Dutch photojournalist Geert van Kesteren’s Baghdad Calling is unique in photojournalism first for its innovative use of the book medium, a compendium of newsprint interspersed with smaller, glossy pages with text and photos. But the content of the book is just as surprising as the format it comes in. The dramatic book, outwardly reminiscent of a UN field manual, mingles van Kesteren’s professional shots of Iraqi families and daily life with his subjects’ own photos, snapshots of the country and their surroundings taken on cell phones and digital cameras.
What makes van Kesteren’s project so impressive is that he largely manages to avoid some of the most challenging aspects of photojournalism. How do you depict a foreign country truthfully, give that your perspective is that of an outsider? How can photojournalism allow for the agency of its subjects, and their inner lives and experiences? By collecting hundreds of snapshots from the daily life of Iraqis, whether they remain in the country or have escaped to Syria, Jordan or Turkey, van Kesteren creates a picture and a narrative that simply would not have been possible with a single camera and an individual person.
From the collections of photos emerge a people stuck between fighting their way through an ongoing conflict and moving past it. Informal pictures of families playing in public parks, a birthday party in an apartment, take their place right alongside intimate cell phone photos of the immediate aftermath of suicide bomber attacks. The non-professional photos aren’t exactly photojournalism, nor even citizen photojournalism, they are just records of life as it is lived, newsworthy or not. The varying quality of the photos lends poetry and urgency to the book. A particularly grainy photo might be a split second glimpse of an explosion’s impact or a screen capture from a video of a morgue, a clearer picture might present a posed family portrait.
Van Kesteren’s own photos are presented on smaller, glossier, non-newsprint pages throughout the larger collection. They are often presented following a personal narrative from Iraq’s recent history, written by an Iraqi pictured in one of van Kesteren’s photos. While van Kesteren’s photos are excellent in their own right, what really conveys the sense of confusion and loss present in the book are the personal stories, Iraqis kidnapped and held for ransom, relatives killed by American crossfire, smuggled illegal escapes to other countries. While Baghdad Calling doesn’t present a journalistic document of a day-to-day conflict, it represents all too well the chaos, desperation and hardship that have split the country for much of the past decade, as well as the fact that life still persists.