• April 11, 2016

These Haunting Photos Reveal Today’s Afghanistan

Patrick Witty

Australian photographer Andrew Quilty has been photographing in Afghanistan since 2013 for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and Foreign Policy. Like many of his generation, he says, Afghanistan became part of his consciousness after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. invasion. A first trip meant to last only a few weeks turned into a few months—and beyond.

A mother waits with her daughter in the emergency waiting room at the MSF- administered Boost Hospital in the capital of Helmand Province, Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.
A mother waits with her daughter in the emergency waiting room of the MSF-administered Boost Hospital in the capital of Helmand Province, Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.

“Even as my plane climbed out of the Kabul valley, I felt a nostalgia for the place like I’d never experienced before,” he says. “A few people who’d spent time in Afghanistan before me had warned that it might get under my skin. I’d brushed it off at the time, but they’d been right. I packed up my things and headed back to Kabul indefinitely.”

Villagers watch as an army helicopter flies over the site of two landslides in Badakhshan Province in May 2014. The first landslide buried some 300 homes and those who had been inside or on the streets at the time. The second struck as villagers attempted to rescue those trapped, digging with shovels and their bare hands.

I spoke with Quilty recently about his dedication to covering stories on Afghanistan even after breaking news headlines have moved on, plus the challenges of working as a photographer in the country and what it took to find—and make—photographs that are both hauntingly beautiful and horrifying.

Children in a small village in Bamian Province

PATRICK WITTY: The image of the child under the red mesh in a provincial hospital in Helmand Province is at once striking and disturbing. Talk to me about that photo.

ANDREW QUILTY: Hospitals are often a good barometer of the “the situation” regionally. You can spend a day in a hospital and not see a thing to photograph, so I was mostly just waiting for something to present itself. In the malnutrition ward, it can be doubly tricky because the children are there with their mothers, most of whom don’t want to be photographed.

I saw Gul’s mother cover him with an orange scarf, I suppose to calm him or keep flies away. I moved toward them to take a picture and immediately his mother took the scarf away. This often happens here: Afghans assume you want them to pose for you, so his mother was probably presenting him the way she thought I’d want to photograph him. I moved away and gestured that I didn’t want to interfere, and asked one of the nurses, who spoke English, to relay it as well. Soon she placed the scarf back. I moved toward them again and took a sequence of pictures over 30 seconds or so.

A baby girl lies in an observation room of Helmand’s provincial hospital after suffering burns from an oil heater at home. The burns were found to be less severe than first thought, and the girl was expected to make a full recovery.

PATRICK: I remember the moment I first saw your incredibly haunting photo from Kunduz of the man on the operating table of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) trauma center that was mistakenly targeted by an international coalition air strike. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and was outraged. Tell me the story of how this image came about.

ANDREW: On September 28, 2015, the city of Kunduz was overrun by the Taliban. It was the first time a provincial capital had been taken since the insurgent group was ousted in 2001. It was big news. In the days that followed, the government plotted its counteroffensive.

Myself and another reporter friend, Josh Smith, talked about getting there. He’d been in Afghanistan a few years and was as experienced embedding with the Afghans as anyone. I thought I might be able to pass on some photography tips (he was a writer first and foremost but also enjoyed shooting stills) in exchange for his combat nous [a Britishism for intelligence].

As we waited for approval in Kabul, news came from Kunduz about the October 3 attack on the MSF Trauma Center. If our efforts weren’t already urgent, they were now.

After the usual bureaucratic wrangling in Kabul, we boarded a commercial flight to Mazar-e Sharif, from where much of the Kunduz counteroffensive was being mounted. We waited a day and half on the helicopter loading zone as coffins with dead soldiers arrived and boxes of food and ammunition departed.

Eventually, a sympathetic helicopter gunner smuggled us aboard an old Russian Mi-17 transport chopper. There was nowhere to sit or stand. I ended up kneeling on a coffin while Josh and our young fixer, Farshad—also a photographer—laid on the mountain of red apple boxes that filled the fuselage. The gunner said we [the helicopter] were overweight and tossed us handfuls of apples, as if eating them would bring our weight down.

During a game of buzkashi, the chapandaz, or horsemen, vie for possession of the game’s central focus—a calf carcass—during a match in the Panjshir Valley.

PATRICK: So you made it to the Afghan National Army battalion headquarters in Kunduz. Then what happened?

