https://vimeo.com/603982725/df811a7eb3On 7 October 2001, the United States and its allies launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” with airstrikes against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. As part of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” retaliating against those responsible for the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, this military action began what would become America’s longest-ever military engagement.
US forces and NATO troops remained in Afghanistan even after the 2014 handover of security responsibility to Afghan national forces. Now, after the deaths of 47,000 Afghan civilians, 66,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 2,400 US military personnel, 1,100 allied forces – and the expenditure of more than $2 trillion – the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan.
The collapse of the Afghan government and its military, and the chaotic withdrawal of western personnel from Afghanistan, was triggered by the Biden administration’s policy of getting all US forces out of Afghanistan by 9 September 2021 (a deadline that was four months later than agreed in the Trump administration’s February 2021 peace deal with the Taliban). The triumph of Taliban forces committed to establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan imperils the human rights of many in the Afghan population whose life had improved somewhat in the last twenty years.
VII Agency was founded a few days before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and the first assignment was photographing the aftermath of those attacks, in both the US and Afghanistan. In the last twenty years, many VII photographers have reported extensively on the war in Afghanistan, building on work they did in the 1980s and 1990s prior to American involvement with boots on the ground. This special event offers a retrospective of some of VII’s coverage, with contributions from the late Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Christopher Morris, Seamus Murphy, and Daniel Schwartz. The discussion will probe the question of how photojournalism visualised the country and the conflict in Afghanistan, and how the work of the VII photographers contributed, for better or worse, to the visual reporting from Afghanistan.
David Campbell: So this is a special VII Insider event and we’re holding this discussion at the intersection of a number of anniversaries. 20 years ago today on the 9 of September 2001 Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the resistance against the Taliban at the time, was assassinated by suicide bombers in Afghanistan at the instigation of both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Two days later, Al Qaeda attacked the United States by hijacking commercial aircraft and flying them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. A little bit later, on the 7 of October, the United States and its allies launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” with airstrikes against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. As part of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” as it came to be known, retaliating against those responsible for the 11 of September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. This military action began what would become America’s longest-ever military engagement.
US forces and NATO troops remained in Afghanistan even after the 2014 handover of security responsibility to Afghan national forces. And in the last week or so after the deaths of 47,000 Afghan civilians, 66,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 2,400 US military personnel, 1,100 personnel from allied countries —and expenditure in excess of more than $2 trillion US dollars— the US and its allies have formally left Afghanistan and the Taliban has retaken control.
Also 20 years ago this month the VII Agency was founded. In the days before the terrorist attacks of 11 of September 2001. The first assignment was photographing the aftermath of those attacks in both the US and Afghanistan. In the last 20 years, a number of VII photographers have reported extensively on the war in Afghanistan, extending the work they did in the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to American involvement with boots on the ground.
In that context, this event has a specific purpose. And it’s important to start by understanding what it is not. This is not designed to be an event about recent coverage of Afghanistan by both local and international photographers. And it’s not designed to reflect on the future of photography in Afghanistan. Both of those would be worthy topics of detailed reflection.
What today’s event is designed to do is to undertake a retrospective look at some of the reporting on Afghanistan by some of the VII photographers who have covered the conflicts and to ask how the work of VII photography has contributed, for better or worse to the visual journalism from Afghanistan. So today, we’re going to be showing work and discussing work by the late Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Christopher Morris, Seamus Murphy and Daniel Schwartz. We want to begin with Alexandra’s work and to introduce her and kind of her role. Ron, I wonder if, as one of the founders of VII, you can provide some context on Alexandra and her work?
Ron Haviv: Yeah, thank you, David. So obviously, it would be a pleasure to speak about Alex, who’s one of the, as you said, co-founders of VII, which, as you said, formed this week. And kind of the impetus for the forming of the agency starting with the conversations between Gary Knight and John Stanmeyer. Leading to basically the seven of us grouping together was that we had all worked together around the world, but primarily working together in the former Yugoslavia, the bulk of us, and had learned about our strengths and weaknesses as people and photographers and really got to have the ability to know somebody in very extreme circumstances. And so my relationship with Alex started as well in the former Yugoslavia.
And when I think back about Alex as a person, I think that she was without question, a trailblazer in terms of her agenda, but her work and her ideas go much more beyond that. She was an incredibly fierce person, very devoted, very loyal to her stories, very dedicated, willing to always go that extra inch extra mile, whatever she could do to kind of tell the story. Always looking for the stories that needed to be told in the work that she did in the former Yugoslavia culminating in her book. As well as her seminal work on women in the Muslim world. As well as working in Indonesia elsewhere, places like Geographic and Match and Time were very important bodies of work. And Alex was trained as an artist. She had a painting background, a graphic artist background, and that came across, in her imagery.
And I think that we were very lucky to have Alex with us. As long as we did. She died about 14 years ago, this October. But she was incredibly influential on the formation of VII. And also on the, I think, on the world of photojournalism itself. And I hope that she remains as an example, not only for young women photographers but for all photographers of what you can do when you really have the passion to have an impact with your work.
David Campbell: Great. Thanks, Ron. So, Daniel, you curated a selection of Alex’s images. And you’re going to talk us through that and then move on to some of your own. Let me bring those up. Daniel, over to you.
Daniel Schwartz: So I never had the privilege to meet Alexandra and to have given the opportunity to look at some of her work. The first time I met Alexandra, somehow was when her photograph, which we will later see, opened with a novel spread of a story I had been commissioned to do. It was strange. The magazine editor called me in the evening, the day before publication, and said “Well, you know, there’s a little problem. You have to use to photograph of another of another photographer as an opener.” When I saw it, I immediately wrote him back and I said, “I’m so glad that not another child had to die. So that I also could make a picture, which then would provide an opening spread.” So that was our first encounter.
Yeah, so it’s about 16 or 18 pictures. Most of them speak for themselves. I provide the captions, some part of the captions, which she wrote. Here is just something which I found while doing the research. I did not know that Alexandra had studied art history, but it is something clearly I saw when I looked at her work more carefully these days that that comes through.
So we can start with the first image. Yeah, that’s art history. You know, the shop painting. I’ll talk a little bit later about that. Its pre-9/11. It’s 2001, the child who had died from pneumonia in Herat in IDP camp is being prepared for the burial. Some Taliban running over to the Northern Alliance in Kunduz about three months after 9/11. Alexandra was famous in one of her quotes that “You can photograph war without showing guns.”
This is in Kabul. This woman just gave birth in Jalalabad Maternity Women’s Hospital, 2004. This is a woman staying in Mazar Sharif. You can already see that women figure prominently in Alexandra’s work, which comes to no surprise. We are in a Muslim country, in a woman’s hospital. I think I should write the embedded information because it’s an extraordinary example of a caption, so we would like to have them. Here is the story as written up by Alexandra, “Shahema, 25, set herself on fire 20 days ago. She has just arrived to the hospital but was first healed at home in Pashto Sargam 25 kilometers away from Herat. ‘I was unhappy with my husband’s family, there was nothing to make me happy in life. He was nice to me, but his mothers and sisters with whom we live punished me all the time.’ She had been married for three years, her husband was a teacher but quit his job because his salary wasn’t enough to sustain the family. Shahema’s family was in exile in Iran for a long time. It’s when she went back to Afghanistan that she married. She’s a mother of two and she set herself on fire. Also, according to the doctors, there is no doubt about that. In the end, she’ll admit she was feeling very depressed the day this took place. ‘It’s because of all these problems with my family-in-laws. Anyway, I have to go back to my husband,’” October 24, Herat, Afghanistan. I think that’s as good as you can get with the captions. It shows respect towards the people, which at the end lives in our imagery.
