Episode Publishers, The Netherlands, 2008. Softbound. 388pp., Extensive color illustrations. 7½x10".
Baghdad Calling Photographs by Geert van Kesteren published by Episode Publishers, 2008
Geert van Kesteren's Baghdad Calling begins with the kind of roll call of depressing figures we have come to associate with the current Iraq War: Over 120 armed groups are operating in Iraq. At least 4 million Iraqis have left the country. Since the U.S. occupation began, 209 journalists have been killed in the fighting or executed by insurgents.
That last figure lies behind van Kesteren's current project. His earlier book, Why, Mister, Why? (Artimo, 2005), followed coalition troops into Baghdad, chronicled the excitement of the liberation, and charted the early days of the insurgency. It has already been called "the Vietnam, Inc., of the Iraq War" by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger in The Photobook: A History (Vol. II, Phaidon, 2006). But as that kind of on-the-ground reporting in Iraq became too dangerous for Western photographers, van Kesteren turned his attention to the diaspora of Iraqi refugees living impoverished in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and, if they are among the handful who have obtained visas, in Europe. His new work, however, disappointed him. "My photography did not in any way square up to the horror of the stories of the refugees. It missed what I see as the cornerstone of my photojournalism, the laying bare of the essence of a situation and making that visual through the perspective of individuals."
As he worked, both those he photographed and the assistants working with him as translators and guides constantly showed him images from their cell phones - images they had taken of family and the homes they had left along with images received from the friends and family they had become separated from. These grainy images, treasured by those who possessed them and passed eagerly among individuals separated sometimes by continents, had the immediacy van Kesteren felt his own work was unable to convey.
Baghdad Calling by Geert van Kesteren. Published by Episode Publishers, 2008.
This new book has been assembled from Van Kesteren's own photography, the interviews he conducted in 2007 and early 2008, and a generous selection of the cell phone images he was offered by the Iraqis he worked with. His own work, identified by locale and paired with interviews that place it in context, often seems determined to demonstrate the frustrations he expresses with its inability to convey "the horror of the stories of the refugees." There are several very effective, brief visual essays: a group of doctors now unable to practice in Jordan; determined illegal immigrants deported back into Kurdistan. But the unfortunate reality of this kind of reporting is that without the interviews that accompany the images, families squeezed into single rooms in Jordan look very much like families in similar conditions in Syria. But working with his Iraqi collaborators, van Kesteren has been able to continue the important ground reporting that has made his name.
The cell phone images are not identified by photographer, and an editorial decision was made not to show images that could be considered propaganda for either side. What we are shown includes birthday and graduation parties, wounded and dying friends, devastated streets, and the immediate aftermaths of bombings and firefights. At times, the photographers just want to show family members that they are still alive. In one instance, the appearance of electricity in the middle of the afternoon warrants a photograph. It is with the cell phone images that Baghdad Calling finds its place as an important chronicle of the two years it covers, extending the equally important work of exploring what new formats will distribute and preserve the history of this war.
—Charles Dee Mitchell