A Combat Artist Illustrates Life in Iraq Many Americans got their first news on the Iraq war from embedded reporters. Steve Mumford embedded himself as an artist, working in Baghdad four times between 2003 and 2004.
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A Combat Artist Illustrates Life in Iraq

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A Combat Artist Illustrates Life in Iraq

A Combat Artist Illustrates Life in Iraq

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In 2003, Steven Mumford went from--to cover the cover--excuse me. In 2003, Steven Mumford went to cover the cover, not with a microphone or a video camera or even a laptop. He went with a sketchpad. Steven Mumford is an artist who spent two years documenting the war in Iraq, at times embedded with the National Guard. The result is a book called "Baghdad Journal." It includes dozens of paintings, mostly watercolors, along with side notes from his journal.

Steven Mumford joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Congratulations on the book.

Mr. STEVEN MUMFORD (Author, "Baghdad Journal"): Thanks, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: You went as a--there's been a long tradition in this country of the role of the combat artist, I guess from the Revolutionary War up through World War II. Winslow Homer, of course, the famous American artist, drew pictures during the Civil War. Did you see yourself in that tradition?

Mr. MUMFORD: Yes. Actually, Winslow Homer was somebody whose work inspired me a lot. I live in New York City, and the Metropolitan Museum has a lot of his paintings that he did after the Civil War. Of course, back then, photography was still, you know, in its infancy, so it took so long to make an exposure that it wasn't very useful for combat depiction. So magazines--in this case, Harper's Magazine, sent Winslow Homer to the front to send back drawings and engravings.

CONAN: Essentially, you sent yourself to Iraq, though.

Mr. MUMFORD: That's what happened. I had been working on a series of kind of dramatic realistic narratives in my studio for probably, you know, the past 10 years or so, and I've always been interested in this sort of genre of combat art, and it didn't really occur to me until the invasion was really under way that I, you know, could try to sign up, could try to get myself embedded as a combat artist. It was too late at that point. So I basically just bought myself a ticket to Kuwait City in the hopes that I could get a ride into Baghdad with some other reporters.

CONAN: Which is what happened. And it's interesting, there's a lot of interesting stuff in the process of executing your craft, but I was interested in--you said that the art--the act of drawing slowed down the war, recording the spaces in between the bombs.

Mr. MUMFORD: Yeah. You know, a lot of people ask me, `Why drawing instead of photography?' and sometimes, I feel a little stumped by that question. I don't really have an easy answer, but in a way, the easiest answer is simply that I'm an artist and drawing is what I do. You know, I took a lot of photographs on the various trips that I took to Iraq, and most of them are not very good photographs. So I can get better results with a drawing than I could from a photograph. But beyond that, I think that drawing has certain characteristics, which are obviously different from taking a photograph. One of them is that it takes a while to make a drawing, so, you know, for example, I spent a lot of time drawing in Baghdad, and I would just wander around the city. You know, after a few weeks, I kind of developed my favorite places to go, and very often, teahouses, for example, because people stay still for a while in them.

CONAN: But let me ask you in particular...

Mr. MUMFORD: Yeah.

CONAN: ...about one of your drawings. It's of a teahouse on Rasheed Street. It's Plate 39 in your book, if you have to remind yourself. `The customers warmed up to me and started talking after I began to draw.' A wonderful picture of these men drinking their tea in the shop in Baghdad.

Mr. MUMFORD: Thanks. Yeah. I remember that picture well. It was, you know, kind of a working class teahouse. In Baghdad, of course, teahouses kind of fulfill the function of bars, because it's not really what you call a drinking city. And the sense that I got when I walked into this particular one was, like, a lot of guys who were out of work that were kind of angry, and so, you know, I sat down in this very smoky atmosphere and ordered a tea and just pulled out my sketchpad. And, of course, the minute I started to draw, people, you know, really--people noticed it. First of all, it was weird being a Westerner in there, but secondly, I began to draw, and the interesting thing about Baghdad is a lot of people respect the notion of being an artist. So a lot of times when I'd introduce myself as a rassam, which is the Arabic for `painter,' they'd say, `Oh, good, good.' So that even, you know, kind of working class people in Baghdad right away had this sort of interest and respect in being an artist.