ANDREW: It became apparent that no one wanted us there. Not the Afghans and certainly not the U.S. Special Operations Forces stationed in the same base. Apart from a couple of “tours” of government-held areas in the city and some rear fighting positions, we were being stonewalled.

It was sheer luck that, on October 10—a week after the MSF attack—the lead vehicle in a convoy leaving the base for operations pulled up beside us. In the passenger seat was a Russian-speaking Afghan commander with whom Josh—also a Russian speaker—had hit it off earlier in the week. Sensing our growing frustration, the commander told us to jump aboard (we had all our equipment and protective gear on us).

For the next five to six hours we remained with the commander and his men as they cleared remaining insurgents from a neighborhood on the southern edge of Kunduz City. As the fighting climaxed into the early afternoon, I began to communicate with MSF staff in Kabul, who were hopeful of getting me into the destroyed hospital.

Jamshid lies on pillows and plays with a partridge at home in his village of Qualander Khel, about two hours north of Kabul. Jamshid and his two friends were seriously injured, and his 18-year-old brother killed, when a suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy near their home in August 2014.

PATRICK: MSF made arrangements for a local driver to collect you once the day’s fighting had subsided. Tell me about getting to the hospital.

ANDREW: We rendezvoused in the middle of a sprawling hilltop cemetery nearby. We’d resolved to do the drive “low profile,” in an unmarked Corolla—no armor and no convoy—which only would have attracted attention had we run into anything unexpected. I took off my helmet and wrapped a scarf around my face.

There was only one government checkpoint to talk our way through, then the streets were empty. We were at the hospital a couple of minutes later. The sounds of fighting were distant enough for the time being.

I wanted to get in and out within half an hour. It would be getting dark soon, plus if anyone had seen me—a foreigner—on our way into the city, I’d have been easy pickings with no soldiers or police in that part of the city at the time.

Dawn in Warzuds, a village in the Wakhan Corridor, one of the most remote regions in Afghanistan

PATRICK: Describe the scene once you got there.

ANDREW: The hospital was big—there must have been more than 80 rooms damaged or destroyed—and I was determined to work as thoroughly as possible. More than an hour had passed by the time I’d made my way through the worst-hit areas, where eight or nine bodies still lay, a week after the attack.

The operating theater hadn’t been hit nearly as hard as what I’d seen already. It looked like it had been ransacked rather than pummeled by a warplane. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I was stunned. This man’s body, barely a scratch on it, lay outstretched, supine and gray with concrete dust, on the operating table. I adjusted my camera settings to account for the darkness and moved around the room, doing my best to stay calm and still while photographing, as the fighting reared again in the streets close by. It wasn’t until I saw the images on my laptop that night that I noticed that half the man’s head had been sheared off.

I’d been in the hospital an hour and 17 minutes. I was drenched in sweat, and Josh had called two or three times asking how far off I was. Dusk was arriving, and he was worried I wouldn’t be able to get back to the battalion HQ without our commander’s escort. I was glad to get out.

Warning: some readers may find the following photograph disturbing.

The body of a patient, later identified as Baynazar Mohammad Nazar, a 43-year-old husband and father of four, lies on an operating table in the destroyed Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Kunduz Trauma Center on October 10, 2015. One week before this photo was taken, a U.S. AC-130 aircraft mistakenly attacked the hospital, ultimately killing 42 patients, patient carers and MSF staff. Quilty was on assignment for Foreign Policy magazine when he captured this and other photographs from the hospital.

PATRICK: Beyond all of the horror I see in your work, there is a particular beauty. Like the tree at dawn in the village of Warzuds. Tell me more about that.

ANDREW: As a subject of photography, I think beauty has always been inseparable from, or even symbiotic with, the horror of Afghanistan. Subconsciously, there’s no doubt it was part of the reason I was sucked in, both by what I’d seen of it before and since arriving. While my photography has become less about aesthetics since I’ve been in Afghanistan—because the weight of “the story” is such that photography isn’t as reliant on it as in places I’ve worked previously—the physical beauty of Afghanistan is also wonderfully unavoidable.

What comes with that, I suppose, is an inherent risk of romanticizing the horror. It’s not for me to judge whether I’ve fallen victim to exoticism, but if I had, I wouldn’t be the first to have done so in Afghanistan.

