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Examining The War Photography of Today
by Anne Bothwell 19 May 2011

Walking through XXI: Conflicts in a New Century with the curators, and two of the photogs, Kael Alford and Thorne Anderson.


The dangers of contemporary combat and conflict photography have been all too front-of-mind late,  from Joao Silva, who lost his legs when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan last fall to Restrepo director Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, killed in Libya last month during a government attack on rebel forces.

So it’s an interesting time to check out XXI: Conflicts in a New Century, a collection of images made during the first ten years of the 21st century in hotspots such as Afghanistan, Iraq, the Ivory Coast and Lebanon. I stopped by the Oak Cliff Cultural Center last night for a walk-through of the exhibit.   The curators, Charles Dee Mitchell and Cynthia Mulcahy, chatted about each of the photos, many of which are from their own collections, and the men and women who shot them.

Dee Mitchell chats about Tim Hetherington's work

There are Hetherington’s portraits of US soldiers at Restrepo, in Eastern Afghanistan – he was supposed to attend a screening of Restrepo in connection with the exhibit.  Akintunde Akinleye’s disturbingly beautiful and career-making portrait from the scene of petroleum gas pipeline explosion in Nigeria.  James Nachtwey, perhaps the famous shooter represented, just happened to be in New York for a conference at Magnum, a photo agency, when the World Trade Center was attacked, an odd coincidence that put him in the right place to do his work.

Two of the photogs represented – Kael Alford and Thorne Anderson – just happen to live right here in Oak Cliff.  Both were on hand to talk about their images and their time in Iraq documenting the impact of an escalating US war:  Mahdi Army fighters resting in a shrine in Najaf; a wealthy Baghdad family standing guard over their home as looters ravage nearby palaces of Saddam; an angry mob confronting US soldiers after a missile from a weapons stockpile accidentally detonated; a child seriously injured in a US air strike in Falluja.   To get these images, and an opportunity to give us glimpses of the perspective of “the other side” , Kael and Thorne had to leave the packs of other photogs – and the protection of US forces – and earn the trust, or at least the tolerance, of the Iraqis they hoped to portray.  Their work has been collected in a book called Unembedded.

Thorne Anderson and Kael Alford (Taking photos of professional photographers is embarrassing.)

Answering audience questions, the two do not exactly fit the stereotype of swashbuckling war correspondents. They are both soft-spoken, funny and gentle.  Yes, they get fearful when the shooting starts, but there are worse things:  “I’m way more afraid of an angry mob,” says Thorne, whose had one particularly bad experience that left him tattered, bloodied and without his equipment. But focusing on the task at hand keeps the nerves steady. Another motivator –  after the time, trouble, risk and expense of getting yourself into the middle of these situations, walking away with nothing would really blow. “That fear of failure helps,” says Kael.

Kael returns to Iraq next month, to try to find some of the people she photographed years ago.  We’ll check back in with her about that, and meantime, you’ve got until June 3 to check in with the Oak Cliff Cultural center to see this show. Details.