In April Stephanie Sinclair donned an abaya, the black head scarf and cloak worn by women in Muslim regions, to take pictures of members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s al-Madhi forces in Baghdad’s Sadr City district for Time magazine. She told insurgents she was French–“You can’t tell them you’re American at this point,” she says–and didn’t have any major problems.
Dealing with U.S. troops could be a different matter. A month later, toward the end of her nearly two-year stint photographing in Iraq, soldiers she calls “jumpy” shot up her car as she and her translator approached a checkpoint. The bullets lodged in the engine; a few inches higher and she and her translator could’ve been statistics. Later, a Coalition Provisional Authority official told Sinclair they’d been fired on because their Chevy Caprice was a model often used by Iraqi civilians.
A few days later, in late May, a car bomb exploded at the entrance to the al-Karma Hotel, where Sinclair had been living, shattering windows and spreading dust and debris as she and two friends huddled in her apartment. While the bomb claimed two victims–including a 12-year-old boy who sold candy and cigarettes outside the hotel–Sinclair says the blast’s aftermath wasn’t as gruesome as others she’s covered.
Still, it was a wake-up call. Sinclair left Baghdad soon after for an assignment in Afghanistan, then settled in Beirut, where she continues to be based. “Things were spiraling downwards–it’s a safety issue,” says Sinclair, who’s 31. “I had three friends killed this year, several friends injured, one friend shot in the head who lived. At some point you have to stop rolling the dice a little bit–I feel like I owe it to my family. I don’t want to stop rolling the dice. I just want to stop rolling them so often.”
Twenty-five of Sinclair’s photographs from Iraq’s front lines are featured in the Peace Museum exhibit “Occupation,” which opens tonight, Friday, October 22, and runs through the end of November. Whether focusing on the lives and deaths of civilians, militants, or soldiers, her work gives a view of the war not often seen in the American media. “I’m trying to show pictures of Iraqis so you can identify with their struggle,” she says.
Born and raised in Miami, Sinclair attended the University of Florida in Gainesville and interned at the Miami Herald, the Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press, and the St. Petersburg Times, postponing her graduation two years to gain more experience. She joined the Chicago Tribune as a staff photographer in 1998, working out of the McHenry and Du Page County bureaus for a couple of years before moving to the Tribune Tower. Sinclair covered the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and George W. Bush’s inauguration, and contributed to the investigative reports “The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois” and “Gateway to Gridlock,” the latter a series about flight delays at O’Hare that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. She was part of a team that arrived in New York a day after the terrorist attacks and stayed there two weeks. After that, “it was clear that international coverage was going to be much more a part of our lives,” she says. Although her editors wouldn’t let her go to Afghanistan in the following months–“I was a newbie who’d never done conflict,” she says–she “kept biting at their heels” until they sent her to Iraq.
Sinclair got to Baghdad in the fall of 2002, and over the next several months focused on capturing everyday life as weapons inspectors scoured the country and the Bush administration made its case for ousting Saddam Hussein. “I grew to really care about some of the people there who became my friends,” she says. “I was stunned at how resilient they were. Some of them were still very kind–they weren’t corrupted. They had gone through 35 years of this fearful environment, and now they were going to have to endure war.”
Sinclair was based in Kuwait with reporter Laurie Goering when coalition forces invaded in March 2003. The Tribune asked if they wanted to be embedded with troops, but they both declined. “I had been photographing Iraqis,” Sinclair explains. “I didn’t want to turn around and change the type of story I was doing. I had grown interested in people caught in the middle. Iraqi people didn’t ask for this–we need to be responsible for what we’re putting them through. I wanted to keep doing a story I really cared about.”
While no fan of President Bush, Sinclair says she “wasn’t necessarily against the war–I was against the way it happened,” without United Nations involvement. She wanted Iraqis, whom she likens to “abused dogs” under Saddam, to be free, to “have a different option.”
Days later, without the permission or protection of the U.S. military, Sinclair and Goering drove across the border into southern Iraq, steering clear of checkpoints and Iraqi combatants and eventually making it to Baghdad. Aiming to put a human face on collateral damage, Sinclair turned her camera on stories that Pentagon-spun reporters largely bypassed: civilian deaths and injuries, street chaos, devastated families, and, amid it all, men, women, and children–especially children–trying to lead normal lives in a war zone.
Several weeks after the fall of Baghdad last April, Sinclair returned to Chicago, quit the Trib, packed up her Ravenswood apartment, and joined the Seattle-based international photo agency Corbis, some of whose photographers she’d gotten to know in Iraq. “When you’re risking that much,” she explains, “it’s very difficult to rely on what one outlet runs. You’re putting your life on the line, so you want to make sure that everyone who can possibly see [a picture] sees it.”