So I always found that when I was sitting in one place for a while, you know, people would come on over and take a look and they'd be a lot less worried about it than if I'd taken a photograph, because they could see exactly what I was doing. There wouldn't be this sort of worry that maybe I was from the CIA and, you know, I was getting some sort of information about them. A drawing is sort of, at once, more personal in terms of looking at them, but also more personal about me. It's more subjective. So, you know, it has sort of a universal appeal for people.

CONAN: Many of your drawings are also of primarily US forces at work, at rest, at play.

Mr. MUMFORD: Right.

CONAN: You got a chance to go on a lot of missions that, well, today would be quite dangerous.

Mr. MUMFORD: Yeah. Well, they were dangerous then, too. I mean, I went to Iraq four times, and the last trip, I got back in October 2004. So, you know, Baghdad began to feel like a much less friendly place essentially after March when Nicholas Berg had his head cut off. But, yeah, altogether, I'd say I spent maybe two-thirds of my time with military units, both National Guard and US Army, and a lot of it in Baghdad, a lot of it in the Sunni triangle area.

CONAN: How has your work been received? I know that there's been, before this book came out, exhibitions and it's been on ABC TV and featured in newspaper articles.

Mr. MUMFORD: Yeah. It's been a mix, actually, Neal. You know, I think that the New York art world is sort of reflexively very leftist in its politics. And in some ways, I am, too, but I think that politics had nothing to do with my interest in going to Iraq and making drawings about the war. And overall, I felt fairly impressed with the way the US Army or at least the units that I was with in the US Army behaved themselves. And, you know, I often identified with the younger officers and enlisted guys and felt like I didn't know if I could necessarily do a better job myself if I was in their shoes. So I felt very sympathetic towards the job the US military was trying to do as something that's completely separate from the foreign policy that sent them there.

And I think the art world sometimes has a hard time making that distinction, you know. And for a lot of people, when they hear the stories about Abu Ghraib, they kind of imagine that Abu Ghraib is what it's like every day, all the time, as far as the US military in Iraq is concerned, and that simply is not the case at all. But to return to your question, I think that the country as a whole is perhaps a little bit more--you know, has a more balanced view of the war, even though obviously, we're in an incredibly difficult position. But a lot of people, I think, are open-minded. And myself, when I was there, I found myself going back and forth between sometimes feeling kind of hopeful that things can get better and sometimes feeling quite pessimistic. But it was rare that I had an absolutely black-and-white sense, you know, of how things were going in Iraq.

CONAN: You mentioned in the book that some people questioned why you don't show more suffering of Iraqis.

Mr. MUMFORD: That's right. Well, I mean, the simple answer is that I didn't really see all that much suffering of Iraqis, which sounds kind of strange on its face. The thing is that, you know, I mean, I spent just about 11 months there, so I spent a lot of time there, and as I said, a lot of it in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle. And yet, Baghdad's a large city, so, you know, a bomb can go off somewhere and you can be completely unaware of it, or you might hear it in the distance, but, you know, statistically, the chances are you're likely not to be exactly where it blows up.

And meanwhile, you know, life goes on. The marketplaces go on. Kids go to school. The soldiers are out on patrol or trying to do reconstruction projects or meeting with some imam or something. So, you know, there's this sense of sort of quasi-normalcy or at least people trying to create a normal life for themselves. Now unlike a reporter, when a bomb went off, I didn't have sort of fixtures where I felt like I was obligated to go racing off to that bomb scene and make a drawing of the body parts lying around. My attitude was more--I would simply sort of go with the flow, in a way. I would go out on whatever missions were going out when I was with the military or I would wander around Baghdad or hang out with my Iraqi friends and draw whatever it was that looked interesting to me at the time.

CONAN: And the product of all of that is called "Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq." Steve Mumford, good luck with it. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MUMFORD: My pleasure, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: And if you would like to get some images of Mumford's work from "Baghdad Journal," you can visit our Web site at npr.org.

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