Molly Bingham discusses her photo exhibit of Iraq War, gaining access with insurgents and Americans reactions to her work

Print The complexities of the Iraq War on a person level are on display in "IRAQ: remains," Louisville native Molly Bingham's photographic documentary at the Kaviar Gallery (Louisville.com previewed the exhibit's opening reception on Friday.) Along with Bingham's photos, Kaviar Gallery also is showing "Meeting Resistance," a documentary directed by Bingham and Steve Connors that "raises the veil of anonymity surrounding the Iraqi insurgency by meeting face to face with individuals who are passionately engaged in the struggle." (Wild and Woolly Video stocks the movie, and it's also available for download from the iTunes Store.) Last week I spoke with Bingham about reactions to her film, how she gained access to insurgents and the details behind some of the photographs on display. Interviewing insurgents Bingham attributes their extraordinary access to insurgents to "equal parts persistence, bullheadedness, patience and then a little bit of luck." "We didn't really find them, per se, as much as they found us," she said. "We went almost every day to the same neighborhood. We sat in coffee shops and listened a lot, to a lot of people and drank a lot of tea." "At the end of an afternoon of sitting around and just listening and chewing the fat and talking the politics with the people there, as Steve and I would leave, someone would approach our translator and say, 'So who are these foreigners? I see them here a lot. What are they doing?'" "And at that point she would often try to understand whether that person was involved in the resistance or not. And she would explain the project and explain that we were interested in hearing about what their experience was like and why they were doing what they were doing and how they were doing it. A lot of people at that point just walk away and say 'I'm not involved' or 'There's no way I'm doing that,'" Bingham said. "But there were a handful of people that agreed to talk to us on camera. And that was how we got those interviews. So it really was 10 months of very persistent, very patiently waiting for people to appear to us, present themselves to us and be willing to talk at length. As often as we could, we did repeated interviews with people so that we could get a sense of who they were and how things were changing, both in the movement and in their perception of the world around them and what was happening." But this intimate contact with the insurgents came with a trade- off--less access to American soldiers. "From the point that Steve and I started working on the reporting for 'Meeting Resistance,' it was made pretty clear to us from the Iraqis we were interviewing, who were actively involved in the resistance, that if they believed us to be spies, they would kill us," Bingham said. (In 2003, just before the United States invasion, Iraqi security forces had detained Bingham for eight days, holding her in the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison.) "If they had seen us coming and going from one of the bases, for example, or if we'd been on an embed and gotten out of the car and had been seen by somebody who knew us, there'd be no explaining that. They wouldn't understand, 'Well, we're journalists and we were working on this.' We wouldn't have an opportunity to explain that and even if we did they probably wouldn't believe us." "So we basically stopped doing anything that involved the U.S. military at that point because it just seemed kind of suicidal. So I didn't interact as much with the U.S. military as I would have liked to at that point." Evolution of the public's response to her work Much as public opinion of the Iraq War shifted since it began in 2003, so to have reactions to the film. (Bingham's photos were not shown until 2007, by which time Americans viewed the war more negatively than at any time since the invasion began.) "The tone of what we're trying to accomplish there and whether it's viable is something that people are considering and thinking about in a way they weren't in 2003," Bingham said. "When we first got back from Iraq in 2004, if you can think back that far, Americans as a whole were not challenging the premise of the war, they were not asking for a clarification of our objectives there yet." "In 2004 certainly the film and the fact that we were interviewing active members of the resistance to occupation was a pretty novel concept and we got a wide range of responses." "Now I think there's been a pretty dramatic sea change in the American public's understanding of the conflict and their perception of the war. I just think they're asking more questions now then they were then. And I think that's a good thing," she said. That shift in people's reaction's isn't exclusive to civilians either though. "We've shown the film to more than a handful of military audience," Bingham said. "On all levels of the military structure people are thinking about Iraq and thinking about that conflict in a way that they weren't certainly in the summer of 2003," Bingham said. Victim of a Stray Bullet, Nassariya In perhaps the most moving photo in the exhibit, a young girl lies in a hospital bed as doctors examine an X-ray of her showing a bullet lodged near her spine. While part of the photo's power lies in its ambiguity (Does she live? Does she die?), I opted to ask Bingham if she knew what happened to the girl. (I'm the same guy who one-third of the way into a novel will skip to the end and read the last three pages.) "I wish I knew more about what had happened to some of the people in the photographs, but that girl in particular I don't know." "I was there doing a story actually for "People" magazine," Bingham said. "I'd been sent down to Nassariya to do a story on Jessica Lynch [the U.S. soldier captured by Iraqis, but later recovered and the subject of much media attention] and the bed she was in. But I was walking around the hospital and I saw that and asked if I could take a picture." "The assignments I was getting to do on a daily basis weren't necessarily threading together to make a full topic, a full story, or the story I thought was important. So I was often off on assignment and then looking for other things that I thought were important about what was happening in Iraq and then trying to thread those together as a parallel personal project." Delivering School Supplies U.S. Army Capt. Paul Gonzalez delivers supplies to a classroom: some schoolgirls are apprehensive about this armed man; others react as if he's as commonplace as their teacher in this photo. "At that point in Iraq people were used to seeing American troops around, they were used to seeing soldiers with weapons in any kind of normal civil place like a school or a hospital," Bingham said. "In my reading of that space there was this tension. Some of the girls were sort of interested, but at the same time a little intimidated by it." "That picture speaks to me about the contradiction between what I think a huge number of American soldiers intend, or are trying to do, as in deliver school supplies, be friendly, help improve the society that the Iraqis are living in." "They're aspiring to things we all think of as good, and yet sometimes or often in the delivery of that intent things don't get received in the way they're meant. For example, in that particular school, the teachers were really uncomfortable," she said. "A lot of American soldiers had an intent of doing something good. And sometimes that got across. And sometimes that got missed in the way they had to deliver the intent," Bingham said." "Those kids could just go home and say, 'Mummy, daddy, there were soldiers in our school today.' Parents don't like that. Parents don't like to have weapons in schools. It has a profound impact which is sometimes not considered enough and not fully understood by Americans." Night-time Raid, Falluja Framed by two U.S. soldiers and laundry hanging from a clothes line, an Iraqi man glares straight ahead with his arms crossed after the military has woken up his family to search their house in the middle of the night in this photo taken with a night-vision lens. "That image I like particularly, the way the Iraqi man is standing there, maintaining his dignity, maintaining his sense of presence. 'This is my house. You're here. You've come invasively and disturbed my family, disturbed my community," Bingham said. "He was very proud." "I have another photograph [of this man] that's not in the show. He had two Kalashnikovs and some bullets. At that time, he was within the allowance, there was no problem with what he had in the house and the American soldiers had taken them and were giving them back to him. Instead of putting the bullets in his hand or something, the soldier dropped them on the floor. The Iraqi guy said, 'Pick these up. Give them to me properly.' And the soldier did. I have this picture of him picking the bullets up." "You're invading somebody's space in the middle of the night and scaring their children. As much as you may try to behave like a decent human being in that context, it's hard to not offend somebody." "IRAQ: remains" runs until Aug. 1 at the Kaviar Gallery (1718 Frankfort Ave.). The first rotation, "Early Days," will show through June 27, with "Reaping" beginning June 30.
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