Next, the picture on top is a woman for the first time since 20 years an Afghan woman allowed to voting and elect the Afghan president. Below you have an election, a UN election worker who became victim to a car bomb, which was aimed at women traveling to distribute election leaflets who often die trying to survive this severe burning. If you look at this picture, you can see this is just a composition which you usually would see in The Uffizi in Florence or in some other place. And of course, the photograph, which none of us photographers could have done. Now, this is a composite of four images. It shows, of course, the domestic violence poster, basically, the restoration of the woman before said. Below, you have Dostum, one of the warlords and criminals to whom The Western Alliance in-demand powered. On the top right, you have sort of an image, which shows a CBS reporter sort of basically sort of presenting Western culture, while there was a war still going on. I think these four pictures show a lot how complicated the situation was, wasn’t how wrong things were done from the very first day, and also how media played in and how media was used by those who already still have power or to slipped back into power can go on.
That’s the beauty kit of the anchorman. And next to it, you have the journal of a woman who paints or makes a sketch of how much suffering there is at home. I think if there is a clash of civilizations, then it’s this. But it’s something, which could be addressed down the road the right way.
Now here we have a woman casting on the roof of Altai’s office French again, it’s Alexandros caption, “A French advertisement company established in Kabul for the campaign of the mobile phone network Russia. The one who will be selected will be posing for a big poster photoshoot, and we’ll be hanging each in Afghanistan’s main cities. French art directors working for Altai takes pictures of the model will go home 20 experiences here first shooting.”
Again, the top picture Alexandra’s caption, “Shafiqul, 16, mother of 15 children on her way to Kabul. Shafiqul lives in Mazar. She suffers of internal stomach pains, but none of Mazar-i-Sharif’s doctors seem to be able to treat her. Therefore she’s going to Kabul’s hospital by plane accompanied by one of her sons with the hope to get a better diagnosis and to receive proper treatment. Here Shafiqul arrives in Kabul walks on the tarmac of Kabul airport, as her son carries their only luggage, pictured below.” It speaks for itself. Yes, now that sort of the picture, which actually would precede our opening picture.
Now, what can we see? What can we take away from Alexandra’s photos? First, because I’ll try to speak a little bit more on that. They expose the West and I think the Cultural Re-Education Project in Afghanistan camouflaged as a humanitarian intervention, fatally intertwined with war of a different nature, peace enforcing, and reconstruction, all of which combined, had to fail. They expose a criminal naivety of The Western Alliance in my view, which instilled onto people locked in then already 20 years of war occidental values, without preparing and stabilizing the conditions in which such important values could be assimilated within the cultures of a multi-ethnic nation, and without confronting the prevailing traditions and while not delivering what is needed.
So how should we regard this image? Of what does it speak? It speaks of a tangible tenderness. Of course, it is an image weighed down with sadness and trauma. An image of what parents should never, ever have to do. There is nothing shocking, I think about the image aside from the knowledge that the child died from pneumonia, something that one would hope could be avoided, if the will was there in those who have the means to charge the direction of one’s life. There is no sign, as you see of the child sex, there is no face to be identified. It is an image taken with care and then proceeds. The fact that the photographer is allowed to be present at such a time of grief speaks volumes of the compassion of those present, something that is in direct contrast to how the media would have us view the patriarchal society in Afghanistan. And I assume Alexandra must have had the permission of the Taliban as I had received myself in the same location two months later. Because back then, as you know, then no image was allowed of a person or living thing, including a bird, which might fly into your frame. This image destroys so many preconceived notions. It illustrates an extreme tenderness and love which thanks to the West’s focus on the barbarian attributes of the Taliban deserved most likely, most readers are unwilling to entertain, which of course prevents the possibility inducing an empathy towards these people in need.
As you remember from her quote, Alexandra studied art history and did not hide this information, once she had become a war photographer in the Balkan disaster. For reasons of composition, aesthetics and interpretation of death, to reference to Caravaggio and The Entombment of Christ from 1603 in The Chapel of The Santa Maria in Vallicella, made at the beginning is important. First, because as photographers, we also happen to be involved in the business of education. Second, in my view, Alexandra gave the very best of her art education to depict the child’s burial, creating an image of greatest intercultural competence and grace. Referring here to occidental religious iconography, we are aware, of course, that one of the crassest, voyeuristic and perhaps even pornographic depictions of suffering might be the crucifixion. The atonement, in contrast, mostly displaced dignity. Whereas the crucifixion screams and accuses, the suffering here is silent. And in these yes, beautiful sublime photographs, there is silence. Third, and to conclude, Alexandra’s image is taken in a Muslim country as such by applying Western iconography it makes the point that in existential moments, all humans are the same. Alexandra’s image stands for deep understanding of what separates people and also brings them together.
David Campbell: Thank you, Daniel, we’re going to move on to a selection of your own work. And just as we do that, can you tell us when you first went to Afghanistan? And why did you decide to go to Afghanistan? And when you were there how were you traveling around? Who were you able to work with? Were you embedded with anyone? What was the process of that?
Daniel Schwartz: Um, yeah I’m happy to talk about that very briefly. I started going to the country in the late 90s. Because the country was part of the historical and political geography of a book I was working on between 1995 and 2007. It was most published under the title Traveling Through the Eye of History in 2009. So I did not go to Afghanistan to meet the Taliban or go to a country which was difficult to access. But because the Taliban simply had liberated a country from the warlords, self-dismemberment, and the country happened to be in the historical geography, which was sort of the main thing of my book, “Arc of Crisis,” as I called it between the Caspian and Kashmir between the Iranian desert and Xinjiang. I traveled mostly independently, with trusted local companions, with the Taliban’s permission, and, in some cases, with escorts to prevent me from something malicious. I traveled always on roads, by horse, and on foot. The routes are very, very important to me, especially in that book, the roads, it was all about the roads.
I did one ISAF embed including TRS and Bagram Airbase. Embedded I experienced no press freedom. I needed to resist to being instrumentalized within the ISAF propaganda machinery. Breaking free was very difficult. In contrast to the 90s, when the Taliban allowed crossing the front line into Panjshir. I was commissioned by Swiss magazines and newspapers. They knew that my imagery was some of the material in the book and eventually an exhibition. I went self-assigned. And apart from the book, some of the photographs were entered to a large exhibition in Zurich, Berlin, and some of them in San Francisco in the MoMA.
Then you had another question? Yes. “What did I want to achieve?” I tried to achieve and not only in Afghanistan, or wherever I go, I tried to produce photographs that are relevant beyond the news, which actually never interests me. And in line with my approach of history telling instead of storytelling, so that’s my approach. Some of the images taken 20 or 10 years ago might seem now prophetic, but maybe they are the result of research, thinking and some logic, which could be derived from the situations on the ground.
David Campbell: Great, thanks. Let’s move through your selection then.
Daniel Schwartz: Yeah, so I started with the was one of the earliest one the top right, of course, when I say it was 98 it’s terribly difficult because Taliban all around the people. You really have to be quick taking pictures of people, but when I could not resist here because it reminded me to something I had seen before. And obviously, it’s for the historic photographs of the first stage around the Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children in 49 was first performed on the stage in Zurich. And as you know, Mother Courage plays out during the 30 Years War which devastated Europe and it of course, written inserting nine it was the anti-war play until to this day against the backdrop of Nazism and fascism. And I was so struck when I looked at that picture today again, you know, the cart which on that original, the wheels, it’s exactly the same wheels, only we have a girl pushing the cart and on the stage. So, so it also it shows it shows you that I’ve tried to put a lot in my picture. Some people say I only make the photograph once after caption, which is sometimes true.
