BAGHDAD // Ahmed Majeed Al Musafer studies the images on the wall of his Baghdad studio. For decades, he was a premier photographer of Iraqi entertainers and politicians and visiting Arab actors and dignitaries. One wall of his studio is adorned with their photos - memories of a long-lost life.
Before the US-led invasion in 2003, he says, photography was a joy. To him, it was honest work that paid well, and that he could enjoy doing. He used the medium to seek out and display what was beautiful about Iraq, whether Iraqis at a local market or a well-known actor or artist. But the photographs today have changed from Iraqis enjoying life, to just trying to survive it.
He and the photographers he knows now have to document the destruction in and outside of Baghdad.
"Many have to seek out bloody photos, to sell to a news agency, to have money to live on," he says. "The once-beautiful Baghdad is now virtually gone. It is dirty now, and covered in ash and rubbish."
Fadil Abed Rahi is a former Republican Guard soldier who sells kababs at night from his cart on a street in Baghdad.
Mr Rahi, 38, says that during his time in the guard, he and his fellow soldiers were treated badly by Saddam Hussein, so initially he was happy to see the Americans arrive. But in retrospect, he says, if he could go back and stop the invasion, he would.
He says that even though he did not like Saddam, his life was much easier then. Today he works as a day labourer, picking up daily jobs in the morning, and running his kabab cart at night to support his wife and four children.
"Now," he says, "people have to work three jobs just to feed their families. Our lives have become much more serious and difficult. I would rather have died in the invasion of 2003 than live like this now."
According to the CIA, Iraq's unemployment rate has hovered around 15 per cent for the past few years. About 25 per of the country lives at or below the poverty line of about US$1.25 a day (Dh4.60).
Economic growth slowed from 9.5 per cent in 2008 to under 1 per cent in 2010. But it went back up to nearly 10 per cent in 2011, and the CIA Factbook says "an improving security environment and foreign investment are helping to spur economic activity, particularly in the energy, construction, and retail sectors".
But the promise of further growth are of little comfort to Iraqis who are still suffering lasting effects of the war.
Um Basim is raising eight children without her husband, who was killed in sectarian violence in 2007, which she blames on the American invasion. She says the violence started with the US soldiers coming in and killing Iraqis by any means.
"This is what American democracy brought to us," she says. "Poverty, illness, and terror to our borders,"
But the Iraqi journalist Mohammed Hameed disagrees. He believes that Iraqis have freedom now that they never had before, and that their lives are better for it.
"We can speak and say everything we want, and Saddam's security forces are not there to arrest us," he says. "There is corruption and terror in the country, but nothing compared to Saddam."
He said Iraq was sick from Saddam's wars, but that the country is now on the way to recovery.
"I don't blame the Americans for anything that has happened in Iraq," he says. "The Iraqis brought this to themselves. They didn't work as a united people to build their country."