Andrea Bruce is a freelance photojournalist, currently based in Afghanistan, whose powerful documentary work attempts to connect people across geography and culture. In 2010, she left The Washington Post, where she had spent eight years as a staff photographer. During that period, she focused on the war in Iraq, and specifically on documenting the lives of ordinary Iraqis and US soldiers. She was one of the few Western photographers who kept going back to Iraq after 2004, when the country devolved into a brutal civil war and the risks to journalists became nearly impossible to justify. She also wrote a weekly column for the Post called “Unseen Iraq.” She has been named Photographer of the Year four times by the White House News Photographers Association, won the prestigious John Faber award for best photographic reporting from abroad from the Overseas Press Club, and was a 2011 recipient of the Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship. Michael Kamber interviewed Bruce in Baghdad in 2010.
In my last semester of my senior year in college I took a photo class for fun, and fell in love with it and became a photographer. But my dream was never to be a war photographer. I wanted to be a community journalist. I guess there is a whole generation of us photographers who probably didn’t really think we would become war photographers until September 11. That’s how I started. I didn’t really think that it would be something I would want to do until I realized that you need community journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq almost more than you need them in the States.
There is a story about an Iraqi prostitute that I worked on for almost a year. I interviewed almost thirty prostitutes before I found someone who was willing to talk to me. But the person I ended up following, her name is Halla, she got it. She was pretty much like, “My life sucks and I shouldn’t have to sleep with men to feed my children and so yeah, you can take pictures and show everyone exactly what is going on.” She basically became my best friend here. I’d hang out with her in between all the car bombs, in between all the embeds and violence. I would always go back to her thinking she is really what told the story to me of 2004 and Iraq. And she told it from a woman’s perspective and this war is so told by men and through men. Eventually she would just ask her customers straight up. It was very casual, they would come to her door and her children would be playing in the living room, and I’d be there, and the guys would be like, “No, I’m not going to let her photograph us.” Because I knew, that’s the one picture you had to get, to actually show why prostitution is horrible. And so one day a young client of hers came to the door and he said he didn’t care if I took pictures and so I took pictures for as long as I could handle it personally.
Waiting for the Booms
I remember just driving around, waiting for the booms to happen, looking on the horizon for the smoke, and then just driving in that direction until we found it, then it happening somewhere else, like half an hour later. And then going from the bombing scene to the hospitals, then to the morgue, and then like this almost Groundhog Day-like coverage of the bombings.
Firefights are scary, but it’s the IEDs that really kill you. It’s that suffocating feeling of being inside any kind of vehicle. I even wore my iPod I think for one year straight when I was in a Humvee because I couldn’t take it. In 2006 and 2007 it was just all the time, and you just realize that there is nothing you can do. It doesn’t matter how fast you can run or how well you can see or even if you try to figure out like, well, if I’m in the first Humvee or the second Humvee or maybe the third, which one would be the least likely to be actually hit? You just have to realize that it’s all a gamble, then you just sit there and you think, why am I doing this? And you hope that what we do actually gets seen and you hope that it actually does some good.
Sometimes I think that I totally failed. Because I don’t think any of the pictures I have ever taken have adequately shown all of that.