The 2007 Iraqi Labor Tour: A photographer’s blog

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In June of 2007 two Iraqi labor leaders toured the US to talk to labor leaders and movement activists about “current attempts to control Iraq’s oil, women’s issues under the occupation, and the role of unions in creating a non-sectarian, progressive Iraq.”

They were:

  • Hashmeya Mohsen al Hussein, President of the Iraq Electrical Utility Workers Union. She is the first woman to head a national Iraqi labor union.
  • Faleh Abood Umara, General Secretary, Iraq Federation of Oil Workers.

They were supposed to be here in December of 2006, along with a third Iraqi, but couldn’t get their visas in time. They finally got their visas in March of 2007 and were scheduled to arrive in the US on June 3.

The Tour was co-sponsored by U.S. Labor Against the War, American Friends Service Committee and United for Peace & Justice.

I had volunteered to work on this tour when it was first being planned by DC Labor for Peace and Justice, which is the DC chapter of USLAW (not UfPJ). Although I attended the planning meetings in the fall, I only went to a couple meetings in the Spring. I had previously agreed to be available as escort, tour guide, press liaison and photographer, and assumed I’d do the same in June. As it turned out, most of those jobs were done by others; I mostly took photographs, which I assumed USLAW wanted for its webpage about the Tour. I only shot the daytime events. Photos of the evening events were taken by someone else, who had a day job working for one of the unions.

I flirted with the idea of writing about the Tour as a reporter, but decided to do something different this time. What follows is not a report, but sort of a blog, written from the perspective of a photographer, not a writer. It differs from a blog in that I am writing it after the fact rather than as it happens, even though I sometimes use the present tense. I will probably forget some details and some of my immediate reactions, but time for reflection and editing should make it a bit better written than most blogs I’ve read.

June 3

Received a group e-mail late Sunday night (which I probably didn’t see until Monday morning) from Denice Lombard, the main DC Tour co-ordinator.

“Hi folks. Hashmeya has landed in New York City and will be in D.C. tonight, but Faleh was not allowed on the plane because there was a problem with his visa. The visa issue date was March 27, 2007 and the expiration date was February 1, 2007! Clearly the U.S. embassy in Jordan screwed up. Today is a business day in Amman, and Faleh and colleagues tried to resolve the problem without success. Tomorrow they will begin again when the doors of the embassy open. Unfortunately it's very bureaucratic."

We started with three Iraqis in the fall and are now down to one. A few more gaffes and we'll have a tour without any!

June 4

9:06 AM: Got another e-mail confirming that Hashmeya had reached DC and giving the location of the 1:00 p.m. briefing. That briefing had been on the agenda for weeks, but it was printed from an excel spreadsheet which cut off the column with the address on it. Whatever happened to old fashioned “doc” which most every computer can open and fits nicely on 8.5 x 11 paper?

1:00 PM: I went to the AFSC HQ on R St. ten minutes late only to find that I was early. The AFSC owns one of those lovely, old houses in DuPont Circle that were built as family homes by the rich early in the 20th Century. Many of these became rooming houses during the Depression, and were bought cheap by those smart enough to see their value during the 1950s and 1960s. I was directed to the second floor to wait for Hashmeya to arrive.

I helped myself to tea and went to the front sun room which seemed to be the most comfortable space available. Three couches were placed around a small table laid with some munchies. I sat on a couch with my back to the window so that the natural light coming through the window would hit my subjects. I knew that if they sat on that couch, the bright light from the window would make their faces dark, or I would have to use fill flash for every shot. Most subjects don’t like the intrusion of flashes going off in their faces.

I was carrying two cameras. My Nikon SLR is a professional film camera, which I’ve used for years. Film is fine for archival purposes, but doesn’t create the instant photos needed for a webpage or to send as attached files. I figured the USLAW webpage didn’t want to wait for my film to be developed and digital images put on a CD. It probably wanted coverage of the Tour as it happened. So I also brought my low-end digital. It’s an amateur camera with many limitations, but I can send out photos from the memory card without waiting for processing.

Denice arrived before Hashmeya and stayed downstairs to wait for her. H came about 1:30. With her was Gene Bruskin, one of the founders of USLAW. He sat on the couch next to me. I hoped Denice and Hashmeya would sit together on the opposite couch so that I could shoot them while they were talking, but that request was ignored. Instead Hashmeya sat on a side couch next to her interpreter, Zein El-Amine. Denice and an Iraqi who worked for the AFSC sat on a couch opposite to mine.

As soon as the introductions began I realized I had a problem. Hashmeya is a very animated conversationalist but only talked to her interpreter, who was seated to her right. Even when Denice was speaking H did not turn left to face her. Instead she took notes or just carried on a conversation with the interpreter.

