By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Contested Stones redux

with 5 comments

Too late — again?

As a sad update to my recent “Contested Stones” blog, events continue to unfold in the Middle East.  Under the headline “Saving Syria,” the Wall Street Journal notes that, amid that nation’s current civil war, poorly guarded monuments of immense historical importance, including the medieval Crac des Chevaliers and the Roman ruins of Palmyra, are starting to be degraded by looters and damaged by modern weaponry.  Below the link to the WSJ story is one of my photographs of Palmyra, in the eastern Syrian desert. (Recall that Iraq suffered other important archaeological losses which occurred during the American invasion.)

Please read “Saving Syria,” by Christian Sahner in the Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2012.

Palmyra, Syria  vintage silver print  ©William Carter 1993

Palmyra, Syria vintage silver print ©William Carter 1993

East Jerusalem, 1964

East Jerusalem, 1964

“Watch any mother kneeling beside her toddler, pointing and explaining what they are looking at.  Our urge to see, to comprehend and connect, starts there.”

That’s how I put it in the opening text of my Causes and Spirits.

Received culture profoundly affects how we see the world. Including how we view it through our cameras.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Holy Land” fought over for thousands of years by followers of the three Abrahamic religions, plus such secular claimants as the Romans, the Turks, and the British.

When I was living in Beirut 1964-1966, much of Jerusalem and the territory around Bethlehem were controlled by a classic buffer state — the Kingdom of Jordan. On two successive Decembers I was sent by an American magazine to photograph Christmas in Bethlehem.  None of those pictures survive, because the magazine was buying full rights, including the films themselves. But I retain strong memories of the tumult swirling within and without the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Monks of various traditions were physically fighting for jurisdiction over this and that section of holy stones at this and that hour. The surrounding city bubbled with the sorts of strife to which the region has always been heir, and to which the Israelis would soon contribute. Seasoned observers would continue to watch these underlying tensions weave threads of irony into all the heartfelt salaams and shaloms of the private greetings, public blessings and international agreements.

But I did my gig: I sent the Midwestern magazine what I was sure they wanted: warm, candlelit faces of Protestant pilgrims processioning past the ancient, contested stones.

Where and when to cut slices of space and time with the bright-line frame of my Leica was never obvious. I reflected, sometimes, on earlier generations of foreign photographers of the Middle East: of the dreamy harem scenes, for instance, always included in the sets of stereopticon slides sent back to reinforce colonial stereotypes in London drawing rooms — some of those same drawing rooms where ruler lines were then being traced across the maps of Arab sands creating nation-states where none had existed before – thus helping set up the kinds of tribal quarrels the world still struggles to contain.

Working far from home, journalists can face ethical dilemmas that are personal and immediate, as well as professional. Covering the Korean War in the 1950s, a journalist I knew watched an American TV crew stop a farm family from putting out the fire engulfing their shelled house until the cameraman got great footage of the licking flames.

Iraqi Kurdish guerillas, June 1965

Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas, June 1965

At one point I faced a dilemma while traveling for Life Magazine with the Kurdish guerrilla fighters across northern Iraq (see also previous blog post Plight of Syria’s Kurds Breaks into the News). My main contact was an intelligent, helpful, English-speaking former Iraqi army officer named Colonel Akrawi.  Huddled by a lantern one night, noticing I hadn’t gotten any combat shots, he moved closer, tapped on a map and whispered, “At the bottom of these hills, in the flat desert north of Suleimaniya, there’s a small Iraqi police post. Half a dozen of them sleep there every night. Next Tuesday is full moon. So if you want, we can raid the place and kill all the policemen – and you’ll can get great pictures! Okay?”

He was leaving it up to me. His offer was laden with the warmth and generosity of traditional guest-honoring, plus a dose of macho that included me as co-conspirator in their revolution. How to reply? The pictures sounded tempting. But to get them, I would, in effect, be sponsoring a few murders. And, I would be creating some news in order to report it – not exactly what photojournalists are supposed to do. As the lantern light flickered over our faces, I thanked the colonel, but explained that for that job I would have needed a flash, and mine was broken. The gentlemanly Kurd nodded and accepted this. I photographed Akrawi and his aides, conferring in the orange lantern light well into the night. Days later I photographed him shaving. Then we marched west for several nights to the mountain passes above the oilfields of Kirkuk. Under shellfire the colonel handed me his binoculars, pointed, and declared, “That oil is ours!” Today, sixty years later, the Kurds are negotiating to sell that oil direct to major American producers without bothering to ask permission from Baghdad.

A year or two after my visit, word reached me Colonel Akrawi had been badly wounded in battle. Eventually, I was told he had died. An amateur botanist, he had showed me a scrapbook he toted around, into which he pressed samples of plants peculiar to the Kurdish region of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Whatever happened to that lovely notebook, with its unique specimens? In Paris, much later, I visited the Kurdish Institute and asked about Akrawi: they remembered him well — but not his collection.

In the late 1970s I was sitting on the cool tiles of a crowded courtyard near Bombay, listening to a talk by spiritual master Swami Muktananda when he remarked, as if casually, “One sees the world as one is.”

Colonel Akrawi shaving, Iraqi Kurdistan, June 1965

Colonel Akrawi shaving, Iraqi Kurdistan, June 1965

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.


5 Responses

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  1. […] Ulla and I treasure such sweet memories. But now they are jarred with bitter undertones —  endless war, brutal destruction at such magnificent sites as Palmyra. […]


  2. Colonel Akrawi wrote several books but he did not publish them due to financial reasons.



    September 6, 2014 at 5:02 am

  3. […] see my earlier blogs on the reported damages to that nation’s ancient monuments and peoples: “Contested Stones Redux” and “Plight of Syria’s Kurds Breaks into the […]


  4. My mom would like to receive Bill’s blog.Thank you!Her email Date: Thu, 16 Aug 2012 21:37:25 +0000 To:


    Barbara Sully

    August 17, 2012 at 2:02 am

  5. Bill,

    I cannot express how wonderful and uplifting and moving and disturbing it is seeing all this work of yours throughout the world. It just keeps coming in a marvelous, mysterious way.

    We all thank you for this blog. And he can also play an instrument.

    Highest Respect,

    Bill Delaney of Susan and Bill


    bill delaney

    August 16, 2012 at 10:20 pm

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