We can go on. And roads brought me to the gas line. Again, we are in those students, in those students’ fiefdom in the northeast. The student was an engineer, Soviet appointed engineer of this gas plant. It was always been his place. He has committed war crimes in his fortress. I traveled on road to Lashkar Gah to Kandahar, from Kandahar down to Lashkar Gah. You see the Ghaznavid ruins there. You know, reading the history of how several Arab conquests tried to annihilate the Ghaznavid kingdom somehow played out again once British and American forces lost so many lives in that very, very difficult terror of the wreckage stone and to the west of it.
Okay, this man waits on the “Betonka.” The “Betonka” is the concrete slab road which Khrushchev sold to the Afghan King in the 50s in a long perspective to invade Afghanistan or included it as a satellite in the Soviet Empire. And, of course, these concrete slabs they survived all the earthquakes and all the wars, whereas the American-built tarmac in the 60s, linking Kandahar to Kabul was, for those of you who have traveled on it, it’s basically sand buried. So this man waits there for donations. He’s fixing potholes.
Here, this is a diptych between it has sort of a news thing today because it shows the road leading from the Iranian border, to to Herat. And if you have followed how the Taliban came back to power first they took to the cross border checkpoints for revenues, and so forth. And so my question here is, and I probably should read this word piece: “We see what we know. A road across the desert littered with countless landmines. A Soviet BMD-2 armored troop carrier destroyed at some time during 20 years of war. Shelter to four hungry children. Eight hours spent filling potholes. Earning 15,000 Afghani— the equivalent of ten cents or two loaves of nan. From drivers and passengers of an unknown number of container trucks transporting unknown quantities of consumer goods made in Japan from the Persian Gulf through Iran after Pakistan’s clamp-down on smuggling results in millions of dollars in transit fees and duties. Fueling war operations.” So you see, I’ve tried sometimes to build a word piece with information, which normally would go into a caption.
Yeah, that’s sort of… this picture was taken on a patrol with Macedonian forces on the Bibi Maru Hill. And so there’s a lot of images which not only today, but already 10 years ago, sort of that was the story at the essence of the whole thing, which was playing out. If you’re looking for business, something as a business destination well, instead of war going on something is definitely wrong, in my view.
I was always more interested in where the rhubarb, how the rhubarb came to Afghanistan., thansort of, which general would now sort of follow the previous general’s offer of the Western Alliance Force. Learning to, understanding how the rhubarb made it to Afghanistan is learning to understand terrain, the roads… On top having teams of Taliban on on the way to the drought-stricken parts of this province. And below you have a German Bundeswehr soldier who is having a hard time to eat the Uzbek national dish on route to Mazar…00:28:34
A Taliban checkpoint in Tagab Valley. As I said, they let you cross the string of tapes of music tapes and walk into the Panjshir. Of course, you know harassing people and stealing apples and cigarettes and all that.
A scene about the confusion in ANA training camp. And on the route. As a male photographer when you photograph women you never know actually what’s going on because you cannot ask and etcetera, so you’re always, you’re always stranded in a half or fractured wisdom of what you have photographed. Is it child bride? Is she being guided to her marriage? Or you know, as a man it is very difficult. You always miss more than half of a society.
You see, if you look carefully, you see some armed people sitting on that boulder. It was striking for me for that for 20 years no one addressed the issue of irrigation, especially in a drought-stricken irrigation-dependent country. Around the Hindu Kush. glaciers are melting and of course, there’s a looming water war coming. And if one have observed in the last days or weeks or months, the war increasingly took place outside to traditional fighting season, which makes one think this climate change actually influences warfare. And so climate change or glacial melt becomes a variable. And with that, I think I can conclude my sequence.
David Campbell: Thanks very much, Daniel. We’re going to go to Christopher next. Hopefully, he comes back to his chair in a second. But I will just get the share organized for him while we’re doing that.
Christopher Morris: Yeah, Afghanistan. It’s been an appealing draw for photojournalism, since at least for me since the 80s. Myself, I had started at an agency called Black Star, and through the 80s, they had many photographers that were venturing to Afghanistan, and I used to watch them prepare to leave for their trips, everybody from Steve McCurry to Raisa there was a whole group associated with Black Star that were going into Afghanistan, mostly from around the mid-80s, to the late 80s. And the stories I had always heard from people was, to be honest, I was afraid of Afghanistan. I was afraid of being in way over my head. And then in 1988, when the when it was when the Soviets started their pullout and all that I started understanding that maybe I would like to go there.
And I eventually went to Pashto in Pakistan in 89, because the different Mujahideen groups were trying to form a coalition government to try to get rid of the Najibullah the leader, the Soviet puppet leader of Afghanistan. So I had went to Pakistan. And in Pashto, I spent several months. They had ashore and eventually, I hooked up with a group, Jamia Islami, which was one of the more moderate groups that you could work with. They had launched a unified assault on Jalalabad. And this is the picture you see here. You probably go to the next David. But I had made it into Jalalabad, but they were getting, they weren’t doing well. And I realized I was kind of in over my head. And I ended up going back into Pakistan. And realizing I had, you know, I have covered a lot of conflicts in Asia, and South America. And this was the first time I would classify that I ever covered real war.
So they had regrouped. And I had found out speaking to the Jamia Islami people that they were going to launch a big offensive in Kandahar in a month, a unified group to take the airport in Kandahar. So they brought me down to Quetta and then across the border at Spin Buldak, and I basically waited around three weeks close to a month for this attack on the airport. And what was frightening for me is culturally it was so foreign to me and I was not with any other Western journalists. I wasn’t with the writer. I had had a translator that was given to me called the Taji man but on our first day in the Kandahar area, we were under heavy shelling and got bombed by, by a plane and he left. That, that night I woke up he was going on he had packed up his bags in the fled in the desert. You can go ahead, David, pass through.
This was this whole group in this area around Kandahar. This was at this depot they brought in a truckload of these boxes with stinger missiles. And as a photographer, I knew the value of trying to photograph to me it was like oh my god, this is the holy grail because this, this one weapon is what defeated the Soviets. They… yeah. So is this is them going off in the battle to go to move out towards this airport area. I did not go with them. Sorry about that I broke up.
This is a fighter that was killed. This is in the village that we were near from the airport. We weren’t far from the airport in the desert plain, it was probably a good 10 kilometers away, but you could see the airport. What was hard about being in this spot or just, it was like a shepherd village, there were around 10 mud houses that we were living in, but the Najibullah’s government they knew where we were and it was easy for them to target with shelling and planes and all that. I was over my head. I wanted out and I ended up riding on the windshield of this truck on the hood because they wouldn’t let me ride in the back with the bodies and I wanted out. I hadn’t been able to basically speak to anybody that understood me for, for several days at this point. I wanted out. I felt I was way in over my head. Culturally and yeah, and at that point, I had really go back there.
This is several days before the battle these are all the different Afghan groups. Their leaders meeting for like a sure in the desert for this planned attack. What I was extremely afraid of were the Wahhabis. There were Hekmatyar’s people in the area. And I had been warned by Peter Juvenal and some others before I had went in to stay away from the Saudis and the Wahabis and Hekmatyar. They had killed. They had recently killed a journalist by smashing up a rock on his head while he was sleeping in the night. I always had that fear. Because basically out there was living with these people. There were no women. It was young boys and male fighters. The only time I encountered the female population was in Kuchlak, and then Spin Buldak area, but out here in the plains near the Kandahar I didn’t I did not encounter women.
You’ll notice that all this is transparencies. I had to shoot film. I only had so much film on me. It’s different today. When you work you can, you can continuously photograph digital is kind of unlimited. Back then you only had the film that you carried. So there were a lot of things that I saw that I would not photograph because I was you know, there was I couldn’t get resupplied with film. You can go ahead and next.
