Julie Dermansky, a freelance photojournalist from New York, is currently embedded with the military in Iraq. She agreed to talk to Deadspin about the experience, which included a photo shoot with the Buffalo Bills Cheerleaders.
So how does a freelance photographer get permission to go to Iraq? How did the trip come about?
I was working on a project with the Louisiana National Guard. They have been patrolling the streets of New Orleans since Katrina, set to pull out at the end of this February. I did a book called Under the Radar, the National Guard in New Orleans. Myself and a cameraman I work with are also putting together a documentary about the Guard's work in New Orleans. He and I asked permission to be embedded with the Guard (meet up with units that had some of the same guys we worked with in NO) in Iraq and were given permission. To be embedded you need a professional organization to sponsor you. We got Fox, a local affiliate in New Olreans and LPB (Louisiana Public Broadcast TV) to be ours. LPB will get first look at the documentary we are collaborating on and we have been feeding Fox 8 dispatches.
When did you first decide you wanted to do this?
The trip started off with me doing a project I wanted to do long before meeting the Guard — which was me shooting Christmas portraits for them as my gift to them. The way I see it — the military are only shown when they are dead or have done something bad. I wanted to show them as individuals.
What surprises you most about being over there?
This is my first trip to Iraq — to any active war zone. What has surprised me the most is seeing first hand the scale of the war machine over here.
How did the Bills cheerleader shoot come about? Did you approach them? How did you meet them?
It was a total coincidence. They were going to perform for the unit we are working with — and we had to leave to get elsewhere so thought we'd miss them. By chance they turned up at the same hotel we were put up at. I asked if they would like pictures shot and they said yes. No press was covering their tour in Iraq.
What was the hotel like? What did the cheerleaders think of hanging out in one of Saddam's meeting places?
The cheerleaders didn't comment so much about the hotel, but instead on how moved they were by their experience of meeting the troops, making them happy meant a lot to them. The luxury is eerie but welcome. It isn't a five star hotel anymore as the stars above the grand entrance way claim. It has bunk beds in the rooms and serves food brought in from the main mess hall, but high ceilings, lush curtains, elegant furniture and marble floors offer unexpected elegance fitting of a five star hotel.
Is that a Ming vase I see in the background in one of those shots? Wow.
I'm not up on my vases so I can't say.
What was the general reaction of Iraqis to seeing the cheerleaders?
The girls told me the Iraqis were pleased to meet them and all begged them to tell Americans not to pull out and keep them safe. They went to 7 different sites. The girls were out and about. Not on streets though — you can't go on streets in Iraq — just on on base! On base it is all military and private contractors. The girls turned some heads among those guys.
I assume that Iraqi kids play soccer. Have you seen any of that? Do they play other sports?
Yes I have seen some soccer playing. I haven't seen anything else sports-wise. Just visited a few schools and seen them in classrooms.
Have you ever done any sports photography?
I shot one game of the Saints in action in 2007, and shot the Manning Family Passing Camp last summer. I like shooting sports but haven't had many assignments so far.
JVB Hotel, Luxury In Baghdad [Julie Dermansky's Blog]