Fear This: a nation at war

Anthony Suau
6 October 2004

When American troops invaded Baghdad in April 2003, experienced war photographer Anthony Suau surprised his colleagues by going to the United States instead of Iraq. He decided it would be more powerful to photograph his own country at a point when it was divided and subjected to the spin, anxiety, and even lies of an omnipresent media.

Fear this: A nation at war is published by Aperture, a non-profit institution for the arts. You can buy the book here.

Many of Suau’s photos were initially published by Time magazine, but the whole series now appears in a book called Fear This: A nation at war. The photos chronicle the momentous days leading up to war and the first days of the invasion.

openDemocracy’s Solana Larsen spoke to Anthony Suau about his experiences in America over the phone from his studio in Paris.

openDemocracy: As a photographer you’ve covered so many wars for the news media. What made you want to photograph the home front this time?

Anthony Suau: It was something I decided early on. From the beginning, the circumstances under which the United States wanted to go to war in Iraq were questionable. Particularly when you saw it from outside America as I did, it didn’t make a lot of sense. There was this urgency on the part of the American government and the American media to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein, and they were using the idea of weapons of mass destruction to sell it - but it wasn’t really clear whether that was the real issue. That really caught my interest: looking at how they were selling the war to the American people.

I proposed the story to Time magazine, because there were so many things going on in America at the time. Hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating. The media wasn’t covering it much; but it was still going on, and I wanted to look at that. Going to America seemed equally if not more important than going to Iraq.

Anti-war demonstration, Chicago, Illinois, April 4, 2003

openDemocracy: You travelled across America. What was your journey like?

Anthony Suau: The journey itself was pretty eclectic. I went with the flow of events to a certain degree. Many places became obvious for me to visit as I got into the project.

When I visited San Francisco, I realised how adamant the city was against the war and the Bush administration. I decided the day the war began, I would have to be there. I had a debate with Time magazine about it. They felt it was too obvious a choice. But to be quite honest, I think it would have been a huge mistake not to be there. There was an enormous outflow of emotion and people; they shut down the city.

Anti-war demonstration, San Francisco, California, March 15, 2003

As soon as I finished in San Francisco, I took a red-eye flight back to New York and went right to Times Square and started photographing.

One of the most amazing experiences - which I didn’t photograph because I was so exhausted - was during that flight to New York the night after the war began. I woke up somewhere close to New York, and the little screen on the back of the seat in front of me was showing live pictures of the invasion of Baghdad. Every TV, on every seatback of this airplane, was showing this news reporter standing on top of a tank as it rolled across the desert live in Baghdad. The phenomenon of that technology, the way it brought the war into America - that was really something new.


The bombing of Baghdad, New York, March 21, 2003

The war was being broadcast everywhere. You’d walk into a Wal-Mart store in North Carolina, and all the televisions mounted on the walls would be showing the bombing of Baghdad. It was there. It was so present.

Charlotte, North Carolina, March 27, 2003

There was another demonstration that weekend in New York, and I stayed for that, and then immediately after I went to very big pro-war demonstration in Richmond, Virginia. It was very big. I think 20,000 people showed up for what they called a “support the troops rally”.

openDemocracy: What’s the atmosphere like at a “pro-war demonstration”?

Anthony Suau: It’s a bit scary to be quite honest. I mean I was adamantly against going to war the way we did, so for me to be in that environment it was very important not to express my opinion. Otherwise I felt I might have been attacked. Most of the people were very friendly and kind about letting me photograph them. And it was a very peaceful rally. But the contents of that rally, and others of this nature, were very militaristic.

Pro-war demonstration. Washington D.C., April 12, 2003

I also visited a big marine base in North Carolina and went to a church revival meeting for the families of soldiers who were stationed in Iraq. It was very emotional and very powerful. The preacher said that George W Bush was getting his instructions directly from the right hand of God.

Support the troops rally, Richmond, Virginia, March 23, 2003

openDemocracy: You photographed both pro-war and anti-war gatherings. Was that an attempt to be ‘fair and balanced’?

Anthony Suau: I think it’s important to look at both sides before forming an opinion. If I was really going to make a portrayal of America at war, it was imperative for me to look at things that I did not agree with.

During the assignment I had to keep my mouth shut and listen. I hoped my own perspectives would come out later in something like this book, and I have to thank Aperture for actually bringing it to life.

A pro-war demonstrator shouts at anti-war demonstrators. San Francisco, California, March 15, 2003

openDemocracy: You show a polarised America. Do you think the news media in general have represented that polarisation?

Anthony Suau: No, not at all. What was most frightening to me was the media’s one-sidedness.

Fox News had by far the largest audience during the initiation of the war and was presenting the government’s perspective to a point where it reached war propaganda. Through their popularity they forced other 24-hour news programmes like CNN and NBC far to the right - and a lot of the national press followed.

After Richmond, I drove to North and South Carolina. I decided to visit CNN in Atlanta. The anchorman Aaron Brown was in a foul mood that day. When I took his photo [below] I think he was gesturing to his assistant. I don’t think it’s anything to do with his perceptions of the war or anything, but it makes a point that there is something rather grotesque about all this.

CNN anchorman Aaron Brown moments before his broadcast. Atlanta, Georgia, March 29, 2003

openDemocracy: What kind of traps do you think journalists fell into covering this war?

Anthony Suau: There was a filter between the American population and the advance on the ground in Iraq, and it was coming from within the publications, from the editors. They were editing it so not to offend Americans, to make sure that they would produce something buyable.

We know now, more than a year after the invasion that many of the reports were false - including the toppling of the Saddam-statue. It was portrayed in the American media as the event that brought the Iraqis out to celebrate the fall of Saddam. It wasn’t.

The 101st Division boards a plane for Kuwait. Fort Campbell, Kentucky, March 9, 2003

From what my friends in the business tell me, there were troops who were very disciplined and very professional, and then there were troops and commanders who were far out of line, and were shooting civilians and committing human rights violations. I have many friends who witnessed this and photographed it. But there were very few reports about it in the US media.

Madison, Wisconsin, April 5, 2003

Canton, Illinois, April 9, 2003

All images © Anthony Suau and Aperture Foundation

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