CNN Photos

The months before the Iraq War

Iraq felt claustrophobic, almost suffocating, under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 2002, photographer Thorne Anderson said.

People stocked up on supplies, and some buried gasoline tanks and dug wells in their backyard, he said.Everyone was talking about the coming war.

It was difficult to work because government minders were constantly watching him, but in the calm, he kept a low profile and built personal relationships with the people.

One of his sweetest memories was playing dominoes with Iraqi men in teahouses. They teased each other and sipped tea until they were high on caffeine. After, Anderson stumbled out into the street and hailed any passing car for a ride back to his hotel.

“I had genuine conversations with people,” he said.

Hussein was a notorious dictator frequently covered by Western media, but Anderson said he was embarrassed about how little he knew about Iraqi society.

“I didn’t appreciate the complexity of Iraq’s culture,” he said.

He learned to navigate the culture, which allowed him to cover the country and not just the politics of the invasion.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United Nations punished Iraq with sanctions blocking almost all trade from the country.

The ban on imports coupled with government mismanagement left Iraq in dire conditions.

Anderson saw raw sewage collecting on dirt roads in Basra.

People were bitter toward the U.S. government because of the U.N. sanctions, but they recognized that he was a journalist and opened up to him.

“They were very critical of the U.S. without treating me badly,” he said.

Anderson saw groups from all over, including Christian groups from the United States and Canada, protesting the impending war.

The government tracked them and manipulated their anti-war protests for propaganda purposes, Anderson said, but the citizens were just glad to see Westerners trying to understand their situation.

“Citizens were genuinely grateful that people from the West were trying to understand the political context from their point of view,” Anderson said.

When the bombing began in March 2003, everything changed.

“It was as if a flip had been switched, and Iraq went from complete stasis to utter chaos and upheaval,” he said.

Streets emptied. Journalists flooded the country. Anderson, like all the press, became a target.

He no longer met Iraqis for late nights in teahouses, as it was too dangerous to stay out after dark.

Anderson has worked in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, but Iraq became most dangerous conflict he has covered.

-  Lauren Russell, CNN

Thorne Anderson and photographer Kael Alford's Iraq work  is currently on exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The show, titled "Eye Level in Iraq," will be on display until June 16.