Which leads to later, you know, September 11 happened. And I remember all my colleagues were getting ready to go off to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and I had no desire. I had no desire to go back to that place. Because of my experiences there. This is one of the few images that I like from September 11. I was… You may pause this for a second David the show because it’s a kind of interesting story. VII had formed in Perpignan. We had announced the formation of VII. I’m not sure if it was September 6 or September 7, something like that. But I was already hidden. I’d stopped conflict photography, and I was assigned to the White House by Time magazine in my month rotation to cover the White House was supposed to start September first, but because we were launching the agency I was delayed. And go ahead and fast forward. Go ahead, David play. Pause this here. So back to this story. I basically ended up having to leave, I had an assignment from Time before they wanted me to go to the Caribbean to shoot internet gambling. And I ended up missing my flight from France in Perpignan out of Barcelona. And with Jim, we were there and stuff. And I asked Jim Nachtwey if he would be willing to do the Time assignment. And, you know, he was planning on flying to Paris and spending some time in Paris before going back to the States. To make a long story short, Jim took the assignment to go to the Caribbean and Jim flew back to New York on like September 9, September 10th. I flew back to Florida where I live same arrived here on basically September 10, because I was supposed to then stock fly up to Washington.
My access covering at the White House I encountered different people. This led to me gaining access to Tommy Franks and CENTCOM. This is the war room with the other allied. They’re getting ready to do their satellite feeds in Afghanistan. This is in January of 2002. So it’s pretty much after they’ve already succeeded in Afghanistan. Go ahead and fast forward the image. Through that meeting, I had tried to Tommy Franks was not interested in me photographing him. And he’s the one who suggested, “Why aren’t you photographing the troops?” And I said, “Well, the only troops you have, there are special forces.” And basically, we set up a trip from CENTCOM for me to fly all the way to Bagram, on escorted on military assets to be embedded with it was a camp outside of Kabul, where they were starting to train the new Afghan army. But their main soul was to go off of missions, they had 10, I believe it was 10 or 12 teams of 12 members in each team. So it was a large Special Forces Base. Originally, they would not let me I had only two of the 10 teams at this camp would let me photograph them. Hold this picture here for a second. If you’ll notice on their bags, these packs probably weigh 70 kilos or 140-150 pound packs. They’re getting ready to get deployed by helicopter. They would get dropped off anywhere from 2, 3, 5 days, a week at a time. They would not let me go with them because they saw me in the shower with them. They saw my body they saw my physique. They knew that I was not would not be up for the trip. So any kind of missions I would do with them were overland by vehicle by these Toyota you know, high-lux vehicles.
This is them. This is actually a Special Forces guy with some Afghan army guys. They’re on a walking patrol training them how to patrol. Remember, this is 2002. So this is early on. Go ahead. These are some of the new trainees. The Afghan National Army being formed. This is a group of Special Forces guys, we were they would do these night rides late in the afternoon out in the evening and just open desert. Like this moment, these, these foreigners in this foreign land, you know. Go ahead and you can move.
Again. I’m in the back of a vehicle they would ride around. There were no armored vehicles at this time. They didn’t even have armored Humvees, anything like that. They rode around in soft skin vehicles. I had no idea what they were doing. I was just kind of along for the ride. I was shooting film at this time, I still hadn’t switched to digital. This is some, like cave complex things where the mountain starts. So they would go when they would just go through these, you know? Yeah, not much to say about this is just out. These are the vehicles that they would move around and things retain.
What was interesting about my time with the Special forces there. They were already all talking about Iraq. They have a lot of them knew that Iraq was coming too. Again, this is 2002. So we’re a year away from the invasion of Iraq. So it was ironic discoloring.
This is interesting. This is a Delta Forces. So you have different ranges, even in the Special Forces. This is like an elite of the elite. This is outside the this is in Kabul. This is outside the American Embassy. He was in the helicopter. President Bush went to Afghanistan on a surprise visit and he was one of the security that was in the helicopter I was riding in that had all these kind of like Delta operators. But I just thought it was so so fascinating because these people normally do not let you photograph them.
These are Afghan employees at the American Embassy. I believe it’s 2005. This is I’m not sure 2005, 2006 I don’t have the caption in front of me.
David Campbell: 2006.
Christopher Morris: Yeah. 2006. So these are Afghan employees at the American Embassy. They help you know, with visas and all that. This is inside the American Embassy compound.
I just put it in there. I found it. Because I rarely saw. There’s cars, it was Bush arriving. I just put in this political stuff.
David Campbell: That’s the end of your selection.
Christopher Morris: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t. I don’t. I feel it’s awkward for me to have talked about this, but I knew that a lot of my colleagues and a lot of colleagues, they really fall in love with Afghanistan and get seduced by the country. My initial trip there was so physically hard and frightening that the country it kind of scared me and I basically stayed away from it. But.
David Campbell: Chris, one of the questions I wanted to ask you is that you know, when you saw the early pictures in 1989, you were actually embedded within Islamic group.
Christopher Morris: Yes.
David Campbell: And then you were embedded with the US military.
Christopher Morris: Yes, at different times.
David Campbell: Was it the same sort of experience embedded with both groups? Was one different to the other?
Christopher Morris: Well, being embedded with the Mujahideen group, your life is in their line, they feed you and everything, but there were, there were things culturally that I was not prepared for. This whole bit of their demeaning of women, this hatred of women. And they’re kind of, I was told things by them and by their complete unrespect for the woman. I realized this was the group I was with, but they did not they feel that women were worthy of men. I saw homosexuality. I saw drug use, sexual assault, not against female but male on male, male on boy. All this stuff was very frightening to me. I was 32. I had a very hard time growing a beard. Every night when I went to bed, I was nervous. I was afraid. So then that the whole factoring in the stuff with the combat. My mistake was not being with another journalist or Western journalists that I could bounce ideas off and things because I was basically kind of at their mercy. Especially once my Taji man left my Taji man was the link to the commanders of the Jamia Islami did insert me with a group. And once he left, I was on my own. And there was no there was no even really communication skill of me having to get out. My ultimate goal, though, was for me, photographically, I was not on assignment, I went on speculation.
Back in the 80s, we used to do trips, they called it speculation. With Blackstar, you would go on a trip, and then you would try to sell it or get a thing. My key and my holy grail, I was trying to get an image of them firing the stinger. So I was, I just knew the importance of that image, that symbolic image so. And then I wanted out. Go ahead. Sorry.
David Campbell: Did you feel you had freedom to photograph while you were there?
Christopher Morris: Yes. Yeah. No, yeah, there was none of this. They weren’t. I just like I said, I had to be careful of the Wahhabis. You could tell by their headdress and their dress. And they made me always kind of stay inside the hut. They didn’t want me because the Wahhabis were very anti-Western. They don’t even want you in their presence. You’re so kind of like, unclean to them. That. Yeah. So it’s a different dynamics being embedded with the Americans are being embedded with the Mujahideen. But they’re hospitable. Yeah, but they just settled things. Things are settled differently. Culturally, things are done differently, even, even with disputes. So I’ll leave it at that.
David Campbell: What sort of restrictions did you felt that you faced when you were embedded with the Americans? Did you feel free to photograph there?
Christopher Morris: No, I even then I had, I had, I had letters from the top commanders from CENTCOM. But they told me when I went there, that they cannot order. It’s different than traditional troops. These are Special Forces, they cannot be ordered to do anything for you, meaning you’re going to have to get them to accept you. So there were many people in the camp like I said, there were over 100 Special Forces. There were only around 20 of the Special Forces that would allow me to photograph. So I had a lot of restrictions. I couldn’t go around the camp photographing all these, these Special Forces because they didn’t want to be photographed. So I had those rules to abide by. I didn’t have to share my film with anybody or show it just has to become trust. But only two of the teams that I was with would let me photograph.
