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On the frontlines: Start of the Iraq War

As a contracted photographer for Newsweek in 2003, Gary Knight knew a war was brewing in Iraq.  In preparation, he went to Kuwait to buy food, spare tires, fuel and other equipment to store in a garage close to the Iraqi border. Then he waited.

There was time to discuss with editors and colleagues how they would cover the war. Would they embed with the U.S. forces or go independently?

Knight, who covered conflict in Southeast Asia as well as the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, had always gone into war zones on his own.

The same would be true in Iraq; he would try to cover it independently and have more freedom, he thought.

With days to spare, he and other photojournalists bunked up on a farm near the border, within the security perimeter so they could still access the war zone when the fighting started.

The day came on March 20, 2003, as President George W. Bush announced that the U.S. and coalition forces would begin military action against Iraq. The journalists pressed into the country, expecting the forces ahead to secure the area behind them as they moved forward.

They didn’t.

Knight and fellow colleagues found themselves face-to-face with armed Iraqis and fell under attack.

He instantly knew that this war would not be conducted predictably, Knight told CNN in an exclusive interview.

This war proved different from his experience in a lot of ways.

It wasn’t guerrilla warfare; instead, it was the first war he covered where the world’s most powerful military was fighting a well-armed opponent.

Instead of covering everything for a media outlet, the responsibility had been split between a couple of photographers. After planning to use film, he was using a digital camera. He’d first used one in 2001 in Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11.

And he would be forced to operate within a military unit, without the option to document civilians.

Col. Bryan McCoy enabled Knight and the other photojournalists to stay with his group, providing an additional level of safety, as well as giving them access to the frontlines.

“It was an incredible gift,” Knight said. “It was the best of both worlds.”

On April 6, 2003, the battle for the Diyala Bridge began near Baghdad. For two days, the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines unit that Knight traveled with pushed across the river and into the city. It was an essential get for the effort.

“The Marines were a very aggressive unit,” he recalled. “Everything you’d want them to be as a general or president.”

He stayed with one familiar small platoon during the attack, mostly so that they would be aware who he was - his voice, his stride and his panting would be recognizable and they wouldn’t shoot him by mistake, he said.

Armed with one digital memory card, a spare battery and one lens, he had to be cautious with his camera use. There was no way to predict how long any battle would last, so he couldn’t overphotograph. He had one bottle of water, with no way of getting more. He had to use that sparingly, too.

On the frontlines, the story evolves in front of you, Knight said. He responded to what happened, and he found it to be quite a sobering event.

“There’s nothing romantic, nothing positive at all to take out of an experience like that, except that you survived,” he said.

He photographed for days in battle, as well as when the statue of then-Iraq leader Saddam Hussein was pulled down in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. Newsweek, which published weekly, didn’t use the majority of the imagery.

“The whole thing was an experience in life that I could have done without,” Knight said.

He kept diaries of the events, which will be published alongside his photographs in an exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York, starting Thursday, March 14, in conjunction with the 10-year anniversary of the war’s start.

The exhibit will also feature diary entries from Lt. Timothy McLaughin, a Marine in command of a tank during the invasion, and whose flag draped the statue of Hussein. Articles by Peter Maass, a journalist who wrote for The New York Times and the New Yorker, will accompany the show.

“Three eyewitness accounts saw exactly the same thing, but none in the same way,” Knight said. “You can only see what’s in your field of vision with your own prejudice and your own experience. It’s an interesting look back at the war.”

 - Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN