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May 01, 2007

The Death Of Suaada Saadoun

(click for larger size)

I found this a tragic, if fitting image to offer you today, the fourth anniversary of the pronounced end of major U.S. combat operations in Iraq,

One month ago, the NYT ran a story about the lead up to, and aftermath, of a sectarian killing in Baghdad.  The photographs were taken by Ashley Gilbertson, a freelance photojournalist who has been working on contract for the Times in Iraq since 2003.  The photo -- taken on his last trip over March and April --  appeared inside the print edition, but never made it into the on-line slide presentation.

Ashley has provided the image to BAGnewsNotes so it might be viewable on the web.  He supplied the following background about this symbol of still another Iraqi life lost:

Ed Wong and I had been out for a few days on an embed in Baghdad when we chanced upon two Shiite militia men attempting to evict a Sunni family -- Suaada Saadoun and her family of seven -- from their home in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood.  American and Kurdish soldiers intervened and arrested the two men, then returned to base. The next morning we found out that Suaada had been assassinated on her way home from the market. I accompanied the Americans to the house and the crime scene. I saw her family grieving, the bullet that killed her, and the upper plate of her dentures that had fallen out when she was killed.

That night, I edited my pictures and began filing them to New York. I usually transmit very few images: my computer screen draws sniper fire even while on base, and my satellite phone's bandwidth is minimal if the signal isn't inadvertently jammed by the military. I didn't include the dentures photo in my first edit. I second guessed my editors, thinking it was too grotesque an image. When the fourteen pictures I initially chose went through almost immediately, however, I decided to send it.  To the papers credit, the story appeared on the front page with the photo of Suaada's dentures.

I've received a lot of messages about Suaada's teeth. People seem to respond to the image because dentures are something with which they are familiar; they could relate to Suaada regardless of how different their lives are from hers. I still find the scene troubling -- when I was photographing them on the ground, I found them both difficult to confront and impossible to ignore. One woman's death, to me at least, became symbolic of the scores of people who die every day in Iraq. I only hope that people viewing my picture can feel it in the same way.

If you have questions or comments for Ashley, he has agreed to participate in the discussion thread.

Ashley Gilbertson is author of the forthcoming book "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War".  Image © Ashley Gilbertson.  Baghdad. March 28, 2007. Used by permission.


Simply brilliant. Powerful, unusual, poignant.

Not much else to say.

This is somewhat like a phenomenon I call "frame 37". Back in the days of film, long rolls came with 36 frames. Depending on how you load, you might get one extra.

So I'm shooting stuff for a brochure. I finishing offer what will be my last roll and quite literally, I've packed my gear and turned my back on the subject and am walking back to the car. For no readily discernable reason I turn around and shoot one last frame of the subject and then continue back.

Once I'm done processing and proofing it's clear that the one perfect frame I shot during the entire two days of shooting was that last shot. Everything in it was perfect. And bear in mind, this image was a wide shot, taking in hindreds of random elements. And yet, somehow, everything was better than I could have possibly choreographed. And it was frame 37.

Which isn't really related to the issue at hand other than to say sometimes those last little flashes of intuition or those second guesses do yield amazing results.

Once again, great shot of a horrifying subject.

Thanks for coming in to chat.

ashley, I was struck by this story when it was first published, and I'm glad that Michael was as well. Many thanks for giving us additional details. Please say hi to Ed. cheers, Alan

...I can't find the picture but it's from 2003 (probably). Very similar to this close-up photo of a simple prosthetic on the ground, but this photo was ...blood-spattered, black, heavy-framed glasses.

I wonder if it's from the same photography because the setup is so similar and familiar.

Ashley, Suaada would have lived if she had followed the separatist plan. 10's of thousands of Suaada's would be alive today. This was Nick Kristof's story, wasn't it? Was she heroic, or stupid. A martyr yes, ... like Joan of Arc. Thanks to you and your photos. You have made a huge contribution, but what happens now.

Do you think that the final strategy has to be a division of the country, of property and resources,... Shiite, Sunni and Kurds. Three areas. ... Federalism.

It is only through images like this that we are truly able to see the heart-rending enormity of the tragedy brought about by this ill-conceived war. The familiarity and banality of the dentures, thrown into such a horrifying context, make it difficult (if not impossible) to ignore the human cost. It is a brave photograph, no more grotesque than the war itself.

of course it's powerful, but the image a cappella is entirely impotent, approaching an abstraction ~ without its text context: "this image is _____, an artifact of _____."

otoh, just a cursory scan of Mr. Gilbertson's works reveals to us not only the extraordinary eye of this photographer, but also that uncanny conveyance of intimacy, to which so many image-makers aspire, but so few actually achieve.

