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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.