Nora Al-Badri has never been to Iraq. But she has connected with her father’s home country via the Internet—not over Skype or email, but through the personal blogs of members of the United States’ occupying forces. Greetings from Iraq consists of ten postcards Al-Badri created from “random snapshots from random soldiers at very significant sights.” Seeking out iconic images from Iraq’s most treasured monuments, she approached this process of personal visual exploration with the simple question, “how is it actually looking over there?”
What she found was at once banal and shocking. She spent her evenings sifting through what she describes as exclusive material: occupying soldiers posing in their leisure time, exuding self-confidence and naïveté, their image-making as uninformed as their mission. The pictures make their way home in earnest, longing for ontological affirmation—Hi Mom, Hi Sweetheart, this is me, standing here. This is the authenticity of the amateur, the gold of the poor image.
Yet in sitting with these images, one becomes disconcertingly familiar with an odd sort of idleness in them, what Al-Badri describes in German as Müßiggang. This idleness teems with vertiginous cognitive dissonance. “You see this impressive building… and then you see the small people around it,” she notes. While protecting a historical monument from their own war, the soldiers alter its very purpose. They enjoy a leisure that Iraqis cannot have, building borders around a people and creating the absurd condition that no new image can be made of this place without signs of the occupier’s brutal presence.
This sort of casual image of occupation is created singularly by the US military. Al-Badri scoured the Internet for similar pictures of German soldiers in Afghanistan, but such brazenness contradicts logic and security concerns. Only an imperious police state like the United States would allow this, a devastating visual declaration set upon some of humankind’s oldest monuments: we won.
The longer one gazes upon these moments of pause, the louder the dissonance reigns. It becomes clear that naïveté is not a precise descriptor, for these are snapshots of utter disrespect, born of a cultivated arrogance, directed by the calculus of rapacious imperialism. The soldiers’ smiles churn the conscience, sink the heart, and leave on the tongue a bitter aftertaste—bitterer Beigeschmack.
It has never been safe for Al-Badri to visit Iraq, so she looks through the lens of the occupier, making only minor alterations to its images to create her own Greetings. This act of appropriation composes the most forceful critique one could make of the occupation; its poor, amateur reality needs no elaboration. Al-Badri tosses out the idea that she could have entered the country to make her own images of these monuments as an “embedded artist,” but she says, “I prefer stealing from the military.”
- Melissa Smyth