In the five years Baghdad was my home, I got to work (or just hang out) with some of the finest news photographers in the world: Yuri Kozyrev, Franco Pagetti, Kate Brooks, James Nachtwey, Robert Nicklesberg, Lynsey Addario, the late Chris Hondros… the list is as long as it is distinguished. Their immense talent and incredible bravery combined to make the Iraq war arguably the most exhaustively photographed conflict in human history. This selection doesn’t begin to capture the immensity of their collective achievement, but it is evocative of the horrors — and just occasionally, hope — they were able to chronicle.
As a correspondent, I was sometimes on the scene when an iconic image was captured: for instance, I had to keep ducking out of Kate Brooks’ field of vision in the aftermath of the Sept, 2003 bombing of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. The scene was one of utter carnage, and I found myself putting aside my notebook to help dig survivors and bodies from the rubble. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Kate, standing perfectly still in the swirling chaos, her eye never moving from the viewfinder, capturing the moment. I have no idea how she kept her senses: I found myself frequently crying or vomiting. Afterward, she told me she was able to fight back any emotion precisely because her eye was glued to the viewfinder: the camera allowed her a sense of distance from everything around her.
Perhaps the secret of great photography lies in that ability to be simultaneously in the moment physically and removed from it by the camera. If that sounds coldly dispassionate, then I’m not describing it right, because war photographers are the most emotionally alert people I know. As these images will show, it is their ability to capture humanity in the most inhuman circumstances that makes them the best at their craft.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor of TIME International. Follow him on Twitter @ghoshworld.
Reporting and production by Vaughn Wallace. Additional production by Bridget Harris.
This collection of testimonies is the fourth in a series by TIME documenting iconic images of conflict. See “Photographing Syria’s Agony”, “9/11: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” and “Afghanistan: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” for more.