’ve definitely made mistakes in the past; you want to make sure you remember those so you don’t make the same mistakes twice. I’ve learned from very experienced colleagues, too. Early on in Afghanistan, back in 2001, there were several incidences when everything was chaotic. A couple of times myself and some colleagues ended up in places that probably weren’t the safest. If you do this long enough, you will eventually find yourself in a bad situation, unfortunately.

Did you read the stories on WikiLeaks stories that went with your photographs?

I’ve read some, but a colleague of mine at the New York Times, João Silva, was severely wounded in Afghanistan on Saturday and I’ve been just dealing with that—not reading the papers very much, to be honest with you. João is a good friend of mine and a colleague. The people in this business are devastated about what happened with João; it’s very unfortunate. It’s part of war, but it’s a very, very sad feeling and we’re all trying to deal with it at the moment.

Is it hard when you work in places that are so dangerous and so different from day-to-day life here, to come back?

It can take a while to find your way back into normalcy. And when bad things happen, like what happened to João this weekend, you reflect more on what you do. It’s not easy, and a lot of people have different ways to manage this change of pace and this change of environment. I think it’s important to have a life outside of what you do, to have friends and to have family, a support network around you to make it smoother and easier.

Does an incident like João’s make you reconsider your line of work?

I don’t know that reconsider is the right word; it’s more of a reality check. People who do what we do or spend enough time working on these subjects have a passion for what we do. We think it’s important. But when something like this happens there are many questions that go through your mind. You try to reconcile that sense of loyalty to a story—the reason you got into the business in the first place. You have to keep focused and continue to do your job. I still feel strongly that it’s very important to have independent journalism, especially from conflict zones.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.