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p h o t o j o u r n a l i s m

p e t e r  t u r n l e y

December 2002

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
The Digital Journalist,

and published here with kind permission.


See also: Peter Turnley - Seeing Another War in Iraq 2003




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