For Andrea Bruce ’95, vision is everything. And at that moment, in June 2004, riding in a Humvee with soldiers from the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division through the streets of Baquba, Iraq, she had lost it. Dark was all around her, and pieces of shrapnel flew from a roadside bomb that had exploded five feet from the vehicle she was in. She could see very little, but she soon recognized the sounds of a firefight. Insurgents were shooting at the soldiers, and soldiers were shooting in every direction with night goggles to aid them. Two men riding in the unarmored vehicle behind hers were badly injured when hot debris hit their faces.
She hoisted her camera to the black sky above her and blindly clicked, clicked, clicked.
And then there were the suicide bombings, which happened almost every other week. She would go to the scene where body parts lay, the charred remnants of citizens who, hoping to get precious work with the Iraqi police or army, had stood in line for days. The emotions of the Iraqi citizens would boil over, spilling onto her. Angry, looking for someone to blame for the atrocities that had taken their fathers, their sons, they would express their rage and confusion by targeting the nearest Westerner. Bruce, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Indiana native, was slapped, hit, pushed around by heartbroken Iraqis. A friend was once hit with a metal bar. She learned to leave such scenes quickly, to avoid the mobs, to avoid one person yelling at her turning into one hundred yelling at her, the scene turning into a nightmare that she had never seen in the job description.
Most of us will never know the kind of harrowing moments and aching introductions to despair that Bruce, a staff photographer for The Washington Post, experienced during the nine months she spent in Iraq to document the conflict for the newspaper. She knows this. But she also knows that American society remains more interested in caricatures who chomp insects for prize money and the lightweight lives of socialites than the war their country has waged and its heartbreaking aftermath. We wish not to be bothered. But Bruce wishes to bother us.
That, she says, is why she can’t wait to go back to Iraq. It has changed her to the bone. Changed her vision. Changed her world.
“I’ve been scared,” said Bruce, who was named Photographer of the Year by the White House News Photographers’ Association for the second time in her career earlier this year. “Definitely. But I’ve never thought that it’s not worth it. Because to make people’s lives worthwhile, the public has to know that they happened. We have to pay witness to them.”
‘Go to Baghdad’
The soft-spoken Bruce envisioned she would practice community journalism when she took up photography at UNC – and for most of her career, she did just that – for the Concord Monitor of New Hampshire and the St. Petersburg Times and, since 2001, the Post.
But photos of kids in front of computers, of spelling bees and dog shows and politicians stumping became distant memories in the dusty, desolate horizons of the Middle East. In early 2003, Bruce was assigned to Israel at the last minute, she says, because another photographer couldn’t go. There, she experienced her first suicide bombings, which she says helped her prepare, professionally and personally, for the constancy with which she saw them in Iraq.
She never expected that she’d hear the words, “Go to Baghdad” a month and a half later, just before the war began. Even then, she had no time to think about fear. So many little things had to be taken care of, like visas, language barriers and money, and having enough food, water and gasoline. “Just, how do you get there? How do you find a driver? How do you find a translator?” Bruce said. “There were so many logistics that it took me away from thinking about the big picture on a personal level, like being scared.”
Once in Iraq, Bruce turned her empathetic lens on the daily lives of Iraqi citizens and on the difficult work of the American soldiers, whose opinions nearly always mirrored those of their commanding officers. Some officers wanted Bruce’s photos to offer a kind of visual plea to the States, “because they knew that if people were getting injured because they didn’t have enough armored Humvees, then if that word got home, maybe Congress would approve some money for armored Humvees,” she said. Others wanted no part of the media, told her if she took pictures of a soldier’s hangnail, let alone one who had died or was injured, she would never be able to work on that base again.
Because she is a Western woman, Bruce was able to see and photograph scenes others could not. She could be in the same room, alone, with Iraqi women, while her male counterparts were forbidden because of religious customs. She could travel more easily, too, underneath the abayah that Iraqi women wear, keeping her safer than many Westerners. She grew connected to the country and its people in ways she never expected. She saw parents who wanted to send their children to school safely, who wanted to eat a family meal in peace. She saw people who seemed a lot like the ones back home.
Iraqi citizens, she said, have died in much higher numbers than the media has reported, much higher numbers than the soldiers fighting the war. It’s the suicide bombings, the ones that Bruce wrote about in her journal, which the Post published: “I can’t get the bombings out of my head,” she wrote. “Not just one, but the aftermath of them all. The metallic smell of blood. The stains on the roads. As if each victim was blown up individually, from the inside out, or maybe dropped from the sky.”
Twenty-five children were killed by an explosion in July, she said. Imagine your grade-schooler’s entire class, gone in an instant.
And then there are those Iraqis who die slow, emotional deaths each day, like Halla Muhammed Marrouf. Halla’s husband and brother were killed during the conflict, and she became a prostitute to support a family of 60, including her two young sons.
She dyes her hair blonde, wears blue contact lenses and entertains men for as much as $300 an hour at both her home and her mother’s. No other jobs exist. She has no other choice.
Halla wanted Bruce to tell her story for the same reason soldiers did: She wanted someone to witness the hopelessness, the danger, the violence. Maybe it would end sooner if someone out there was listening. Bruce has adopted their mantra.
“It’s completely surreal [to return to the U.S.],” Bruce said. “It’s hard to come back, because you know that people in the States, for the most part, don’t really care, or they try to put Iraq and everything that’s going on over there out of their minds. That makes me feel like I’m failing as a photographer. As a journalist.”
One of her experiences after returning home from Iraq was perhaps the most surreal of all. Here, continents away from the cause he believes in and the one she questions, President Bush attended a fete in which Bruce received her WHNPA award. There were many things she wanted to tell him but couldn’t. Like the fact that she’d seen so many bad things that it had become hard to remain “open to all those emotions all the time.” Like so many reporters, she’d learned to close herself off to the destruction and “numb over,” just click, click, click the camera.
She might have liked to tell him that she kept rare, optimistic images in her mind of people playing in rivers on hot days and kids playing soccer, and that she tapped into them whenever the hopelessness of Iraq seemed unrelenting. That she knocked on reporters’ hotel room doors early each morning, waking them up, demanding that they tell her what stories they would be working on that day, so she could be there. So she could make people forget about Paris Hilton and start thinking about Halla.
She might have liked him to know that she’s desperate to return to Iraq, where she hasn’t been since last August, but can’t because it’s become too dangerous for her to tell the story. That even her boss has nightmares about her returning.
There were other things, too, she would have liked to tell him. But she has to keep them to herself. Instead, she watched as the president sat through a slide presentation of all the winning photographs, the pictures of a woman “who had turned to prostitution because of this war.” And it made her wonder: What was he thinking? Did it open his eyes, or did he already know this was happening?
Bruce has never seen a photographer handle a lifetime of this kind of work well. She doesn’t know if she could, either. There aren’t a lot of role models, she says, for people who want to cover war zones and keep their emotional and personal lives together back home. So she’s back now, covering kids in front of computers, and spelling bees, and dog shows, and thinking every day of her “community” in Iraq.
“I didn’t expect to be so attached to that place, and to the story and to the people who I’ve met,” she said. “The strength of those feelings has surprised me. It affects how I look at the world, my perception, my whole perspective. It’s changed me, personally, in every way.”
Copyright 2006 UNC General Alumni Association
Published in Carolina Alumni Review, September/October 2006