David Campbell: There is a question from Hillary in the audience. She wanted to ask whether the 2002 Special Forces mission that you were photographing, were they involved at that time in the search for Bin Laden? Was that part of their mission?
Christopher Morris: The group I was with, I think probably in support roles, but I think that was more Delta operators. There was this I think it’s come out in the news. There was this base on the other side of the airport, the CIA base. That was another base. So, yeah, I’m sure they were involved, but they weren’t the direct ones that are hunting that was Delta Force. These are regular Special Forces. There’s like different tiers. No. What was interesting for me as a journalist, they refused to let me be with them until they put me through weapons training. I basically did almost three weeks of weapons training with these people. And when I say weapons training, they would bring me out because as a journalist, I never carry a weapon. I never want to have a weapon. But they refuse to allow me in the vehicle unless I knew how to use weapons because to them if they’re under attack, they don’t want me taking pictures. They want me to pick up a weapon. So everything from hand grenades to C4 explosives, shotguns, big guns, small guns. So, it was an enlightening trip for me to learn about weapons and stuff, even though I am very kind of anti-weapon. I don’t I don’t own I live in America. I don’t own a weapon. And I know the gun. Yeah.
David Campbell: That’s great, Chris, thanks very much. I think it’s time to move on to Seamus. Seamus, are you there with your camera ready?
Seamus Murphy: I am.
David Campbell: And you’ll be doing your own share screen.
Seamus Murphy: Yeah. So this is the old city of Kabul in 1984. That was the first time I went to Afghanistan. One-legged man wounded from the war braves a break in the fighting and shelling. It was a really bad time. It was a brutal civil war. It was my first time ever going to a war. A bit like what Chris was talking about, although I had a lot more luck in terms of that I was with a journalist and I met extraordinary people. And, you know, it was very different to Kandahar and being with the, with those guys that Chris was with. But at the time, there was a deadly power struggle between the various Mujahideen commanders and leaders. Everything was stripped there. You know, there’s no excess schoolrooms, anything public, all the wood was stripped off seats and tables. It was like a City of Bones. It was extraordinary.
And here’s the same place my most recent trip in May this year. Well, you can see the difference. These are some other photographs from that trip in May 2021. This is after 20 years of foreign engagement, American in particular, in response to 9/11. It’s sort of interesting to think how it would look if 9/11 had never happened, or the Soviets hadn’t invaded. And the Americans hadn’t responded by pumping billions of dollars and weapons into the country to fight the Cold War. We wouldn’t have had the Taliban or Bin Laden, or the millions of people that have since been displaced and killed. And it’s a real-time to reflect on that now that you know, the 20 years is up and the Americans have left and you know, we see what’s happening, in the meantime.
This is a small little cricket club that was just started when I was there in May. I mean they, they, people are still had hope that things would work out. You know, reading the news, now we’re being told that the Taliban said women aren’t allowed to have any sport. So it’s pretty sad stuff.
This is 1984, again. I didn’t go to Afghanistan for the war at all. I never had dreams of being war photographer or having anything to do with conflict. But it was my experience of going there in 94. And it was quite a transformative experience. That opened up a whole world to me of you know, what goes into places a conflict is like, how they define history. The people you meet in these places, you know, their stories. It was just a whole thing that I’d never really thought about before going, you know.
I originally went to Afghanistan, my older sister was a big influence in my life, and she had been to Afghanistan just before the Soviet invasion, as part of the hippie trail. And she raved about Afghanistan, but all the other places that she’d been to. The gentleness, and the humor, the beauty and the humanity of the people. So when the Russians invaded, it was already on my radar. You know, I was watching the news as a teenager. And recently, I made a film about Russian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. For many of them Afghanistan, at that time, represented something quite different to them than the Western perspective. They could buy cassette recorders and jeans, you know, it was a place of opportunity back then, which they couldn’t dream of getting in the Soviet Union.
But in 1994, I was working as a photographer and there was an opportunity to go to Afghanistan for The Observer newspaper. It was in the middle of the Civil War yet most people assumed once the Russians had left the war, it was all over. And it was peaceful. We rarely heard much about Afghanistan, it didn’t make the news. But when I went there in 94 the Red Cross estimates that more people were being killed at that time in Kabul than anywhere else in the world. There are no foreign forces or even a tangible UN presence, just some NGOs. And it was called by then “A Forgotten War.” But I realized that wars are not just about armies and weapons and casualties, they’re also about people. People who find themselves in extreme situations, usually through no fault of their own. And that interested me a lot.
Naturally, I am an outsider, I’m not an Afghan. But I never felt like Chris was saying that this is an alien environment here. And I can imagine how he described it would be, but I never felt that. I didn’t, obviously, didn’t share the poverty of the people that I was meeting. But their openness and the dignity that they were suffused with more than equalized our relationship. I was humbled. I mean, it was really humbling to be around these people, and it only reinforced my respect for them. And their resilience, their attitude to life. So I wanted to capture something of the extraordinary lives that survive in this place with its stark history, and sense of independence. So I’m still trying. That’s what keeps, you know, dragging me back to Afghanistan. I’ve been there almost 20 times now.
But as I said earlier, that the war was only a part of the story for me. And the Afghans remind me of my own tribe, the Irish. You know, we love company and poetry. And most things can be made fun of. We also share similar complicated colonial histories and a struggle for independence. So I’ve never really felt out of place there. Which is a bizarre thing to say obviously, because culturally we’re so different, but there is a human connection. And, you know, a lot of people have talked about this and experienced this.
This is Bamyan. This is where the Buddhas were in that space to the right of the frame. And this is a Hazara man. Bamyan is basically a Hazara province and the Hazara are Shia Muslim and will have a very difficult time with the Taliban.
This was in 2000. I made a trip to meet Massoud in the north. He was holding on against the Taliban fighting the Taliban on this little strip of land up in the north. I spent a few weeks up there.
This was in 2000. I made a trip to meet Massoud in the north. He was holding on against the Taliban fighting the Taliban on this little strip of land up in the north. I spent a few weeks up there. These are Saunder’s men. These Uzbeks fighting with Massoud crossing the Amu Darya River, which is on the border with Tajikistan.
Very, you know, very basic stuff. These are animal bladders— pig’s bladders, not pigs, goats bladders they are using as craft. And again, what Chris was saying when I was with the journalist, but you know, you are really at their mercy. And in our case, it was incredibly hospitable. And, you know, they were very keen to seek to safeguard us and keep us secure. But you are, you are in a wilderness. And, you know, you really have to trust the people you’re with. We visited a post on the top of a mountain. And the night before some Taliban were trying to overrun it and this Taliban guy was killed in the process.
So after that initial trip, not only for a trip, which, you know, completely hooked me to the country. I continued going there. I made four trips before 9/11, including two in 96 when the Taliban were gaining power, having taken Herat, which I visited earlier in 96. And then in November, after they had taken Kabul in October. So my experience, the country is very much for the Afghan people, and nothing really much to do with foreign involvement. So some of my best experiences were staying in villages in the countryside and photograph in the way of life.
After 9/11, I continued, you know, going to the country. And it was while driving into Afghanistan in October 2001 that I realized that I wanted to make a book on Afghanistan, which was ultimately published in 2008. Here you see locals gathering to see the first American planes coming to bomb Kabul—bombed the Taliban authority and also their frontlines. This is a daisy called a bomb, annihilating the whole frontline of Taliban soldiers.