Unlike, say ~ Chin, Gilbertson's works clearly illustrate his facile mastery of all those essential pgotographic elements of seeing : light <=> shadow; wide-angle distortion <=> focal perspective; and the effects of movement (as in dust being kicked up during battle) by virtue of shutter-speed subtlety.

unfortunately, none of those skills are illustrated here, by this post, which is what ~ a static plane image without shadow of a dentrifice on a street.

perhaps, BAGman, you should have titled this May Day's post :

ceci n'est pas un dentier

mais oui, il est fini pas. a collage would have worked. splash some red blood on it (couleur pour la violence) and a scrap / fragment of something shattered or torn -- preferably with some shred of arabic script on this remnant. et voila! rien que plus doit être dit.

Gonzo, you are right except for the fact that you are wrong. Most of us in America have been reading the New York Times and this story of Suaada Saadoun is one of the biggest, most heart rending to come out of Iraq in four years. It has been out there and talked about for over a month now.

Do a little research, and keep your public air horn holstered until you are up to speed. (e.g. - air horn, an annoying noisemaking device that is sneaked into sports arena's by belligerent fans and unleashed to produce an ear shattering noise at the most inopportune moment. Designed to produce the maximum possible disruption and chaos in the shortest possible time).

you're welcome.

After hearing an advocate for a voluntary surcharge to Americans to help pay for the war, I could only cry out, "No! No more war." I did not want this war, and I do not want to pay for it. I don't mind paying something to help the soldiers who have been maimed, but I will not support the continuation of this war which is destryoing our country and the poor Iraqis who did nothing to deserve the destruction of their lives. Impeachment and the end to war is the only thing which would make me feel proud to be an American, once again.

I had read about this photo, but this is the first time I've seen it. I think it's very powerful... If I understand what you're saying, MonsieurGonzo, it's true that you need to know the story behind it, but given that, it's very moving - and without having to show any piece of flesh or even a drop of blood. And since it doesn't show anything graphic, I wonder how they justified not showing it online.

That is pretty disgusting I might say...

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your comments.

To Darryl Pearce, the image you're thinking of from 2003 isn't familiar to me, and I'm sad to say it's not mine. It sounds powerful.

MonsieurGonzo, you're entirely correct in your observation that the image requires a caption. I'm a news photographer, and captions in many cases are as important as the photographs to ensure they're kept in context.

Nocontest, I really don't know what to say about Iraq's future, I can just tell you what I see.

And, Ummabdulla, the website used the frame of the bullet because they preferred that picture. They have different editors than those at the paper and everyone has different tastes.

I haven't visited the BAG in a while, and when the dentures appeared, it made me start laughing, until I realized what it must mean. I had a very quick change of mood, indeed.

A very powerful photo of chaos.

I know this photograph very well and -- it is an honor to have Ashley Gilbertson on BagNews Notes.

All the world was shocked to see this image. It took my breath away and after I read Mr. Kristof's story I was in full blown tear mode. The NYTimes editors demonstrated rare genuis by featuring it.

With every Iraq tragedy, we hear of the scattered flesh and body parts, chilling, nightmarish, I have never seen anything like that in America, except maybe Signal 30 in high school Drivers Education class. So, this photograph captures exactly the same sense, in a moment, as all those other mutilations, while maintaining a professional respect and veil of human dignity.

My comment, Ms. Gilbertson, and I would like your reaction, -- is that I truly feel it was almost one of those "definitive" photographs of the entire war. The photo, in combination with the accompanying family heartbreak story incapsulate the whole 4 year tragedy.

I say, "could have been", because I wish, Ashley, that there was more visual context that makes it immediately recognizable as an Iraq death and destruction scene. And I'm not saying that out of a bloodlust, but maybe, if the body of the courageous and incredibly brave martyr Suaada Saadoun had been shown, maybe in out-of-focus background, that would have been the Pulitzer Iraq prototype, like the nude napalm victim running down the streets of Saigon or the lone standing structure in the middie of Hiroshima.

I wonder, does that photograph exist?

Great comment from "itwasntme" about this memorable photo:

*** This is a photo of chaos. ***

"Blake Incarnate" asks for the Iraq signature photo: I think that there was some discussion of this a few months ago, with regard to a particular photo. Perhaps BagMan could put up the most likely candidates and the readers could offer an opinion or a vote.

Regarding Gilbertson's book, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot": What does that stand for- maybe What the Fuck? Is that a description of this quicksand quagmire dance?

I usually agree with MonsieurGonzo, but this time I think he is too harsh. Et Madame, aussi, peut-être (sang, en effet!). As a stand-alone photo, one would take in the object (dentures), then the twigs and bits of leaf give the clues as to just where these dentures happen to be. The question is why? and how?