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Denice was, in effect, usually talking to a turned head, or one facing downward. It didn’t seem to bother Denice, but I couldn’t get a shot of them talking to each other. I sat there with the camera cocked – having pushed the focus lock button half way so I could click if and when Hashmeya turned toward Denice -- but that never happened, at least not when my camera was pointing at them. As I sat there holding the camera up, the shot framed, my fingers tensed, waiting for the magic moment, a little trickle of pain crept down from the back of my neck into my shoulders. Every now and then I would drop the camera to relax my shoulders, but I couldn’t shoot with the camera in my lap. Of course the very few times that H faced Denice happened when my camera was down, and only for a brief second. I got exactly one shot of her not facing her interpreter, and in that one she was facing her notebook, but her eyes were on Denice.


They talked about many things, of which I only picked up snatches. I could have listened once I got a couple good shots, but that did not happen. After they finished I decided I to just set up a shot so I could get something usable, even if posed. I asked H to sit on Denice’s couch between her and the interpreter. She had put away her notebook, so when Denice spoke she actually looked at her. (Click) However, when H spoke, she only looked at her interpreter.



I stood still for several minutes, camera ready, but did not get one good shot of this very animated woman speaking to Denice. Even when I asked the interpreter to tell H to use her hands while speaking to and facing Denice, it didn’t happen. Denice ended my effort to get one decent shot by saying it was time to go. She gave me the impression that getting one decent action shot of H was not important and I was wasting their time.

Nonetheless I went to the NWU office and e-mailed my shots to the USLAW webmaster. I told him there would be more tomorrow. I soon got his reply:

“To control spam, I now allow incoming messages only from senders I have approved beforehand. If you would like to be added to my list of approved senders, please fill out the short request form (see link below). Once I approve you, I will receive your original message in my inbox. You do not need to resend your message. I apologize for this one-time inconvenience. Click the link below to fill out the request.”

I hate those things, and normally won’t take the time to jump through those hoops. But I wanted him to get the photos, so I did.

June 5

H. was scheduled to meet with John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, at 11:00 a.m. I go to the AFL building, right across the street from Lafayette Square, once a month as a delegate to the DC Metro Labor Council from UAW Local 1981 (aka the National Writers Union) but I’d never been above the ground floor. I knew the security guard wouldn’t let me by without authorization, so I had asked Denice if I could be put on whatever list was submitted for the Iraqi delegation. She told me that there was no list; if I wanted to get in I’d have to meet them before they went inside. Since H was scheduled to have some sort of press interview beforehand at Solidarity House, right across the street, I went there around 10:40. I didn’t have a room number but I had a name to ask for; fortunately I didn’t have to be on a list to get in. The front desk guard sent me to the right floor and the floor guard told me what room to go to. I opened the door gently, and immediately hit a chair.

From the two inch opening, I could see a young man sitting in a chair blocking the door, with H and a different interpreter across a table. When H smiled and waved at me, the young man let me in. I didn’t see Denice or anyone else I knew so I sat in a chair at the back of the room. From listening I learned that the young man was a reporter for UPI who was there to interview and photograph H for a story. I didn’t take any shots because I didn’t want any of the reporter, and could only see the back and side of H’s head. Any photograph I took would only shot her black head scarf, with just a piece of her nose.

Denice opened the door a little before 11:00 to fetch H. She seemed a bit surprised to see me. We crossed the street to the AFL and got passes from the security guard, who knew we were coming. When we exited on the top floor someone met us at the elevator and took us to a small meeting room with an oval table. Denice disappeared. Several other people entered the room: Nancy Wohlforth of the OPEIU and Fred Mason, President of the Maryland AFL-CIO were co-conveners of USLAW. Heba F. El-Shazli, Middle East Program Director at the Solidarity Center acted as interpreter. Shawna Bader-Blau from the Solidarity Center was also present. There was a young man (whose name I do not know) from Pride at Work with a video camera. He and I were background functionaries. He sat his camera on a tripod at the end of the oval table furthest from the door while I tried to figure out the best shooting angles. John Sweeney came in and shook hands with H. so unexpectedly that I didn’t have my camera out of its case and missed that shot.

Sweeny sat at the other end of the oval table, with H and El-S to his left and Nancy and Fred to his right. As she had done the previous day, H either looked at her interpreter or read from her notebook. When she raised her head a little she seldom looked at Sweeney. Her hands were animated, but I couldn’t get any shots of her talking to Sweeney. The AFL President was a little bit better, but not much. He too read when he talked, and seldom raised his head. However, when H. spoke, he did look at her. I got a couple shots of Sweeney looking at H while she read her remarks from her notebook. While El-Shazli translated her words, H turned her head and looked at her. I circled around behind them and got a great shot of H speaking to El- Shazli, with Sweeney’s face in the gap between them.


