The Second Battle of Fallujah started on November 7, 2004, and lasted one and a half months – ending just before Christmas Eve. The US-led effort against insurgents in the city was code-named Operation Phantom Fury, and marked the first instance of Coalition military action against a purely insurgent force, since the toppling of the Ba-athist government in 2003.
The fighting in the city has since been recognized by many as the most intense urban warfare since the battle of Huế city during the Vietnam War. Jérôme Sessini was in Fallujah embedded with US Marines of Charlie Company, at work in the north eastern sector of the city for one week.
Here, on the 15th anniversary of the battle’s start, the photographer discusses the work he made over that week, his changing feelings about the men he was photographing, and one particular image which represents “the culmination of contempt and dehumanization” that grows in those at war.
Warning: The following article contains graphic images which some readers may find upsetting.
"Despite unlimited technical means, once on the ground, in the middle of a hostile city, fear is the same for all men"
- Jérôme Sessini
You have said previously that you don’t consider yourself a ‘war photographer’, that you don’t spend enough time in conflict zones to really experience war in the way some do… This time in Fallujah must have been very intense – how does it fit into or reflect that view?
Even though I have been in dozens of conflict areas in the past 15 years, I do not consider myself a “war photographer”. I find this term too reductive. I was comparing my experience of conflicts with photographers who were embedded for months on the front line during World War II, for example.
I am more interested in the understanding of history and by the gap between events and the way they are depicted in the media, that storytelling. Being present for major events, I can witness at the same time “le champs et le contre champ” of ongoing history. To put it more simply, I am fascinated by propaganda, and wars are moments in history when propaganda is at its strongest and most obvious. I also chose war for comfort and ease.
Specifically, talking about Fallujah, Operation Phantom Fury was the first major military offensive I had witnessed that closely. I have been working in Iraq since 2003, but it was the first time I had the opportunity to be embedded with US forces. Such a display of force is very impressive, the dull roll of artillery, then the silence, the shots in the night, soldiers waking up screaming, thinking themselves under attack. Despite unlimited technical means, once on the ground, in the middle of a hostile city, fear is the same for all men.
"At that moment I hated these soldiers, whereas the day before, I had empathy for them, for these young people lost in a hostile country..."
- Jérôme Sessini
One image that became very widely known from the series is that of bodies being thrown from a rooftop by Marines. How important is that one image within the series you made in the battle? You said to me once that you are never neutral, and you don’t believe those who claim to be… What did you want this image to say about the battle, or indeed the wider war?
No newspaper wanted to publish this image. Except when, months later, the great Mexican newspaper Reforma did. But by then it was already long time after the battle, so the image’s impact was lessened.
I can still hear the sound of bodies crashing to the ground. All the dead were foreign fighters, Yemenis, Syrians and Sudanese. This gesture, throwing the bodies of one’s enemies like garbage, represents the culmination of contempt and dehumanization. At that moment I hated these soldiers, whereas the day before I had empathy for them, for these young people lost in a hostile country. They were just normal, working or middle class men from normal places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, or Mexicans who had come to this hell in exchange for papers, and who already forgotten why they were in Iraq.
I always try to avoid making judgements a priori, but that day I saw and photographed the brutality of the war face-on. I saw the unbearable arrogance of the victor over the defeated. I also realised that anyone could be nice on a Monday and become one of the worst assholes on a Tuesday. It’s all a question of context. I then imagined myself in the place of an Iraqi, seeing these soldiers of a country as powerful as it is culturally distant, coming to impose democracy upon me.
It was a concentration of absurdity and injustice. But the worst moment came when a soldier asked me to give him a picture to send to his fiancée in the United States.
"No one is insensitive to this gesture: stacking bodies by throwing them from a rooftop. Most do not see fighters, nor war in this photograph, it goes well beyond that"
- Jérôme Sessini
This image definitely still disturbs people. I posted it recently on Instagram and of all those I have posted, it is the image that had the most comments. Some people seem upon seeing it to have discovered suddenly – after 15 years – that the war in Iraq was an imposture, triggered by a lie – weapons of mass destruction, Collin Powell, and so on. Too late.
Many of these people are the same one who supported the intervention in Iraq in the name of freedom and democracy. Others accuse me of being in the service of the US Marines, but no one is insensitive to this gesture: stacking bodies by throwing them from a rooftop. Most do not see fighters, nor war in this photograph; it goes well beyond that. I believe it’s a highly indecent scene.
I later learned from the mother of one of the soldiers – who had found my name via my my photos of Charlie Company and contacted me – that a number of the men I had been with in Fallujah were subsequently killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq.
You also, previously, made a distinction between documenting events and having a sense of authorship over the images you make. In the work from Fallujah – the images document the fighting, but they aren’t literal, there’s a sense of your feeling – especially perhaps in the portraits.
There is not really any thought when I’m making the pictures. I’m here with my camera and my ideas. The word ‘author’ here may seem pompous; by it I mean that I do not want to repress my emotions and my intimate relationship to the situations I photograph. The images are only the result of this confrontation between my intimate “I” and the reality before me. Maybe when making these images I was more naive, so they are more sincere…
Looking back on these images now, how did the work you made during the war in Iraq – spanning a number of years – shape your views on the role of photography in such situations?
I think it’s still too early to say if this work makes sense in the long run. I do not take pictures today for the next day. In Iraq, I thought that you had to photograph a lot of situations to faithfully transcribe reality, today I tend to reduce my field of action, I think we can say a lot with little, it’s the opposite approach. I think my place is no longer at the heart of the action.