But as photojournalism, we know the story of Saadoun and what happened to her. In that context, these dentures are shocking and poignant. I remember the story from a few weeks ago but was unable to track down the photo on line; now I know why and I'm glad The Bag posted it for our comments.

I do agree with MonsieurGonzo that this photographer has an unusually artistic slant for a photojournalist. I especially liked the one of the soldier shadow on the wall. It makes me look forward to his book, which I may buy if I can find it way out west. And MadinVT, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is military for WTF, right? which means just what you think.

iceweasel, I liked your "frame 37" story. I'm sure we've all had those experiences, but now I know what to call them.

Did anyone notice that this actually a 'bridge' and not part of set of dentures, as in full upper or lower plates? The wires on the back sides hooked around the molars in the back of the mouth.

Yeah, Whiskey Foxtrot Tango - WTF is right.

Let me clarify something here because it's come up a couple of times already. This wasn't a story by Kristof, it was written by Edward Wong.

Blake Incarnate: the photograph that you would like to see doesn't exist. Suaada's body had been taken to the morque before I arrived on the scene.

Kitt: Sorry about the error. I thought they were dentures.

Actually, they are dentures, which are any artificial replacements of one or more teeth. Look it up or ask your dentist.
It's a small detail, but the level of factual accuracy has really been dropping off.


I wasn't trying to point out an error of any sort. I was talking about the play on words. They are dentures, specifically 'overdentures' or what's commonly called a 'bridge.' I showed BagNewsNotes to our family dentist today when I took my nephew for a check on his braces. His comment was about the condition of the dentures - just like you find here which may be why people ‘connect.’


I had a few questions. I understand the play on words, but I was wondering how you came up with the name for the book.

Also, I've been thinking about Gonzo's comment for a couple days now. I also believe the photo is one of the most powerful of the war. At the same time (and this is where I think Gonzo is coming from), it is not a picture that tells a story so much as one that illustrates one in the most poignant way. Accordingly, the feedback I got on this photo, prior to posting it, split along the same line as the comments. People familiar with the story were strongly moved, many having been compelled to search out the photo on-line once having seen it in print. Those not familiar with the story, however, "kind of got it" as soon as they knew it was Iraq-related, but were left with too much to infer.

I know you already spoke to that distinction above, and I don't think you should in any way have to defend it. I'm just wondering, however, how much working alongside a writer and/or working more on discrete, relatively quick-deadline (if, also, detail- and complexity-reducing) news stories leads to images that require either words, or a narrative string of other images, to give them sense, and how you feel about the trade-off. (To make the question more practical, for example, will this image appear in the book? And, if so, how much context will you provide?)

In the most recent issue of Digital Journalist, Dirck Halstead boldly and definitively predicts the end of the still image as a news element. (Here's the write-up.) He sees it being completely replaced by video. In this regard, is it possible my isolation of this single image represents a preview of Halstead's prediction, in which case, what you've effectively provided to The BAG is a screen shot from what is, in effect, more representative of the element of a movie? (This photo was, in fact, presented in a grouped sequence in the print edition, and would have -- if published on line -- likely been inserted in the NYT slide show in place of the shot of the bullet casing.)

And, last thing, do you think Halstead's prediction will come true, and what is your feeling about it?

I know I've put a lot on the table. Please take on any or all of the above as briefly or deeply as you care to.

First of all, thanks to you and your readers for the opportunity to post this story and be involved in the discussion on your site.

The title of my book came to be after I got back from Iraq in late 2004. Over the years, I'd heard American radios in humvees or on peoples backs blurting out the words, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?" and I'd never paid enough attention to ask what the hell they were talking about. After the Falluja offensive, I'd heard it so many times, that I needed to know what it meant and found out it was radio code for "What The Fuck?"

To me, that question encapsulated so many aspects of the American war effort, I decided it was an ideal title of my book. As you might imagine, much of what I witness and what I have to sometimes do is totally bizarre. For the specifics of that, well, mid-october is the release date.

On your question of text and photographs, I believe the Times is one of many outlets that do an exceptional job of marrying the two. I firmly believe it's important to give the images as much context as possible. I am not an artist, I am a photo journalist and my images require strong captions. They are designed to be informative, and if people occasionally like them, I guess it's because they enjoy my style in this arm of journalism.

I like to have my pictures presented as part of a sequence because it adds to the story which I shot, much like a photo-essay goes more in depth than a single.

Lastly, Halsteads theories on moving versus still imagery? All I can say is I won't be trading in my Leica's for a video camera.

I cant believe that the denture do having a cavities. thank you for the post.


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