Take Two

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Alex Cohen & A Martínez

Picture This: Photographer David Gilkey on capturing the Iraq War

by Take Two

Residents and workers in central Baghdad plead with a U.S. soldier to bring water to a fire that erupted after a explosion ripped through a building in the book market area of the city Thursday October 30, 2003. David P. Gilkey/Detroit Free Press/MCT

Along with the thousands of soldiers who deployed to Iraq in 2003 were hundreds of journalists. Almost 800 members of the media embedded with the military during the initial invasion.

The formal practice of officially tying journalists to a particular military unit was new in those days, and it gave the media unprecedented access to the unfolding warfare at the front lines. Photographer David Gilkey was there for the Detroit Free Press.

RELATED: The war in Iraq: A decade later

Gilkey remembers spending countless hours waiting in the the Kuwaiti desert before being whisked across the border in to Iraq. He joined Take Two to share with us the story behind some of his images from the front lines. 

Interview Highlights:

On how he had to prepare for a possible chemical attack:
"That was the 800-lb gorilla everybody was afraid of, weapons of mass destruction. They were even afraid that it was going to be launched or mortared — rounds containing Sarin gas or Mustard Gas — before they'd even entered Iraq. So the training really every day was how fast you could deploy that gas mask…It was almost to the point of comedy, trying to get these suits on. It was 2-3 times a day a whistle or a horn would sound and you had to within under a minute try to get the pants, the top and this gas mask on." 

On how covering Iraq was much different than other war zones:
"I'd covered wars in the Balkans and other places around the world, and [chemical war] was certainly something that never occurred to you. Also it certainly seemed like a much more awful way of being injured or killed, and I think because we were practicing it every day, that became the routine, obviously somebody was very, very concerned that that was probably going to be the first thing that we had to deal with, some sort of attack involving gas, or who knew? But this gear is next to impossible to put on in under a minute let alone five."

On heading into Iraq embedded with soldiers for the first time:
"You could hear a few gunshots going off and it smelled like war. It had that Cordite smell, because it had just been hit with rockets and mortars. I literally went around the vehicle the wrong way, and the first Sergeant turns and goes 'Hey, the guys went the other way.' So I'm walking off, to catch up with them. I hear 'Hey! Don't forget you signed the waiver!' So a very light moment, but signing that waiver became sort of the running joke. The waiver that basically excuses the government, look you get killed or maimed, we're going to help you off the battlefield to a point, but you signed the waiver and you knew this was dangerous. It's technically called a 'hold harmless agreement.' As serious as everything was that was going on and the fighting and the fact that you were standing in what will be a very historical moment, that lighthearted sort of toss from the guy who's become a very good friend now. 'You signed the waiver,' became the running motto for the next month."

On photographing graphic scenes of dead soldiers:
"When you talk about pictures of dead bodies it becomes even more sensitive when you're talking about dead American soldiers. That's still a very sensitive topic. I think it takes years before pictures of Americans that are killed in action become OK to look at. That said, showing, in this particular case, a dead iraqi solider with a Bradley fighting vehicle behind it, it's important to understand that this is the business of war. War is people get killed, they get horrifically maimed and that is what happens when you prosecute something like this. I think people need to see it, I don't think they need to see it every day, I don't think they need to see things that are completely grotesque...People need to see what the consequences are to an action like this, and it's the fact that people get killed."

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