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From the Archive: Being with “The Bad Guy” on a Big Day

Qaddafi is a topic of conversation in and of himself, and his family an entirely separate discussion as well. He is the center of gravity of his own regime, naturally. The U.S. has announced it is not engaging in regime change (although not quite in those words), but has struck the compound where he resides with a missile.

On another war front, Der Spiegel has announced to an e-mail list of its subscribers that in its print edition to hit news stands tomorrow, it will publish three images of U.S. soldiers posing with dead Afghan civilians. The Washington Post writes, “The photos are among several hundred the Army has sought to keep under wraps as it prosecutes five members of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, for the alleged murders of three unarmed Afghan civilians last year.” The consequences may prove more devastating than the Abu Ghraib scandal. The Guardian follows up with additional details about a dozen members of the unit, already on trial in Seattle and confronting life in prison or the death penalty if convicted:

Some of the activities of the self-styled “kill team” are already public, with 12 men currently on trial in Seattle for their role in the killing of three civilians.

Five of the soldiers are on trial for pre-meditated murder, after they staged killings to make it look like they were defending themselves from Taliban attacks.

Other charges include the mutilation of corpses, the possession of images of human casualties and drug abuse.

All of the soldiers have denied the charges. They face the death penalty or life in prison if convicted.

Interestingly, rounding out the debate on military secrecy and press affairs in the past week is the rumblings at the State Department with spokesman P.J. Crowley’s resignation in the wake of comments he made at M.I.T. criticizing the military’s treatment of Private Bradley Manning, accused of leaking U.S. diplomatic cables.

All of this brought me back to a simple moment and experience of being with the demonized “other.” As a photographer, I have had the experience twice of being with a person cast as the other for a period on a day when the demonization meets its high tide. My first experience was meeting Bill Ayers, former member of the Weather Underground and professor at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), on election day 2008. The second time was following former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich his final day in office for The New York Times. Below my favorite images from both shoots and a bit of back story below each image:

Backstory: “My editor at my agency suggested I might give obtaining a hard to get portrait of Bill Ayers a try. ‘A local kid might have a better shot,’ he advised on the phone a few weeks before the election. I sent Ayers an e-mail and to my surprise he responded not too much time before election day, writing that he had been out of the country and traveled back the Sunday before election day from Asia. We figured out a time to meet mid-morning, near a vacant lot on the near West Side. The first thing he asked me was where I went to high school. We played a few rounds of do-you-know-so-and-so but came up blank. Perhaps a bit more time would have materialized better results, afterall Chicago is the greatest small town on earth, a veritable village. After I took his portrait, he repeated over and over, ‘I am not a terrorist, I am not a terrorist…,’ appearing visibly shaken by the accusation made repeatedly by Sarah Palin in particular with regard to his past as a member of The Weather Underground and the group’s attack on a Pentagon lavatory. The accusation snowballed into an unsuccessful effort to link his past to the candidacy of Barack Obama, which failed in part because Obama was much too young to have taken any role in the bitterness of the Vietnam era.”

Backstory: “Blagojevich was a talker but his neediness was of the most predictable sort, the vanity trap of the political class. You would never have to interrogate Rod Blagojevich. He gave me a pen, perhaps one of the last if not the last he could give out that said ‘Governor Rod Blagojevich’ while he was still Governor Rod Blagojevich. When we returned from Springfield and arrived at his house, I asked if we could go inside and he said he did not think Patti, his wife, would like that. When he got out of the car, we stayed parked a few minutes and watched as he enjoyed the stake-out, the crush of reporters, photographers, and videographers that surrounded the stairwell to his home as he walked at the pace of a crawl up the steps. He was riding out the publicity to the last moment. Little did we know that would hardly be the last moment.”

One last note. The Libyan government is currently believed to be holding four New York Times reporters, among them photographers Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks, despite promises of their release made by Saif Qaddafi to ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour. Lynsey’s work has long been an inspiration since I was first introduced to her portfolio. Tyler’s book “Histories Are Mirrors” is an extraordinary visual study in comparative war and the final days of failing regimes. Anthony Shadid and Stephen Farrell are the two reporters; Farrell is British, the others are American citizens. Like many in the journalistic profession and readers of The New York Times, I hope for their release soon. UPDATE: The four New York Times journalists were released to Turkish diplomats in Tripoli, while 13 reporters remain missing according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.