I did one embed in 2002, with the Americans just to get some access to the American War Machine. But other than that, all my work has been about the Afghans and around the Afghans. On the embed the last three days I slept out of the mountains with the soldiers as they searched and destroyed old arms and weapons and weapons dumps. The restrictions I found were that they and I were surrounded by a ring of steel, and any Afghan people you encountered were naturally affected and intimidated by that. The Afghans were friendly to the Americans, but neither side really trusted the other. They certainly could not have been any of the intimacy between me and the people, which I found when I was traveling in the countryside alone. But for an Afghan interpreter, and it’s what I always try and aim for my work— a sense of intimacy.
This is the first democratic elections in Afghanistan. This is a woman voting but the woman on the left is verifying who she is and lifts the burqa that is concealing her identity. This is President Karzai in his palace with an American bodyguard. In fear of assassination, he fired his African security and employed Americans instead. This was in 2004. Sorry, 2002.
This is actually because I had been opening at the construction of the Kandahar to, Kabul to Kandahar highway. And this is him and his crew heading back to Kabul. I think the locals were a bit bemused.
This is a group of women called Mirman Baheer. They’re they’re extraordinary. They’re poets, and they are able to meet and share their poetry during the presence of Western powers. I mean, of course, once the Americans in the Western powers leave, people like this and the opportunities that they had, will dry up.
This shot was taken early after the Taliban had fled Kabul and their administration collapsed. People weren’t entirely and completely sure about the Taliban era being over, but they knew big changes were happening that day. And they gathered on the streets. When they saw a foreign photographer stand on the roof of his jeep and take this photograph, it was an explosion of joy and celebration. I showed this photograph to a number of people in the government on my last trip to Afghanistan. And they all experienced great sadness at the loss of hope. After 20 years, the waste of life they saw I suppose how they had failed their people.
These are people. This is 94. People fleeing Kabul, fleeing the fighting, heading to Pakistan on a bus.
This is Massoud who I went to see in 2000. And he was assassinated two days before 9/11. He’s an extraordinary leader. He was the line of punch here— defied the Russians. Kind of held out against the Taliban. Great speculation always is: What would have happened if he’d survived? If he hadn’t been killed? You know, would he have tolerated an American presence? He actually predicted or was sharing with foreign powers some big attack in America in 2001, but he was ignored.
This is the Taliban in Herat in 1996. You know, they had this thing about no photographs, but if they were away from their commanders, they were very vain and they loved to be photographed.
This is a war widow begging in Kabul in 96. You know, they lose their man through war and then they’re not allowed to work so there’s nothing else than to do but to beg.
This is up in Badakhshan— an are with Ismaili people. They are a Shia sect. And because they’re Shia, the women can reveal their faces usually cover their hair. This woman is obviously young enough that she doesn’t have to do that.
These are three Mujahideen protecting that mountaintop. This is where that picture of the dead Taliban soldier. This was in that area. A medieval type of warfare, you know, protecting the top of the mountain in the middle of nowhere.
This is a Soviet tank washed over by the Panjshir River. And that’s, that’s the show.
David Campbell: Thank you very much, Seamus. If you can just end your screen share there.
Seamus Murphy: Yeah
David Campbell: And Ron, we will conclude with you before discussion. So I will bring up your images.
Ron Haviv: Thanks, David. So, as you’ve already heard, all of us from VII except for Jim were still in Europe, mostly in France when 9/11 happened. And it became pretty obvious that Afghanistan was going to be the place to go. And at that time, I was on contract with Newsweek, and they asked me to immediately go to Afghanistan, but I felt I had to go back to New York, my home, and sort of document what had happened in New York with the plan to go to Afghanistan later, which is what I did. And a few weeks after working in New York, I flew to Moscow and then transferred over with my colleague, Ilana Ozernoy to Tajikistan. And Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, they have, they had a sort of a Northern Alliance, the resistance to the Taliban, and they had their kind of ministry office and so on. And journalists from around the world descended there, to be able to figure out a way to get into Afghanistan with the help of the Northern Alliance. So we had one group of journalists thinking that they’re going to cover this war from going through Tajikistan, and another group of journalists all went to Quetta in Pakistan, thinking that they would be closer to Kabul from there. I thought it would be better to be inside the country. So as you saw in the picture by Seamus, I crossed that river with the Northern Alliance and wound up in a small town called Jabul Saraj, which was as close as you get to Kabul. It was basically a frontline town between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. And there was roughly about probably 30 or so journalists living in this little village with no electricity, no running water, waiting, waiting for the war, to start, which it did in October when the Americans started to bomb the Taliban positions.
And you can see in the next photograph, you immediately start to see that this is the first sort of real show of power from the American military I think since the first Gulf War, the shock and awe. And now we had B-52s flying and dropping bombs and so on, which was pretty impressive. But immediately, you started to see mistakes made by the American military. And here there’s a funeral of a family killed by a mistaken B-52 bomb.
So the impact immediately started to go beyond the soldiers and started to affect everybody. In the life that they were leading in this Panjshir Valley, this place that was secure from the Taliban was remanet of what you’ve seen already from Seamus and others, remnants of the Soviet Union. This is a young, young girl with a destroyed Soviet tank. And what was really kind of remarkable about living with these people. And basically, we were doing that was that everybody had only known war. They had grown up with war, the average age person you met was probably 20 to 30. And all they knew was the concept of war. And they didn’t expect anything, to be anything different.
The other thing that I found really interesting was that when I first arrived, the conversation would be about the Taliban or about the enemy and so on. But as I listened more and more to the rhetoric coming from the United States administration, about terrorists, about like the terrorism was a keyword that every time they referred to the Taliban, they would call them terrorists. And that they were engaging in kind of the propaganda aspect of what the West was stating. And that they were going to be the partners on the ground of the West, against the terrorists to save America from another future attack.
Let’s go to the next one. Here you see the Northern Alliance on the ground watching, you know, streaks of the B-52 as they kind of came in. You go to the next photograph.
And the way that they fought was very haphazardly, very disorganized. They had really kind of baptism by fire or no real training. And I often found myself kind of sort of getting caught up with the energy and chaos and craziness of the fighting as the Taliban comes running, running with these soldiers who really actually had no, no idea what they were doing. And their sense of danger was incredibly different than mine. As I mentioned, having only experienced war, I remember standing with a group of Northern Alliance soldiers. And somebody opened fire on us. And I thought that the bullets were pretty, pretty close, and I hit the ground as one would do. And when the firing stopped, I looked up, and not one of them had moved, and they were all laughing at me saying, “Why did you get your pants so dirty?” I realized, then like, it was a very different way of looking at the world and is in fact, actually very sad way that they’re kind of understanding of danger and so on was so degraded to the degree that it has to be crazy dangerous for them to even feel afraid. Will you go to the next image, please?
And you would have these sort of surreal scenes of these guys leading them into battle against the Taliban with a sword, and with obviously AK-47s and so on, but it was like a very, very difficult and dangerous place, I think, to work mostly, of course, for themselves and for the civilians. I mean, I course, along with my colleagues were there voluntarily, but it was still, this kind of constant kind of understanding of the danger that was going on. As you see in this next photograph. Myself and Tyler Hicks were traveling with these Northern Alliance, and they, they basically we followed them into an incredibly terrible position where the Taliban had the upper hand. And we had to take refuge in a ditch, which was created as a crater created by a B-52 bomb, along with some Afghan soldiers including this commander. And it was, basically, as we were kind of waiting for safety, a sniper took a position to start firing into, into where we were. Eventually shooting this soldier, this commander, who basically he’s passing away, right here. They tried to save him, but they weren’t able to. And they were fighting for things that they that they believed in. But they’re also kind of these real kinds of definitive differences between their Taliban and we’re not.
