Photograph of a young person holding a gun while walking away from the camera in a dusty tree-lined landscape, taken from Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman

Moises Saman documents the “competing narratives” of the Iraq war

The photojournalist’s new book brings together his original imagery with materials and military documents to reflect on the subjective nature of portraying conflict

A new photo book is the culmination of photojournalist Moises Saman’s 20 years of working across Iraq. It has been published to mark two decades since the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition that included a substantial number of British troops, as well as a minor Australian and Polish presence. The book’s name, Glad Tidings of Benevolence, as well as chapter titles, are drawn from code names used by the US military until 2010.

Saman, who has been a member of Magnum Photos since 2014, had been working as a photographer at a newspaper in Iraq around the time that the invasion took place in March 2003. He photographed Iraq during the occupation and continued to do so after the US withdrawal in 2011.

Discussions about Iraq have often been a case of whose voice shouts loudest. Saman’s book, on the other hand, feels more like a patchwork rather than a conclusive statement on the war – not because he is taking a ‘both sides’ approach, but because there’s far more to be said when we look at how the war has been framed and by whom.

Photograph of three children, including one child who appears to have no arms, sat in the entry way to a building with dilapidated building in the background, taken from Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman
Top: A boy hunting in Baghdad during a sandstorm, 2003; Above: Survivors of the war living amid the rubble of destroyed buildings. Ramadi, 2016; All images © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Photograph of two soldiers sat inside a sun-filled army tank. One is examining a helmet, the other is on the phone, taken from Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman
US Soldiers on patrol along Route Irish, the re-named 7.5 mile stretch from Baghdad’s Green Zone to the airport once dubbed ‘the world’s most dangerous road’. Baghdad, 2008

Saman’s own photographs are interspersed by a wealth of archival materials. These include official soldier handbooks, logs, and redacted transcripts, as well as lists of Iraqi civilians and western military personnel who had been killed during the war. It’s made all the more potent with the introduction of graphic photographs of the dead and the injured, which when combined illustrate the cold face of war.

The photographs, found materials and a range of unattributed quotes have been arranged in such a way within the book that readers are prompted to think about how language and imagery are manoeuvred to steer public opinion. The nod to redactions in the book’s design details – such as type treatments and the cover itself – are a constant reminder to engage critically with what’s in front of us.

“My photographs are not intended to represent an objective account of the Iraq war against which to compare the texts,” Saman said. “Rather, the book grapples with my own role and power as a narrator – particularly one with access to foreign publications – and the biases and limitations inevitably embedded in my work.” Many people would call his documentation of Iraqi people and life empathatic, for war photography at least, however he readily acknowledges the “constraints” of his perspective.

Photograph of plumes of thick grey smoke rising above a town and a river, taken from Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman
Oil fires set alight over the Tigris River on the evening of the invasion to obscure the view of US warplanes flying over Baghdad, 2003
Photograph of a person waving a stick at a white horse on its hind legs, taken from Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman
A man tries to tame an Arabian horse looted from one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces during the early days of the fall of Baghdad, 2003

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Saman recalled how his approach to his line of work shifted with time. He initially pursued the “dramatic shots of violent conflict” that “make a war photographer’s career” but eventually began to examine the cracks between the various narratives that were often delivered as concrete facts.

During those 20 years, sensationalism gave way to a more ambiguous look at war and its “competing narratives”. This epiphany first came to him in prison, of all places, where he was held by Saddam Hussein’s secret police for eight days.

“I no longer believe that it is possible to be an objective, uninvolved witness to war,” Saman wrote in the New York Times. “I’d like to bring other photojournalists into a more honest and open conversation about the ambiguities of our work, and how we might reframe and redefine the stories we tell about violence, conflict and human dignity.”

Black and white photograph of a person with a patch covering their eye in Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman
Ahmed, 52, lost an eye during an attack by armed men in Baghdad. He is a patient at MSF’s Reconstructive Surgery Hospital in Amman, Jordan, 2020
Black and white photograph of four young children in and around a car next to a mound of rubble in Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman
A family returning to their destroyed home to salvage their belongings. Mosul, 2008
Photograph of a person stood next to rails of clothing with a dilapidated building in the background, featured in Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman
Life returns to Mosul after the reign of Isis, 2019
Photograph of a person wearing a military outfit kneeling on one knee with a hand raised in the air and the other holding a microphone, taken from Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman
Taping of the Colbert Report in Baghdad’s Green Zone, 2008

Glad Tidings of Benevolence by Moises Saman is published by Gost;