But.... while it was good photographically, it wasn’t going to make it into any publication because it sent the wrong message. I took a few long shots of the five principles at the entire table. Fred and Nancy didn’t participate in the conversation.

Just to make life more difficult my flash was acting up. It should have gone off automatically in that low light, but didn’t. I lost one or two almost good shots to low light. I realized that I had to do forced flash each time, which meant setting the menu again for each shot. More lost opportunities. Once again I decided that the only way I would get a good shot is to ask them to pose. When the parties stood up at the end of their meeting, I quickly did just that. Sweeney was agreeable, asking Mason and Wohlforth to join him and H. I had been eying the wall and knew where I wanted them to stand – in front of some nice posters but far enough away so the flash wouldn’t leave a shadow.

As I told Sweeney where to stand one of the staff said something like “look who’s giving orders.”

“That’s what photographers do,” I said, while continuing to direct my subjects. Flitting through my head was a comment Jeane Kirkpatrick had made to me when I photographed her in her office the year before. “Photographers are tyrants..... that even Presidents obey.” I didn’t repeat that at the AFL-CIO.

Sweeney, like Kirkpatrick, was quite responsive to my directions on where to stand. I learned long ago that professional politicians – including the larger category of public figures – want good photos and know that the best way to get them is to pose where and how the photographer says to pose. Subjects can’t see what a photographer sees through the camera. A few inches one way or the other, a tilt of the head, a twist of the body, the direction of the eyes, makes a lot of difference to the final photo.

H handed her personal camera to Shawna Bader-Blau. The subjects stood at the head of that oval table slightly to one side as I had asked. I was on one side of the table and Shawna was on the other. When she lifted H’s camera, H turned to look at her and everyone else followed H’s lead. “Look at me,” I told them. “I need to see your eyes.” All but H looked at me. H continued to look at Shawna, who was holding her camera. I repeated the request several times because I took several shots with both cameras. I don’t know if anyone translated this for her or not. Sometimes H would look at me, but mostly she looked at Shawna, even when Shawna wasn’t holding up her camera. The best shot I got was one of Sweeney and H shaking hands. It wasn’t an action shot. But.... both of them were looking at the camera.


As people departed I collected cards from Fred Mason, Shawna and Heba so I could send them the photos that they appeared in. Nancy Wohlforth disappeared before I could get her card. I told Sweeny that I would send him some photos if someone gave me an e-mail address to send them to. He nodded but said nothing. We were led down a hallway to the George Meany room for a lunch meeting. On the way I asked Heba if she could sit opposite H rather than next to her so that H would face the audience rather than talk to her. (I didn’t mention the photo problem because I knew that would get me nothing). Heba reacted rather strongly; she had to sit next to H she insisted. But, she said, she would ask H to look at the audience when she spoke. I crossed my fingers.

The George Meany room is very spacious, filled with a large, rectangle of tables – so large that there was no way I could shoot the speakers at the main table from the back. I considered crawling underneath to sit in the center, but each table had a front panel, hiding the legs of those behind it and making it impossible for anyone but a child to crawl through. I knew I wouldn’t get any good shots of this presentation. Off to one side were large plate glass windows, with a magnificent view of the White House. A sign on the door to the outdoor porch warned us not to go outside. I would have loved that shot of Lafayette Park and the White House, but the windows were streaked with dirt.


About 30 people were already seated around the table and on side chairs eating the sandwiches and soda they had picked up at the back of the room. I figured if I can’t shoot I might as well eat and filled a plate of my own. I initially sat on the side, but it was hard to eat with two cameras and a plate of food in my lap, so I switched to a vacant seat at a back corner table. At the front tables were Nancy, Sweeney, Heba, H, and Fred. Fred was the only one eating. Sweeny began the meeting by asking each of us to identify ourselves to the group. I assumed he didn’t mean me and the young man with the video camera. When I’m at an event as a photographer or reporter I’m background. Backgrounders try to be invisible. There was a long pause when the moving voices reached me. Sweeny nodded at me indicating that I should speak, and for about five seconds I froze – I didn’t know which of several identities to pull out of my mental knapsak. Recovering I said, “Jo Freeman, National Writers Union, which is Local 1981 of the UAW.”

H. and Sweeney spoke, with Heba translating. H did a better job of facing the audience, so Heba’s message must have gotten through. Better, however, was not good; as the meeting continued she looked more and more to Heba or down at her notes. I took a few shots anyway at an angle. Not great, but at least they hadn’t sat in front of the plate glass windows. In fact, the light from those large windows reflected off one side of their faces.

