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The Beginning of the Iraq War
Twenty years ago, multiple photographers documented the "shock and awe" airstrikes on Baghdad, providing a first glimpse of the war.
On the evening of March 20, 2003, a group of photographers gathered at the Palestine Hotel, bracing themselves for airstrikes.
“The huge yellow flashes erupted from the huge presidential complex just across the river,” CNN’s Nic Robertson recalled. “Then one almighty bang and a massive ball of flame.”
The photos of “shock and awe” captured a sanitized, distant view of war, devoid of humanity. Yet, they were important and widely published — an introduction to a war that would claim the lives of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Carolyn Cole, a staff photographer with The Los Angeles Times, made this photo of the airstrikes that ran on the front page. Cole’s photo was paired with an image of troops in Kuwait by John Moore (uncredited), who was embedded with the military.
The Washington Post published Faleh Kheiber’s photo of the airstrikes on page one, with a secondary image by the Orange County Register’s Mark Avery, who was also embedded. It’s exactly the kind of photo the Pentagon was hoping for.
Days later, Kheiber, working for Reuters, was wounded in an American tank attack on the Palestine Hotel that killed two journalists. Ukrainian videographer Taras Protsyuk and Spanish videographer José Couso died in the shelling. A military investigation eventually cleared the soldiers, declaring they were justified in firing “at what they had reason to believe was an enemy position.”
TIME published an entire issue on the beginning of the war, with this image of the airstrikes by AFP’s Ramzi Haidar on the cover.
Inside, there were 11 double-trucks including this wider view of the airstrikes by James Nachtwey.
Along with the cover of TIME, Haidar’s photo of the bombardment fronted many newspapers, including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Independent.
Quick side note — in 1983, during Lebanon's civil war, Haidar made an incredible photo of a soldier playing a piano amid the rubble of an abandoned mansion. Moments after taking the photo, Haidar was shot in the head and would have died if it weren’t for the soldier’s help. Haidar has been searching for the “piano man” ever since. “I want to thank him because I owe him not only my life, but also my rebirth,” he told ABC News in 2019.
Ilkka Uimonen's trembling, slightly out of focus photo of the bombardment made the cover of Newsweek.
Another photo by Uimonen was published inside. It’s a shame that more of his work from Iraq isn’t online — it’s spectacular.
Other photographers, too, were at the Palestine documenting the airstrikes during the first few nights of the war, including: Franco Pagetti, Olivier Coret, Goran Tomasevic, Jerome Delay, Olivier Jobard, Patrick Baz, Karim Sahib, Ali Heider, Marco Di Lauro, Sean Smith, Alexandra Boulat, Renaud Khanh, Patrick Robert, and probably more.
Russian photographer Yuri Kozyrev was at the Palestine that night as well. Kozyrev spent seven years in Baghdad, covering the war for TIME. He described his time there as an “amazing experience with horrible consequences.” Kozyrev’s deeply-layered, compelling work is well-worth revisiting.
Magnum photographer Moises Saman also spent years in Iraq. A week after documenting the airstrikes from the Palestine, Saman and three other journalists were detained by Iraqi secret police and held for eight days before being released.
Saman insightfully described the photos he and others made from the Palestine Hotel in this powerful op-ed for The New York Times: “They did not show the families huddling in Baghdad that night. They could not capture the uncertainty and fear, and they could not grasp the significance of the moment for Iraq, the United States and the world. Still, those blurry pictures were published the next day on the front page of essentially every major Western newspaper, visually framing the public perception of those first days of the war.”