I wonder whether the beauty you’re referring to has to do with the light in Afghanistan? There’s no doubt the softness of the light has changed and refined the way I look at what’s in front of me, but I don’t think that’s necessarily exceptional. Given enough time in a new place I think most photographers would adapt to the circumstances of light.

“There doesn’t seem to be a precise season for kaftar bazi, or play of the pigeons, but in the mid-afternoon as spring approaches, flocks of the tamed birds circle around the rooftops of Kabul more than ever,” says Quilty. “Their master, like the conductor of an orchestra, controls their orbit with a flag or net attached to a long stick, with the goal of tempting birds from other flocks to join his.”

PATRICK: Are you planning to stay in Afghanistan?

ANDREW: I don’t plan on leaving Afghanistan for good anytime soon. Come to think of it, I don’t know many people who’ve been here and, when leaving, do so for good.

For the time being, working in Afghanistan is like a treasure hunt. When I walk out my door in Kabul or leave the capital for another province I’m still constantly surprised and enthralled by what I find, both as a photographer and as a human being. It’s not that what I find necessarily makes me happy, but there’s no doubt that the experiences, and the challenges along the way, provide a fulfillment that I’d not known before.

I read something today by Zach St. George that seems fitting for my current feeling toward working in Afghanistan: “To be content is to be bored, and curiosity is our ticket out.”

See more of Andrew Quilty’s work on his website.

There are 52 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Ruth Geldard
    May 18, 2016

    I am moved by your images, the brilliant combination of a dramatic contemporary event underpinned with a restrained old master aesthetic, which I have to respond to even as I take in the horror. Respect.

  2. Nidhi
    May 5, 2016

    Thank you for sharing these amazing photos. They are a reminder of the safe lives most of us lead vs. others who have to fight each day to survive only because of the circumstances of where they live.

    May 3, 2016

    I’m entranced by your beautiful photography. Thank you for sharing your talent to the world

  4. Amanda O
    April 30, 2016

    Thanks for sharing your work through your lens. I enjoy your same passion and your work is beautiful!

  5. Sukhdev Singh
    April 28, 2016

    Seeing their sufferings I forgot mine. We should learn from it and stop blaming God or others for our small problems. Great job, Salute to you!

  6. eugene g.
    April 27, 2016

    Hello Andrew,
    Thank you for these.
    I’m curious. Do issues of privacy and confidentiality factor into the identification of the person that died on the operating table. For example, did you feel it necessary to seek permission from the family to identify the body by name.

  7. Andrew Quilty
    April 26, 2016

    Hi Suzana, all good questions. The answer is there isn’t one answer. Situations differ every time and so the way I respond also differs. The simplest way to answer is to say that I try to maintain respect for those I’m photographing, regardless of the situation or the person. Regardless of who they are, what they’ve done, what they’ve suffered, they’re allowing me (and a potential wide audience) into their lives, whether it be for a fraction of a second or over many months. I don’t believe I have the “right” to photograph people just because I’m a professional photographer.

  8. Andrew Quilty
    April 26, 2016

    Maria Kern, does anyone really need a god (any god) to be a good human being? People should be able to take responsibility for their own actions without relying on a god to either justify it or recognise it. The very notion that one should be “good” so that they go to heaven is inherently selfish, when you think about it.

  9. Andrew Quilty
    April 26, 2016

    Pepper B, thank you for the kind words, however I feel your comments regarding “freedom” are probably lost on those you’re sending prayers to. Freedom, like democracy, is a very foreign concept to most Afghans. To force it on them contradicts the notion itself.

    As for the bombing of the hospital, I don’t think there’s ANY excuse for it. Not even a “mistake.” It’s a very long bow to draw to say that it was carried out to protect freedom.

  10. Andrew Quilty
    April 26, 2016

    Hi Nancy, it’s ahard to say. I don’t think about it at the time but it’s certainly something I contemplate once I’m home and back to normal life in Kabul. The simple answer is that, in the moment, I’m working. Like any professional, I’m concentrating on the job I’m there to do. If I get too caught up there’s no point me being there and taking the associated risks. I feel privileged to see what I see. I think it makes me a better person, with a greater perspective on the world and my position in it. It might not necessarily make me a “happier” person, but maybe that isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.