Sinclair was back in Baghdad in late June, finding a much different place with stepped-up attacks on foreigners, civilians, and troops. “What was supposed to be ‘normal’ had really changed,” she says. “So much went wrong so fast.” Time became her main client, but her photographs have also run in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Fortune, People, Marie Claire, and many other publications, including European magazines. A shot of a soldier stepping through a bombed building made Time’s “The Year in Pictures” in 2003. “None of us are getting rich doing this job,” says Sinclair, who also runs an online magazine focusing on the work of women photographers, www.photobetty.com. “We’re just trying to make enough to keep doing it.”
After a two-month break in the U.S., Sinclair was in Baghdad again in late January. She heard gunfire within her first 15 minutes back, explosions the next day. Traffic was and is terrible, electricity sporadic, but as she wrote on her weblog at www.stephaniesinclair.com, “I am actually quite happy to be back. It’s strangely the closest thing to home for me at this point.” She tells of her translator’s family fitting her into a dishdasha, which “looks like a dark-colored velour nightgown,” and of grocery store shelves filling up with American products.
Then, in mid-February, Sinclair covered two suicide car bombings on successive days, one outside a police station in Iskandariyah, the other outside an army recruiting center in Baghdad. The combined death toll was over 100. “It was hard-core, pieces of bodies,” she says. She went into a funk for days, fed up with the mayhem and questioning the point of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “But,” she wrote on her blog, “as soon as I start to feel sorry for myself, I meet someone who has had it so much worse than me, and yet is still kind.”
Sinclair has attended many grieving ceremonies and funerals in Iraq, and won’t photograph if the families ask her not to. “I’m pretty careful not to cause any more pain,” she says. “I can’t really do a good job unless I feel like they want me there or the family invited me.” She’s spent time with Iraqis who were tortured by Saddam, with war orphans housed in prisons, with Afghani women in a burn ward recovering from self-immolation. She says that being a woman has worked to her advantage: “Generally, people are more disarmed. Men don’t know what to do with me so they let me go anywhere.”
But Iraq became a much more dangerous place to live and work starting this April, with the first siege of Fallujah and with the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib. Sinclair was among a group of reporters allowed inside the prison weeks later. In the rebel Sunni city of Fallujah she followed the plight of fleeing women and children caught in the cross fire between marines and insurgents, a civilian tragedy that like many others has, perhaps predictably, received far wider coverage from news outlets such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya than from the U.S. media.
In the States, “there really seems to be an appetite for what the American soldier is going through and less of an appetite for understanding what our decisions were–how our decisions affect thousands, millions of lives,” Sinclair says. “It’s natural for us to relate more to these guys than the Iraqis. We’ve lost just over 1,000 troops. But there’s been 10,000 to 15,000 [civilian] casualties. September 11 killed 3,000.”
Sinclair’s not down on U.S. troops. Most soldiers are “nice, helpful,” she says, and she can sympathize with how they get burned-out with overextended tours and lurking threats. “But I don’t think they really understand what’s going on,” she says. “They’ll constantly ask you, ‘Why do they hate us so much?’ They really think they’re trying to help, but they’ve completely lost the trust of the Iraqi people.”
She goes on, “You relate to both sides–that’s really the biggest thing I’ve had to deal with. I understand where people on the ground are coming from. I understand the nationalist resistance, though I don’t understand the people who are doing the beheadings and the car bombings–completely unacceptable. I understand parts of it on both sides, and I don’t understand parts of it on both sides.”
Unlike Sinclair’s earlier Iraq work, the photographs on view at the Peace Museum mostly focus on the conflict. “There’s not a lot of daily-life stuff,” she says. “That’s because there’s not a lot of daily life, not a lot of normal things. It’s not a very normal place right now. Everyone’s staying home. Everyone’s scared. Going to work is dangerous.”
Sinclair says she wants her pictures to “contribute a witness to what I see. . . . People assume pictures are objective, which they’re not. Sometimes there’s a spin and you’re just promoting the spin. It’s not really what you see. Sometimes one side is just flat-out wrong. I may get in trouble for saying this, but it’s true.”
Occupation: Photographs by Stephanie Sinclair
When: Through 11/30
Where: Peace Museum, 100 N. Central Park
Price: Donations requested
Info: www.peacemuseum.org or 773-638-6450
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephanie Sinclair–Corbis, Jim Newberry.