'WP' Photo Series Captures Troops' Everyday Life in Iraq

By: Brian Orloff Readers are accustomed to the flood of violent images that come with covering a war, but The Washington Post's readers got a different perspective from "Duty in Iraq," a collection of photos contributed by U.S. servicemen, which ran in Sunday's newspaper and remains posted, in an expanded form, on the paper's Web site.

The Post thought its readers would enjoy an immediate view of servicemen and women's lives, so it solicited digital photos they took while stationed overseas. Reader response has been mixed, with some accusing the paper of "whitewashing" the war while others saying the images show everyday realities.

"The idea actually originated with executive editor Leonard Downie Jr," Robert McCartney, the Post's assistant managing editor for continuous news, told E&P. "In looking at the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, he was struck by how many people were carrying digital cameras around and how many digital photos were produced. He said, 'Let's take advantage of the Internet and see if we can get photographs of average soldiers and see what their lives are like.'"

The newspaper solicited photography from soldiers through the end of last year and received "several hundred" submissions, according to McCartney. Photos were selected for publication based on "variety, news value, and photographic value," he said. Many more photos are displayed online.

Pictures range from landscapes -- including a photo at sunset showing the contrast between ancient ruins adjacent to modern palace walls built by Saddam Hussein -- to everyday moments, including one photograph of a soldier hunched over, shaving and staring at his reflection in the mirror of a vehicle. That image's extended caption offers more insight: "Cpl. Vernon O'Donnel takes a moment to tend to some personal grooming in Taji, Iraq. He uses the mirror of his humvee, a canteen cup of cold water and an old razor to shave his desert stubble," it reads. Another striking photo shows a candlelit, Christmas Eve benediction.

Not everyone appreciated these affirming portraits of military life.

"We've heard from both military and civilians," McCartney said. "Some people have said that we were whitewashing the war basically. Other people have said, 'No, this is another side of the war that doesn't get seen very often, so it's good to give play to it.'"

To encourage debate, readers can visit the Post's Web site and post their thoughts on a message board. So far, more than a hundred comments have been posted, with sentiments ranging from supportive to critical. One post simply states: "This is the 'Washington Post feel-good-about-war' photo show." Others call it "pap" and argue that project dilutes the severity of the war. Some suspect an agenda in photo selection.

But other readers disagree. One post reads, "They do not detract from the war. They provide a more honest balance of the situation. They are adding to the unseen truth of Iraq."

Still, the Post is encouraging troops to send more photos, and editors hope, depending on the number and quality of submissions, to post more on the Web site in the future. McCartney also said that another photo spread in the paper is possible in a few month, even despite the criticism.

"This is what the troops chose to send us, so we're showing what the American service people in Iraq wanted to portray about themselves and about their life," he said. "We run many pictures in the newspaper, and on the Web site, of the violence, the unpleasant, horrible aspects of the war, and this was in part an effort to show another side of it which is also real."


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