Newsweek Assignment: Ambassador Crocker

September 17th, 2009

She seemed to be suggesting this wouldn’t be the “best” of assignments but who am I to complain? Work in this field is slow; the recession has hit media outlets hard and everyone is scrambling to redefine themselves with an increasingly fractured readership, the proliferation of web-based media outlets, and changes in advertising revenue. Not knowing the job, I said yes, and am very happy I did.

Newsweek was doing a piece on the recently retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker, authored by Chris Dickey, and written in the first person. Crocker and his wife had recently moved to Spokane and were renting his boyhood home–in 2004 his mother moved into assisted living and they sold the house which was then turned into a rental.

Crocker, if you don’t know (sadly, I didn’t know his name), was most recently the US Ambassador in Iraq and worked with General Petraeus on the “troop surge” which is credited with helping stabilize, then reduce, the violence there. Previous job assignments were in Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where he re-opened the US Embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. I knew of his work, but I tend to forget names. I’m visual and it’s faces I remember.

…After the jump see more of my images and the Newswek article and video.

The Newsweek Article

“We’re doing a profile of him for which Simon (director of photography) had a portrait shot a while back, so we have that in house,” she wrote. Turns out Dan Winters came out to Spokane to photograph Crocker. They used Crocker’s living room–the same spot I laid down on the floor to photograph memorabilia for my assignment. The editors were hoping to have access to the boxes upon boxes stretching into the Crocker’s immaculate basement, many with logos of moving companies in Islamabad or Damascus. Of the memorabilia, most important was Crocker’s boarding pass from DC to NYC on 9/11/2001. There was a calendar with flecks of his blood from the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut. An Iron Maiden poster of “Eddie,” the band’s mascot and grim reaper, hung behind his ambassador’s desk. Eddie’s holding an assault rifle, pointing out of the poster at you, and at the bottom it says “Two Minutes to Midnight.” There’s a mushroom cloud from a nuclear detonation behind him. When I asked him about it, Crocker chuckled. “It’s the mid 80’s, you’re in the desert, there’s the fear of nuclear holocaust and it’s two minutes to midnight…” he trailed off, lost in thought.

Unfortunately, the boxes in the basement remained largely sealed. The Crocker’s had little interest in opening them; they haven’t bothered unpacking since they’re building a new home a few miles away. I couldn’t photograph much of the items on my list, so I looked around for anything else representative of the Crockers’ travels. A collection of embassy badges and ID’s. The mug they poured my coffee in; Islamabad. Coasters, medals, baseballs. I looked around but there weren’t many knick-knacks. They live fairly cleanly, as I suppose one might if they’re setting up house behind blast walls and chancing daily mortar attacks. In March, 2008, their house in the Green Zone of Baghdad was rocketed.

20090902_CRKR Ambassador Ryan Crocker – Images by Tim Matsui

My editor might not have thought this was the best of assignments; fly in and fly out in a day to do still life photographs of mementos. Photographically, it was an interesting challenge since I don’t do still life all that often–there are certainly more qualified photographers in Seattle for this. But from a personal perspective it was an amazing opportunity to meet people who’d made a choice 30 years ago to live in the middle of it–in the middle of the middle east and central asia. Meeting people is one of the reasons I do this work. And while I felt utterly outclassed in knowledge, which one could expect, our international travels have left similar impressions on us. We talked briefly about human trafficking; there’s a lot of it in the diplomatic corps and an excessive amount of it in the middle east. We talked a bit about governmental corruption and the NG-aucracy. And we talked about perception of time, how the American way isn’t always THE way. Apparently, in rural Iraq, there are no months. There are eight harvests. That is how time is measured. And a phrase he really liked? When asked about doing something, a farmer might reply “Yes, tomorrow, when it’s apricot season.” It’s an Iraqi way of saying, “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

The list of our shared experiences is quite small, but I do think Crocker and I have a similar opinion: that Americans need to open their minds to what exists outside our bubble. He spent 30 years out there, listening and learning to other people, other cultures and reflecting on how our actions might be perceived by them. I think he and I both hope Americans might have learned something from the last decade and will make the effort to learn and act as members of a global community. We are, after all, fighting two wars and our President is considering whether to entrench himself–and us–further in Afghanistan.

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