Since I only took a few photos I had plenty of time to listen, but I mostly mused on the differences between shooting amateurs and professionals. H is a difficult subject to photograph, but for someone who has not spent years in the public eye, she handles speaking and answering questions well. The language barrier is clearly a problem, even with interpreters handy. She has no idea of how photographers work or how to get good photos with minimal hassle. The professional politicians that I have shot know how to do this. Political activists who are not pros are also difficult, and not due to lack of practice or a language barrier. They are almost perversely difficult – as though not co-operating with photographers is part of their protest.

For over forty years I’ve shot anti-war activities, feminist events, right-wing marches, civil rights marches, and more protests than I can remember, let alone count. They are all difficult to work with. The only activist group that is a pleasure to photograph is CodePink. They know how to set up photo ops and are very responsive to requests. Consequently, I send them lots of good photos for their webpage. (They aren’t so good about attaching credit lines). This time I was only sending USLAW all of my photos, though I intended to send select photos to anyone who wanted them. I figured people would appreciate a record of their participation.

After the meeting ended I offered to do photo ops with H and any of the people there; several union officials lined up to get their photos taken with her. One in particular, who shall remain nameless, insisted in being in all of them. Then he wanted a couple of him and H alone. There are two types of subjects photographers don’t like: photohogs and shy guys. Most photohogs are children; most shy guys are female. Both mess up your shots. I wanted to scream at Photohog to get out of my shots; let me take some photos of H and the other union officials without you. I bit my tongue. There’s a limit to tyranny.

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At least with these posed shots H looked at my camera, though sometimes her eyes drifted to the side. The union officials were all eyes front – thank goodness.

As the meeting broke up Denice reappeared with yesterday’s interpreter. Someone handed me Sweeney’s card with an e-mail address on it and told me to send him some photos. (Wonder who reads his e-mail?) An AFL staffer asked for some photos for the AFL webpage. I wondered why the AFL didn’t have its own photographer there as I showed him what I had on the digital camera. I didn’t have an action shot and he didn’t see anything he liked but still told me to send him a sample to show to the webpage editor. Denice said she was taking H and a few others to lunch, shaking her head “no way” as I pointed to the leftover sandwiches.

As we exited the AFL building, I saw H hand the interpreter her camera and stand with Denice in front of the AFL sign. Great idea, I thought, pulling out my digital camera. One can’t stand directly in front of the letters “AFL-CIO” because there are two-foot high hedges stretching 40 feet in front. H and Denice stood as close as they could get while Zein took the photo from an angle to include the letters. I shot one from a longer distance which only allowed me to get “- CIO”. I walked to Zein’s spot to get the better angle asking Denice and H to stay put. They ignored me. When I protested that I wanted to get that shot as well, Denice said dismissively, “go with the flow, Jo.” Just in case I’d missed yesterday’s message that my photos were of no value, I got it again.

After we parted I went to the NWU office to e-mail my shots to the USLAW webmaster, hoping he had received the ones I sent the day before. The only USLAW e-mail in my box was a mass e-mailing sent earlier that day about the Tour so I sent him another e-mail:

“did you get the photos I sent yesterday of Hashemya's arrival in DC. I took ones today of her with Sweeney. I'll send them if you want them.”

A few hours later I got another mass e-mail with the Subject: “Solidarity Tour Begins.” I opened it hoping to see my photos, but all I saw was one someone else had taken of Denice and H with the host of a radio show at XM Satellite radio. They were all looking at the camera.

Eventually I got a reply from the USLAW webmaster:

“Please resend yesterday's photos. They got caught in a spam filter and were accidentally erased.”

I stayed late dutifully e-mailing digital photos to numerous people as attached files. I resent to USLAW those taken the day before as well as today’s shots. I sent to the people whose cards I had taken any photo he or she was in. I asked for a credit line if anyone posted or published any of my photos. Those of a couple people I could not match up with the names on the cards I sent to Shawna with the subject line “need ID”. I picked out a couple for Sweeney and took them home to run through Photoshop. Why I wanted to do the extra work for him I do not know, but I did. I’m sure all those union officials have people on staff with better Photoshop skills and equipment than I have.

The next day “replies” from Shawna identified the unknown and I sent a couple more photos as attached files. Only one of the dozen or so people I sent photos to clicked “Reply” to say thank you -- and it wasn’t Photohog. None of my photos appeared on the AFL webpage. When I checked the USLAW webpage, none of my photos were there either. If anyone else used any of my photos on their union webpage or newsletter, no one told me.

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Copyright© by Jo Freeman, 2007

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