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Photographer Chris Hondros: How I captured Iraq

Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq this month, Chris Hondros, who has taken pictures throughout the conflict, offers a photographic essay on the changing story of a troubled land. He talks to Chris Green

New journalists have observed the Iraq war as intimately as Chris Hondros. A staff photographer with Getty Images, the 37-year-old first arrived in the country in March 2003, crossing the Kuwaiti border alongside invading forces. Over the last five years, he has returned to Iraq 11 times, photographing the conflict and witnessing the key developments first-hand, from the deposition of Saddam Hussein to last year's troop "surge".

When he arrived, Hondros knew very little about Iraq. "Like a lot of journalists, my feelings about the war have evolved," he says. "I had a reasonable amount of support for [invasion] at first, and thought Saddam Hussein was a dictator. But like so many, I've been dismayed and shocked by the level of violence there, and the intractability of the whole thing, and the complete ineptitude of the follow-up to the war itself."

In March 2003, as Hondros rode with the invading US army through southern Iraq, the country's descent into a bloody chaos of roadblocks and car bombs seemed an impossibility. He recalls photographing row after row of cheering people (1), and presuming that the whole country was united in welcoming the occupying forces.

"I didn't understand the Sunni-Shiite division in Iraq," he explains. "The whole US march into Baghdad from the Kuwait border through the south was through Shiite territory, and they were just happy to be rid of Saddam. At the time it was easy to oversimplify the elation that we saw there: we thought that these 'Iraqis' were celebrating the arrival of the Americans, when actually it was only the Shiites who were celebrating."

Hondros remained in Iraq throughout the spring, capturing images (2, 3) that appeared to symbolise a successful invasion and the end of Saddam Hussein's regime. "The standing government of the country was being deposed physically by the American military, and something else was going to rise in its place," he says. He was also keen to cover the less-reported aspects of the conflict, resulting in his picture of a woman belonging to the small Mandaean Sabian religious sect being baptised (4), taken less than a mile from Baghdad's Green Zone in 2004.

In the early part of 2005, Hondros spent most of his time in Sadr City, eastern Baghdad, taking pictures of the Shiite population exercising their right to vote (5). Hondros now sees Iraq's elections as another example of Western ignorance about the way Iraqi society functions.

"People voted almost entirely on ethnic lines: Shiites for Shiites and Sunnis for Sunnis," he says. "Our idea of democracy presumes that individuals are voting according to their individual desires. But in Iraq, people went to their mosques on the days leading up to the elections, and voted or didn't vote based on what their religious leaders told them to do. So the election process was fundamentally flawed."

One picture, for which he won the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal, was taken in the northern town of Tal Afar in 2005. An Iraqi girl is shown covered in blood, in the moments after nervous US soldiers shot and killed both of her parents after they had refused to stop their car (6). The couple's six children, who were sitting in the back seat, all survived. It was one of the first images of an accidental civilian killing to emerge, and Hondros regards the pictures as among his most important achievements.

"Thousands of Iraqis have been killed in these kinds of incidents: it's incredibly common. But although it happens every day, it's rarely photographed. It's only one aspect of the war, but in this case I hope my pictures helped people to understand how these things unfold."

In 2006, Hondros sensed a change in the way the occupying forces were perceived. Whereas many Iraqis had previously been "fairly tolerant" of the periodic disruptions caused by passing patrols, now even the most pro-American were growing tired of the repeated house-to-house searches carried out by US soldiers (7). With the war creating fewer headlines, Hondros set out to show the juxtaposition of the continuing conflict with the everyday lives of Iraqis (8).

"The critical thing at that time was trying to show the ongoing nature of the war, and how it was mixing up with the civilians," he says. "But I also knew that these things had to be incorporated into as few pictures as possible in order to get them published. So the more of those elements that I could squeeze into a single image, the better."

Last year, Hondros witnessed the effects infamous "troop surge", which the Bush administration hoped would make the country more secure. Far from improving the situation, he says, the surge simply threw a load of inexperienced soldiers into a volatile environment (9).

"It was a chaotic situation," he says. "American soldiers would see a group of suspicious-looking guys running around, take shots at them and then follow the blood trail and arrest them. ... It was all-out combat in some areas of Baghdad."

Hondros is reluctant to talk about how the war has affected him. "It has shaken me in a lot of ways. But I've seen similar things in other parts of the world. All I'll be able to say is that I went and covered what was in front of me, and did what I could to help people understand what was happening – even when I didn't really understand it myself."