Lori Grinker at Nailya Alexander

"At least in Iraq you die only once," an Iraqi refugee, "Zahar," one of the subjects of photographer Lori Grinker's recent exhibition "Iraq: Scars and Exiles," said about seeking refuge in Amman, Jordan, after the U.S.'s "freedom" mission. Like all these urban exiles, she is afraid to reveal her real name. To date, there are approximately 750,000 such Iraqis in Jordan, 1.5 million in Syria and 1.5 million in Iraq's Kurdish region. Regarded as enemies by their neighbors and living without work, schools or money, they are little better off now than before leaving their homes. "Among them are people who helped the U.S. with their mission, and many were happy to receive the U.S. forces in 2003," Grinker said in an interview. "I want the world, especially Americans, to know that we've abandoned them."

These color photographs (2007)--for the most part modestly sized at 12 by 18 or 19 1/2 by 25 inches, with the exception of Clothes Drying in Window, which is 33 by 42 inches--offer up harrowing proof of that betrayal. One image depicts the wounded arriving on a bus from Iraq on their way to receive care from Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). Another captures 16-year-old "Omer" post-surgery, wheeled out on a hospital bed, his arm and shoulder entirely scarred by burns, one of his eyelids cracked open to reveal its white. He appears dead; only the caption in the checklist allowed us to believe otherwise.

Grinker's most haunting images, however, are her interiors, which eschew the more predictable sensationalism of war and its traumas to provide intimate glimpses into the mundane dailiness of brute survival. Untitled, Living-sleeping Room depicts a chamber with couches and armchairs pushed against the walls and every inch of the floor covered by rumpled bedding, pillows and cushions. From a star-shaped ceiling lamp a few deflated pastel-colored balloons hang limply. The caption informs us that this is where the male members of one family sleep. In another image, "Muna," 37, whose husband was killed in Baghdad in front of their children, sits on a bed in the room she shares with the rest of her family. Behind her, in the shadows, a garish Bugs Bunny doll can be seen smiling on a nightstand; its kitsch poshlust acquires a subtext of audacity and humiliation when one considers the source of Muna and her compatriots' "liberation." Another image, The Mystery of Natalie Wood, which includes a television showing Peter Bogdanovich's 2004 biopic in a seemingly uninhabited room, operates in a similar vein, but here, Hollywood and Western cultural hegemony feel not so much offensive as eerie and achingly hollow.

Art in America, June-July 2008