And here are two young Taliban fighters that were taken prisoner by the Northern Alliance, just on the outskirts of Kabul. And they had, the Northern Alliance, for the most part, had not really experienced journalists, or knew what we weren’t. They basically just thought that any sort of white person was a US government person or CIA person or something like that. So when I encountered this scene, in my broken diary, I was able to kind of convince them that I was a government that I was from the government and that they could not execute these young Taliban soldiers. And they had to hand them over to their authorities to make sure that they were on still alive. And that’s what they did, as far, as far as I know, in this situation.
Here, I was with this is kind of based on the reverse of what happened a couple of weeks ago. This is the Northern Alliance entering Kabul as the Taliban fled. And it was primarily while there was some fighting, but it was very similar. And basically, commanders just decided to switch sides at the last minute. Al-Qaeda fled, and the city fell pretty quickly. It was really just a small group of journalists similar to what was there, recently. And they were able to document this sort of changeover in power. This began the kind of American occupation of Kabul.
And of course, one of the first things that you would see was that women began to feel comfortable. One, obviously here being with a strange Western male, which is already a big deal. Second, taking off their burqas, or letting me see their faces and photograph them. This is kind of an immediate sort of change that happened within 24-hours or so. of the Taliban fleeing. And I like this photograph. Just simply, these are burqas drying. The burqa obviously is a symbol for many people of the oppression of women. To me, in some ways, it can at that time seem to be possibly a kind of representation of the end of that situation. But obviously only becoming a temporary one, as we can see today. And movies, balloons, music, people were able to cut their beards. All these kinds of restrictive things that the Taliban regime had projected onto the people certainly in Kabul started to be removed and society changed incredibly quickly. And the question sort of become like, what was good, what was bad for the society, because a lot of the restrictions that the Taliban had also existed under Northern Alliance in the countryside where they were more conservative than the city. So one of the things that is became very apparent that Kabul was not Afghanistan and Afghanistan is not, is not Kabul.
And this was one of the more shocking things myself and colleagues in the New York Times, we found, what was an Al Qaeda house, sort of a command center. And these are things that we found on the ground, this is sort of inside. If you remember, of course, one of the issues with the attack of 9/11 was that they had trained in US flight schools. And here we see a Microsoft Flight Simulator. We see advertisements for flying schools. There were some papers and so on that said, “Learn how to use these things.” Now, of course, I have no idea whether 9/11 was hatched in this place or not. But it was really seeing kind of all these things was in terms of kind of the American part, the retribution for 9/11 kind of brought things to an interesting kind of full circle.
And then this photograph is of Northern Alliance soldiers. They had found globe, globe in the world and they were basically playing soccer with it. And I found this sort of symbolic yet obvious, but still, the symbolism of it. Basically, you know, in the end, the Afghans are kind of always kind of, you know, kicking the world around. The world is kind of reacting to them.
And all this work was put into a book called Afghanistan: The Road to Kabul, which turned out to be the first digital monograph book ever done. Because Afghanistan was probably the first war that almost everybody had to photograph digital in order to get their work out. And I did this book with Ilana Ozernoy. I just want to read this one, concluding paragraph to the book, which came out, basically at the end of 2001. And it basically says, she writes, “We followed our instincts and scrambled to make our way to one of the most remote and underdeveloped countries in the world. In Afghanistan, we discovered a world of mystery and contradictory beauty. A culture is so closed to the outside world, that instead of delving into its valuable heart, our efforts merely chipped away at its hard outer shell. We also discover what appeared too good to be true. How quickly it had all come together— the war, the bombings, the flight school advertisements on a dirty floor in Kabul. America had cornered the bad guys, the terrorists, but it was impossible to imagine peace in a country where allies turned to enemies overnight, where warlords made government bedfellows, where corruption seeps into every crack of society. War Afghanistan had long taken on a life of its own and cheered into the sunburned faces of American soldiers. It was here before you, and it will stay long after you’re gone.” I think it’s very incredibly prophetic and what she wrote and we have in that in that book, and that’s where we are, unfortunately, today. I think that the hope was with the work that I did there for magazines, and eventually the book of that it was a bit of awareness, a reckoning of what was happening and what people need to look out for. I think that as we read more and more about the failures of the American policy and the Afghan government, you’ll see why what’s happened today is, is really not such a great surprise.
David Campbell: Thanks, Ron. And one question for you just thinking about working with the Northern Alliance forces. Were they hospitable to you and welcoming to you because they wanted a particular perspective, particular story to be going out to the world? In other words, did they have a media strategy that you were part of?
Ron Haviv: Absolutely, I think, you know, as I said that kind of switching, using the word terrorist, they totally understood what was happening. They totally understood what role that they were to play. The support that they needed. Obviously, they had already been fighting the Taliban for quite a while before 9/11. And I think that they understood, especially at that time, given there was no social media, that we as Western journalists were their messengers on to the West.
David Campbell: So just a reminder to the audience, if you want to ask some questions, please drop them in the q&a box, we’re happy to post those to the participants. But I have a question for actually, everybody. And that is— I’d like you to reflect on what you think is the major determinant or some of the major determinants that create the look of war coming out of a situation like Afghanistan over years? Is it the constraints of embedding? Is the reason that you go? Or, importantly, we have to recognize that you’re all from the international community, you’re all male, you’re all white, does that have a particular perspective? Does that shape your work in a particular way? What do you think are the primary constraints or determinants of your work in Afghanistan over the years?
Ron Haviv: I can just address it quickly. On one angle, where I think it’s imperative for the audience to understand that when they’re looking at any of our work, that is like one small sliver of what’s going on. That it should not, the work should be interpreted as all-encompassing, like this is exactly what’s happening in Afghanistan. And I think in today’s world, where we have the ability to view so many different authors and media feeds, and so on, the audience has to be a little bit more active. In going around and constructing looking at what it looks like from the left. What does it look like from the right? What does it look like from the international observer? And what does it look like from the local observer? And then when you sort of feel then as a consumer of all of this work, then hopefully you can make a good determination about what’s going on. But I think one of the just quickly, like, one of the criticisms of embeds was not that on the embed itself, I thought, as one who was embedded during the Iraq War, was this amazing opportunity to witness, as Seamus referenced, The American Military Machine. But that’s not the entire war. That was like one small part of it. The problem was that when it was presented and accepted as “Oh, this is the only thing that’s going on, you’re only seeing it through this perspective of the American military.” That’s, that’s a major mistake. But as one component of it, you know, then I think it has value.
David Campbell: Right.
Seamus Murphy: Right. And also, when you think, you know, most of what came out of Afghanistan in the 20 years, I think that don’t have made it to the front pages or made it to you know, the mainstream media, they were embeds. You know, most of the work you saw from Afghanistan, was, was really the in the foreground was the soldier was the American soldier. It was like, you know, what’s happened to them? I mean, was the policy enough? In Washington, determining these guys what they’re doing next, are they going to stay? It was all from the American perspective. I’m not knocking it as such, but I’m just saying that you know, our reference to Afghanistan was of actually American soldiers. You know, before 9/11, it was A Forgotten War. You couldn’t, I couldn’t, you know, it was very hard to get assignments to go there. I went there four times before 9/11. And then afterward, it was you know, it was like a feeding frenzy. But it was all about the American perspective. Very little of it was really about the Afghans.
