What Walter Gaya Saw
Photos by Walter Gaya
The combat photographer Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
The photos of Walter Gaya, Tacoma photographer and U.S. Army veteran, offer a harrowing firsthand perspective as both witness and participant to the Iraq war. These remarkable, elegiac images lead the viewer into unfamiliar territory, from the unrelieved tension of a sniper watch in Mosul to the vigor of daily life for Iraqi civilians, before coming full circle to a cemetery vigil in Olympia, WA. In a world where politically opposed parties are separated only by the length of a transcontinental plane flight — and hardwired to one another by the Internet — this shifting visual narrative brings to mind the movie Babel, but in 2D.
The Argentinean-born Gaya, 32, took up photography when he joined the military in 2000. It was during marksmanship training, with its basis in precision optics, that he discovered a natural parallel with taking pictures: “You’re still aiming, still finding your angle.” Gaya documented his service in Iraq and Turkey from 2004 to 2006. He was wounded in action twice; an injury requiring eye surgery ended his military career. Gaya and his wife, Jessica, have two children; until recently the couple owned the Corina Bakery in downtown Tacoma.
During a yearlong deployment in Mosul with the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, “We were heavily involved in combat,” Gaya recalls. “We were fighting all the time.” Between missions, he studied books on photography and the work of influential war photographers such as James Nachtwey.
He honed his craft in both film (he uses a Nikon and a Leica) and digital media, posting real-time images on Photojournale and other Web sites. “It helped my psyche, helped keep me cool,” says the soft-spoken Gaya. Amidst the chaos of conflict, he learned to “take the camera out and work really fast. Combat situations and photography go hand in hand when you’re running around a city under siege. You’re very vigilant.” It’s the perfect environment for a quick-thinking photojournalist willing to take risks. But, as an Army sergeant, Gaya stresses that the safety of his unit was always foremost.
Gaya’s grimly evocative black-and-white images, reproduced here and collected in the self-published book Focus: Through the Lens of a Soldier (available here), capture soldiers working between the extremes of tension and boredom: taking prisoners one moment, playing a dusty game of pickup football the next.
“You could be dodging mortar rounds,” he notes drily, “and within twenty minutes be doing your laundry.” Gaya’s shots of civilian life in Arbil and Dohuk include portraits of Kurdish men passing the time and young children pressing beaming faces into the camera; these pictures leap off the page, deeply affirmative visions against the backdrop of war.
“There are moments in life too sublime for words,” Gaya observes. Through the lingua franca of photography, Gaya transcends geographic boundaries to describe both the ecstatic and the unspeakable in the human condition. The goal of this documentation, he says, is not to make a political statement, but to capture “truth in the moment.”