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.
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.
‘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.