  11. Andrew Quilty
    April 26, 2016

    David, it’s a question I often ask myself, like many photojournalists before me also have. It’s a hefty expectation and one that many who’ve tried have lost hope of achieving. I think my expectations are modest: I’d like people to see what I see and to perhaps have it inform the way they pass through their lives, even in a minute way. One occasion where I saw a reaction that was more tangible was with the picture of Baynazar, the man on the operating table, and those of his family later on. I feel like this story brought home the utter horror of the MSF incident as well as the fact that the people affected were real people, not just collateral damage. Many people asked me how they could help the family. A friend of mine in Kabul set up a fund for them which raised $US12,000. It seemed trivial when we informed the family – obviously, all they wanted was to have their husband and father back, but it was something.

  12. Ken Hill
    April 26, 2016

    Alison, your response to Maria Kern is right on; honestly, she needs to watch the Nat Geo mini-series on Sundays about different people’s Gods. I had the same problem with one of my friends. When I mentioned the show, she said, “NO, my God is the only God,” raising her voice. She still doesn’t get it but we’re still friends.:)

  13. Arnold Lehmann
    April 25, 2016

    I spent 2 marvelous years in Afghanistan 1969-71. These frigidly but fierce people have endured centuries of war and hardship. The years I was there before the Russian and subsequent US occupations were still a magical time. Young people were being educated, the country was flourishing. Again, the horrendous interference of countries with selfish agendas have created more suffering than in their entire history. And NO, Islam was not the problem…it was the quest for lithium, minerals and a pipeline from Tajikistan to Pakistan that was the source of strife WE created.

  14. suzana
    April 25, 2016

    I wonder what how you think about your safety as a foreigner and how your subjects allow you to photograph their suffering and tragedy. Do you listen to their story first, do you happen to take the photo the instant you meet them before they have a moment to react to the camera? Haunting photos, a beautiful tragedy…I am curious about the story behind the shot.

  15. Charles Edwards
    April 24, 2016

    Great photography. It takes one glance to get your full attention.

  16. B Ely
    April 24, 2016

    I have fond memories of a visit to Afghanistan in 1968. It’s a different place now. It breaks my heart.

  17. Alison
    April 24, 2016

    No, Maria Kern, there is not only one way. Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The God of Abraham. Open your mind to other possibilities and see that yours is not the only way. I am tired of Christians saying theirs is the only way.

  18. Kevin Payne
    April 24, 2016

    The photos say everything, sometime words are not required.

    I am saddened by many of the comments though where some think the problem is Islam or by Muslims converting to Christianity it will solve the problem. Religion, whatever its variety, is not the problem; it is people who want to impose their beliefs, insecurities, way of life, etc. on others. Even the comment from Maria Kern is about imposing her beliefs on others. Let’s learn to accept and value the differences we have after all is that not what Jesus and Mohammed taught us. There are many who want to twist and interpret their teachings for their own purposes.

  19. Fran story
    April 24, 2016

    A beautiful country, I have never visited but photography has always demonstrated its rugged features. This series of photos are powerful, distressing and utterly compelling but, yes David, how can this make a difference? How can we help?
    It is NOT Islam!

  20. Maria Kern
    April 24, 2016

    I feel if these countries would convert to Christianity including Africa, God would save them. There is only one way, through the living God and Jesus.

  21. Mark
    April 24, 2016

    Beautiful, horrific, daunting photos. I’m a believer that had we never struck our nose in it, everyone would be better off. The religious hatred between waring factions in that region of the world is historic and I’m doubting it will ever change. Occupying, training, and killing our soldiers to try and settle this is foolish. You would think after all these years we would know better. My heart goes out to the middle eastern people and families who just want to live a normal life by their standards.

  22. Pepper B
    April 24, 2016

    What a gift you have. Your eyes and camera lens as one. The bombing was a mistake, made by those trying to protect freedom, the most powerful idea this world has ever known. Prayers for them and the people of Afghanistan

  23. Nancy
    April 24, 2016

    Just the pictures make me cry, how did you handle yourself in the presence of things so horrendous?

  24. JReed
    April 24, 2016

    Fadhellah makes several points that are so misinformed. No one wants to destroy Islam. It appears that ‘Islam’ wants to destroy others for its own ‘power’. Why do they teach such hatred? And where do you get that 500,000 innocents were killed in the search for the evil Osama Bin Laden (talk about someone killing innocents!). Certainly there were some accidents that killed innocents, but they were accidents, not purposeful acts that are carried out weekly by people in the name of Islam. Shame on you!

