NM photojournalist pays his own way to get to some of the world’s hottest spots - Albuquerque Journal

NM photojournalist pays his own way to get to some of the world’s hottest spots

Spc. Armando Martinez of the New Mexico National Guard, left, and Sgt. Eric Papp of the Minnesota National Guard, right, tend to an injured Afghan girl in this 2012 photo in Helmand province, Afghanistan. This is an example of Jim Spiri’s wartime photojournalism. (Courtesy of Jim Spiri)
Spc. Armando Martinez of the New Mexico National Guard, left, and Sgt. Eric Papp of the Minnesota National Guard, right, tend to an injured Afghan girl in this 2012 photo in Helmand province, Afghanistan. This is an example of Jim Spiri’s wartime photojournalism. (Courtesy of Jim Spiri)

Jim Spiri shot hundreds of people in several battle zones on two continents. He was armed only with a camera.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, Spiri’s years of wartime photography speak volumes. He captures moments of intense combat, but also daily life of soldiers and civilians in war zones. Spiri has shot in El Salvador, Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’ve always been intrigued with war documentary, war history – I grew up watching Vietnam on TV,” Spiri says.

Wielding a camera came somewhat by accident in Spiri’s early 30s, after enrolling at Eastern New Mexico University.

A photography class at ENMU, along with a lecture from P.J. O’Rourke and a screening of the film “Under Fire,” rekindled Spiri’s interest in combat photojournalism. He spent time in El Salvador in 1987, ’88 and ’89 covering the ongoing civil war. “I went there to get an A in my first B&W photography class,” Spiri says.

Spiri published a book called “In the Beginning … El Salvador” that featured photographs taken by Spiri and his wife.

He found photographing life amid civil war in El Salvador life-changing, but not financially lucrative. “I learned early on that I wasn’t going to make any money at it, so I had to do other things to finance my passion.” Spiri has most often found employment in aviation ground operations, but jokes that there are about 467 things he’s done to earn a living.

Members of the ARCE Battalion pose in 1989 in San Miguel, El Salvador, during the civil war. The photo is in “In the Beginning ... El Salvador,” a book of images by Jim Spiri and his wife, Candi Spiri. (Courtesy of Jim Spiri)
Members of the ARCE Battalion pose in 1989 in San Miguel, El Salvador, during the civil war. The photo is in “In the Beginning … El Salvador,” a book of images by Jim Spiri and his wife, Candi Spiri. (Courtesy of Jim Spiri)

Local connections

Flash forward to 2004-07 when Spiri was a contract worker on flight lines loading and unloading wounded military personnel and cargo in Iraq and Kuwait. It was in these places that he made numerous contacts, including an interpreter who invited Spiri to visit his hometown of Dhuluiya in Iraq’s Salah ad-Din province. He made many friends, promising to return one day.

In 2007 Spiri was invited to embed with the Marines as a photographer. He spent seven months on the ground with Marine and Army units throughout Iraq, including Mosul and Fallujah.

An East Coast newspaper learned of Spiri’s endeavors and invited him to keep a blog of his journey on their website.

More time was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in 2010 Spiri started freelancing for the Union County Leader, a weekly newspaper out of Clayton, N.M., as its foreign war correspondent. He’s quick to acknowledge the strange nature of his position, but adds that it is a good fit, and allows him to do what he is compelled to do.

Terry Martin, editor of the Union County Leader, says he and his readers appreciate the Ernie Pyle-type human interest coverage of life in time of war.

“It reaches all audiences. It’s pretty interesting to me,” says Martin, adding that one reader caught a late installment and came in to acquire all the back issues.

When asked why he does the work, Spiri replies, “I have a chip in the game.” His son, Jimmy Spiri Jr., is a helicopter pilot in the Army, and, he says, “I’ve lost some friends in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Spiri’s oldest son, Jesse, passed away from brain cancer in 2001 shortly after being commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. A loophole in the law allowed TRICARE, the military health-care program, to deny medical coverage to the Marine. Spiri worked with Sen. Pete Dominici to pass a bill in Congress, the 2nd Lt. Jesse Spiri Military Medical Coverage Act of 2004.

Freelance photojournalist Jim Spiri points to a flak jacket and other gear provided by the U.S. Marines while he was embedded with them in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently returned from another trip to Iraq, this time on his own. (Joel Wigelsworth/Albuquerque Journal)
Freelance photojournalist Jim Spiri points to a flak jacket and other gear provided by the U.S. Marines while he was embedded with them in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently returned from another trip to Iraq, this time on his own. (Joel Wigelsworth/Albuquerque Journal)

‘Tell me your story’

July 2015 found Spiri in Iraq once again. This time he was unable to accompany a military unit, and instead kept his promise from 11 years earlier to return to Dhuluiya, a prominent agricultural community before it got torn apart by war.

“I lived with the locals. And I became absolutely in love with their families, with the Jabouri tribe,” Spiri says. “I made it very clear, ‘I’m just here – you tell me your story.’ And they knew who I was because I had been there 11 years earlier.”

“I was treated with an incredible amount of dignity and high honor. I was busy every single day and night listening” to officials, dignitaries, and anyone who wanted to be heard about what their town had been through, including keeping ISIS from overrunning the town. “They couldn’t believe that someone was coming to tell their story; they couldn’t believe that an American would just come and walk the streets.”

The Union County Leader is publishing the most recent trip in installments.

You can also read his observations at jimspiri.com.

Home » Entertainment » Arts » NM photojournalist pays his own way to get to some of the world’s hottest spots


Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email yourstory@abqjournal.com

taboola desktop

1
Adobe Theater brings the Tony Award-winning musical to stage
Arts
The first few minutes of 'The ... The first few minutes of 'The Drowsy Chaperone' occur in complete darkness, while an anxious but companionable voice drifts from the stage.
2
NMPhil celebrating winter with a series of concerts
Arts
The New Mexico Philharmonic is gearing ... The New Mexico Philharmonic is gearing up for its Winter Festival with multiple 'Messiahs,' holiday pops and the 'Carol of the Bells.'
3
Vortex Theatre to bring folk tales, legends and more ...
Arts
The show opens on Friday, Dec. ... The show opens on Friday, Dec. 2, continuing on weekends through Dec. 18.
4
Here's what happening at Bishop's Lodge for the holidays
Arts
Santa Fe resort hosts its first-ever ... Santa Fe resort hosts its first-ever holiday market
5
Corrales Winter Craft Show to showcase 40 local artists
Arts
The three-day event kicks off on ... The three-day event kicks off on Friday, Dec. 2, at the Historic Old San Ysidro Church, 966 Old Church Road in Corrales.
6
Want to force bulbs this winter? Here's how.
Arts
You need to decide which of ... You need to decide which of the two traditional methods of forcing you are going to employ. You can force in a draining ...
7
Albuquerque author David E. Stuart writing book exploring Chacoan ...
Arts
'The Chacoan World: A Legacy of ... 'The Chacoan World: A Legacy of Gardens' is part of a new book series from the University of New Mexico Press titled 'New Century ...
8
Roswell is home to an arts and cultural history ...
Arts
The Roswell Museum that dates back ... The Roswell Museum that dates back to 1937 counts some 9,000 works in its collection, said executive director Caroline Brooks.
9
A look at five items from the National Museum ...
Arts
The National Museum of Nuclear Science ... The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History provides an objective, accessible window into the past, present and future of nuclear science.