During the Persian Gulf War, 1991, the pool system created by the military was
meant to be, and was, a major impediment for photojournalists in their
quest to communicate the realities of war. This fact does not diminish
the great efforts, courage, and many important images created by those
among my colleagues who participated in these pools. While you would
have a very difficult time, now, finding an editor of an American
publication who wouldn’t condemn that pool system and its restrictions,
most publications and television entities at the time more or less
bought the program before the war began. This reality has been far less
discussed than the critiques of the pools themselves.
I refused to participate in the pool system. I was in the Gulf for
many weeks as the build-up of troops took place, then sat out the air
war, and flew from Paris to Riyadh as soon as the ground war began. I
arrived at the “mile of death” the morning of the day the war stopped.
It was very early and few other journalists were present. It was a scene
of incredible carnage. Strewn over this one-mile stretch of highway were
cars and trucks with wheels still turning, radios still playing, and
there were bodies scattered along the road. Many people have asked, “How
many people died during the war with Iraq?” The question has never been
well answered. That first morning, I saw and photographed a U.S.
Military Graves Detail bury in large graves many bodies.
I don’t recall seeing many television images of the human
consequences of this event, or, for that matter, many photographs
published. A day later, I came across another scene on an obscure road
further north and to the east, where, in the middle of the desert, I
found a convoy of lorries transporting Iraqi soldiers back to Baghdad.
Clearly, massive firepower had been dropped, and everyone in sight had
been carbonized. Most of the photographs I made there have never been
published anywhere, and this has always troubled me.
The photographs that I made do not, in themselves, represent any
personal political judgment or point of view about the politics or the
right or wrong of the first Gulf War. What they do represent is one part
of a more accurate picture of what really does happen in war. I feel it
is important that citizens see, and that they have the right to see,
these images. This is not to communicate my point of view, but to say
that viewers as citizens can be given a better chance to consider the
whole picture and consequences of that war, and any war. I feel that it
is part of my role as a photojournalist to offer them a way to draw from
as much information as possible, and develop their own judgments.
That war and the one looming have often been treated as something
akin to a Nintendo game. Such treatment conveniently obscures the vivid
and often grotesque realities apparent to those directly involved. I was
a witness to the results of the Gulf War. The televised, aerial,
technological version of the conflict was not what I saw, and I’d like
to present some images I made that represent a more complete picture of
what the conflict looked like.
War is at best a necessary evil, and I am certain that anyone who
feels differently has never experienced or been in it. I have always
hoped that true images of conflict give one the opportunity to witness
and reflect more fully on the full realities of war. After covering many
conflicts around the world during the past twenty years, and having
witnessed much human suffering, I feel a responsibility to try to
contribute with my images to making sure that no one who sees the brutal
realities of conflict ever feels that war is comfortable or convenient.
The Unseen Gulf War (1991) Photographs and Text
© Text and photographs Peter Turnley
These photos are part of a larger
collection of Peter Turnley’s work in the Gulf shown on
and published here with kind
See also: Peter Turnley - Seeing
Another War in Iraq 2003