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Shooting backwards: Jake Warga on taking portraits in Iraq

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January 11, 2012

Jake Warga was embedded as an independent reporter with the 3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army in Northern Iraq in December 2009 and January 2010. During his time with the division, he learned everything he could about the war and the professional soldiers who lived and fought there. He told us about his experiences, and the origins of his unusual, back-to-front soldier portraits.

JAKE WARGA:
“I was embedded to do independent reporting for Public Radio.

War, it should be noted, is actually a boring thing for the most part and there was plenty of down time to take portraits of soldiers while I traveled around to different bases.

The idea of photographing the backs of soldiers came to me on the field when I noticed name tags on the back of their hats (which I really appreciated because in uniform it’s hard to tell soldiers apart). So I snapped a few for the sake of novelty. The U.S. had already started to withdraw and I was covering some of the logistics involved in that. I started to ask each soldier as I was taking their portrait to about-face so I could take one of their back after doing a standard frontal. Thought it could be symbolic of our withdrawal — leaving the country, the last view the Iraqis might have of us.

They thought it was rather strange but no one objected, the novelty of having a reporter around seemed like a nice distraction for them. Plus I hoped I had already gained their trust by spending time interviewing them, offering cigarettes I kept in my camera bag, and sometimes having gone on missions together outside the wire. Nothing more bonding than being cramped in the back of an MRAP for hours.”

See more of Jake’s portraits and about-face portraits of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

See an interactive “leaving” flip-book created from Jake’s front- and back-facing portraits.

Jake’s insights into the soldiers’ world went beyond photography. Find out what the soldiers had on their mp3 players during that time, and their Christmas wishes for 2009.


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