  25. Carolyn
    April 24, 2016

    So gorgeous and hideous, moving and alienating all at once. Incredible.

  26. fadheelah
    April 24, 2016

    Well fx meaney its not Islam. Its greedy, power hungry, war mongering, powers that be like USA UK FRANCE and allies who r invading and occupying Muslim lands to fulfil their evil agendas.They carpet bombed Afghanistan to get one man Osama Bin Laden, killing over 500 000 innocent men women and children mercilessly! The problem is not Islam.The problem are those who want to destroy Islam

  27. Dan De Ment
    April 24, 2016

    None of us can only imagine the effects of what we see here until we’ve walked in your shoes.

  28. Absar Ahmad
    April 24, 2016

    Wonderful and daring job. Keep it up and let the world know about these “seemingly unworthy” things…

  29. Rudy Cabrera
    April 24, 2016

    Sencillamente desgarrador. Un país condenado a la violencia, al intervencionismo extranjero y a los radicalismos internos más atroces. Gracias NG por informarnos con la verdad y la honestidad de este reportero gráfico.

  30. Jef Keighley
    April 24, 2016

    The US bombing of the Doctors Without Borders medical facility was not an accident.

  31. Dan Wood
    April 24, 2016

    You’re right about continuing to come back after you think you’ve left for good. I spent 20 months there between 2009-2013. Each time that I left I thought it was for good. Finally my wife informed me, 3 days after my 64th birthday, that I wasn’t going back. I made the mistake of leaving a video of a firefight I was caught in on my I-Pad and she saw it. Her comment: I’ve spent too many years trying to raise you – I don’t have the patience to raise another husband.

  32. Denise Tankha
    April 24, 2016

    The photographs have captured the overwhelming grief that is Afghanistan today. Kudos to the Andrew.

  33. Helen
    April 24, 2016

    Excellent and daring work…ever so heart-breaking

  34. socksey
    April 24, 2016

    wonderful, but tragically sad at the same time.

  35. Lane Siebenthal
    April 24, 2016

    Great photography. Sad to see that so much of the world suffers.

  36. Kitty
    April 24, 2016

    Agree with Graham’s comment on April 12th..about thirty years from now.. For it is then we all with hold hands and share our heart’s content
    on this Earth, where ever we find ourselves.. Thanks for sharing the photos.. and your heart! liefs kitty

  37. R Stanton
    April 24, 2016

    Photos need no comments – they tell the story visually. Kudos

    April 24, 2016

    One person asks, “What is wrong with the world?” In this case, as in many others, it’s Islam.

  39. Tebogo
    April 21, 2016

    Nice photographs, very heart-breaking to see whats happening that side

  40. Carol Anderson
    April 21, 2016

    I was there in 1972-73 on the peace corps. I miss the place. Great article.

  41. Edward Ruane
    April 19, 2016

    Horror of war and human error! The dark side of humanity.

  42. Aniko Ozorai
    April 18, 2016

    Hearthbreaking … I was in Afghanistan in 2004 and involved since then in actions to help women and children (health and education)

  43. David
    April 14, 2016

    its artful and committed photojournalism, better to see it than not, but how can it make a difference ?

  44. Sharen
    April 13, 2016

    Confronting but compelling at the same time

  45. Paul childs
    April 13, 2016

    Great report ..what is wrong with this world we live in…

  46. Jimbits
    April 12, 2016

    U.S. AC-130 aircraft mistakenly attacked the hospital ? what a wonderful world…

  47. Meg W.
    April 12, 2016

    Compelling story – so different from the way USA news networks presented its’ occurrence. Pictures are both informational and touch the heart of this reader.

  48. John Dignam
    April 12, 2016

    I love this work. This is the reality of what’s happening on this crazy place called earth. Well done

  49. Shahira
    April 12, 2016

    Great work made me feel the places

  50. Graham
    April 12, 2016

    Only 30 more years until this place becomes a hot tourist destination.

  51. Jan Brophy
    April 12, 2016

    Andrew’s work is like a painter’s brush, or a singer’s microphone. I love the honesty of his work.

  52. Partha Sen
    April 12, 2016

    Best feature I have seen in recent time. Great work and keep it up

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