Daniel Schwartz: It’s exactly if I can pick up from what Seamus says The Forgotten War. During Taliban time, there was there was really Afghan fatigue, you know, these barbarians killing each other. There was an earthquake. They were alone. The entire community had fatigue. The Taliban had a problem, somehow comparable to their image problem today. The picture which Alexandra took in that drought-stricken area. Well, went about the same time as 2 million people were on the verge of a major famine. The World Food Programme had asked for help. But because the Taliban were stone-aged and middle-aged and all that no food arrived. And so that was one thing that Forgotten War because the West had won the Cold War. We were on the party. That was an old legacy. We wanted to just that was very, very inconvenient that there’s something going on.
And the second thing was the time constraints. I found out that you know, many people who went in they were in a rush. Everybody wanted to rush to Bamian to get, you know, to photograph to destruction. If you hold out in Islamabad or in Peshawar for a week, 10 days, all of a sudden people understood that you want to photograph the Afghans who were suffering under the drought. That made them interesting for you. I remember in Kandahar, I arrived in Kandahar, in that house in May 2001. And I stayed in that house for a week. I did not go out. The journalist wanted to go out. I’ve never been before I said, “Go taking walks, I will stay in that house. The temptation to make pictures is too big. I’m going to risk our assignment because, you know, no pictures allowed.” We had that stamp in our visa, that paper. But basically, that turned out to be very, very helpful towards building trust.
There were young Taliban commanders coming in every afternoon sipping tea, then they went back, they went to Omar’s house. They were clearly, they were preparing things. They came to take orders. And at an evening, they would question me. I mean, I was their guest and as a guest, you are asked to tell him where you come from what you’re doing. So I told him about Swiss Medieval Mountain Warfare compared to its land base, Afghanistan, mountains, roads, fierce fighters, all that until we had to kill each other because they were merciless the different European kings. So I found that was… if you go to Afghanistan and have a clock, you will have a very hard time you need time. Everything is things have been discussed and decided while having tea.
The hospitality by the Taliban was amazing not because they were Taliban or because I’m very sympathetic to what some of them some groups are doing. But because I was the guest, I feel more secure, you know, in the tea house, staying at night. I would sit with the Taliban guard outside the door protecting because they knew they would sacrifice their life in order to protect me because I was the guest. And that was their main problem at that time in Kandahar that was to talk that the guest will destroy the house. And the guest, of course, was Osama bin Laden.
And they had sent at that time, a young, educated Afghan to Washington to try to open a channel and he was taken out to have a hamburger with the subaltern, of the Foreign Office. And basically, they did not respond to that. So similar to what Roland says to Massoud, everybody was trying. Different parties were trying to raise awareness in the West to different parts of the West, you know. Also Paris, Massoud went to Strasbourg, that days, they have a problem, which they had, which they could not awake because of the hospitality, which is a big, big part of the cultural indication.
Daniel Campbell: Thanks. Thanks, Daniel. Chris, do you want to add any reflections on what you think the major determinants on the look of war and the role that your identity plays in that?
Christopher Morris: The thing as my identity comes from this whole role of, you know, it was the Cold War. Mine was formed from the 80s, my version of Afghanistan. And again, you speak of this lack of instant, the lack of interest in the West. Basically, once the once Najibullah was out, and then the civil war started, the there was no interest in the West. I mean, I even had, it was even difficult to get assignments in the 80s to try to go into Afghanistan. So there was basically, it’s just one of these places that was just ignored. And that’s why the, you know, Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda was such an easy place to go and set up, you know, basically their own state which is the fear again, today. What, you know, what’s gonna happen going forward?
I, for me, I feel optimistic, though. I mean, it’s finally, it’s like, kind of, I want this to let the Afghans be Afghans. I feel for them this kind of, like 20 years of hope for some kind of change in democracy. But you know, to me, it’s like many generations centuries to change. And what right, do we as Westerners have to force these changes on the society? There’s such cultural taboos and things that are so offensive to an Afghan that, from our Western eyes, we don’t understand. We just don’t get it. The easy ways to offend them. And us in our own pride and arrogance can’t understand why they are offended. Even me when I see this kind of like challenging the Taliban leaders when female journalists interview them and they aren’t covered, or I even saw Western when she didn’t have her head covered. Forget, even if he’s Taliban is just an insult, it’s insult. There’s just different cultural things, you know. And I feel that the Western societies on a whole don’t really understand that and we really try to force our cultures on their culture. Yeah. And I also feel bad just even speaking about the subject. Because I feel like in the essence, I have no right to even speak on this.
David Campbell: A couple of questions from the audience. Just reflecting on your time working in Afghanistan, how do you think Afghan photojournalism has evolved over the years? We see a lot more Afghan reporters. Are there more Afghan photojournalists? Has the interaction with Western journalists or photojournalists helped or hindered that? And do you think there’s an Afghan perspective from Afghan photojournalists that would be different to yours?
Seamus Murphy: I’m sure there would be. There’s certainly a lot of Afghan journalists and photographers have sort of emerged, you know, and what will happen to them now, we don’t know, especially the women. But you know, there’s a whole generation out there, you know, Masood Husseini, there’s loads of them that are out there doing great work. I think they’re very influenced by the West, because, you know, commercially, you know, just, just economically, they have to sort of provide the work that gets sold, and so there’s, you know, the commercial imperative. But as I say, we don’t know what’s gonna happen now. But had it continued, I think we would have, we would have seen, photographers emerging with their own voice more so I think in time. I did see an extraordinary set of pictures. I don’t know, I can’t under the name of the photographer, but it was, they were art pictures. And they were actually photographed in Algeria because the person the Afghan was living in Algeria, and he recreated this myth of a horse horseman and it was, it was very unusual stuff. I’m not saying that you know, only an Afghan could have done that. But I think we would, we would have seen more of that coming.
And maybe also with the generation that has fled, you know, the big brain drain that, you know. When we look at Kabul airport over those last few weeks, you know, the best and the brightest were leaving, you know. And it’s a dreadful shame for the country, but maybe they’ll continue in other countries. And we’ve got a perspective with the diaspora, you know, again, the Irish, you know, we’ve, we’ve, we’ve, we’ve had to go all over the world. And, you know, we’ve made our voices heard there Irish. Be it in America or London or wherever. So I think it will come through that level of education over the last 20 years, the opportunities they had, and they grabbed, you know, they absolutely, you know, jumped at every opportunity. I think we’re gonna see the results of that, maybe not in Afghanistan, because they’re not allowed to do it. And as I say that maybe the best the brightest left. I’m not saying the best, the brightest aren’t also there, but they’re not gonna have the same opportunities. But I think we’re going to hear we’re going to hear the results and see the results of Afghanistan, creativity, imagination, you know, in the diaspora, as well. Films, there are great filmmakers.
David Campbell: Any other thoughts or reflections on that? The interaction between Western photojournalism and Afghan photojournalism?
Christopher Morris: I’m not speaking about it. I’m not really that knowledgeable about it in the sense of not connected. I had run into those, I forget his name, but there was a famous Afghan photographer that was there and was helping also helping Western photographers. I forget his name, but this is the importance. And I think it’s also what we’re trying to do at VII we’re trying to, we’re trying to help photographers in different regions around the world to develop their own photojournalistic communities to document their societies from their perspective. And Afghanistan is no different.
David Campbell: Yeah. Well, great, we’ve been going for quite some time, but I think that’s been warranted because of the topic, the work that you’ve shown, the questions we’ve had. So I think it’s time to draw to a close. Ron, Chris, Daniel, Seamus I want to thank you very much for participating and sharing your work. I want to thank the audience who have stayed with us now for nearly an hour and three quarters, which is absolutely amazing. Thank you very much. And we look forward to seeing you at another event soon. Thank you very much.
Seamus Murphy: Thank you.
Daniel Schwartz: Thank you.
Christopher Morris: Thank you, everybody. Thank you for coming.