Words by Alistair Klinkenberg | Photos and Captions by Andrew Quilty.
It takes a certain character to forge themselves a career that places them directly in conflict zones.
Andrew Quilty first went to Afghanistan for two weeks in December of 2013 to see the place and take photos. He ended up extending his trip several times—eventually spending three months in the country—before deciding to relocate to Kabul permanently. Andrew explains the move—that to most people seems unfathomable—as the result of him finally finding meaning in the work that Afghanistan allowed him to do. Seeing as the rest of this issue is filled with beautiful, arguably trivial things, we thought it apt to deliver a jolt, and delve into a place where people are centred on survival above all else. Andrew Quilty’s images mightn’t be easy to look at, but they’re honest and they’re real. There’s no second takes in Andrew’s line of work.
A Sydney native, Andrew Quilty first picked up a camera in 2001 and cut his professional teeth at Fairfax Media. He then embarked on a freelance career, and his work was thrust into the public eye when his candid coverage of the Cronulla Riots in 2005 was published in Time magazine. Since then, Andrew has won numerous awards, most notably the top honour in Australian photojournalism, the 2014 Walkley Photographer of the Year Award. After overcoming time zones and less than perfect quality Skype calls over US Army Base WiFi, we caught up with Andrew to try and get a taste of what living as a freelance photographer in Kabul, Afghanistan is actually like. The most obvious question in terms of problems associated with Andrew’s job is access. If you look at one of his photos and take a step back, you can’t help but think, “How the hell did he get in the position to take that photo?”
“There are numerous facets to access,” Andrew tells me. “From negotiating roads, unfamiliar territory, ultra-localised security dynamics, and trusting your life with those whose advice you rely on regarding all these factors, to arranging access and permission to report on the people and places you wish to. Then there’s the logistical difficulty in getting to those people and places.”
Andrew explains that trusting your instincts is a huge part of what he does. But that logistics are just as important, as you can minimise risk through effective planning. You have to work out where you need to be to cover the event or get the shot that you’re after. And then find a way to get there. Even if it means booking two return flights from the same destination as a safeguard. Afghanistan’s not a country where you want to get stuck out on assignment. “Commercial airlines here are notoriously unreliable and the weather is less than ideal for flying much of the time,” Andrew tells me. “I’ll sometimes book two flights—one with a commercial airline and another with the UN— so that I don’t get trapped in a city if either decides to cancel their flights if, for example, that city comes under serious attack.”
When your line of work often involves photographing people who’re experiencing trauma in some way—whether it’s physical pain, the loss of a loved one, or something a little less obvious—the question of what makes one of Andrew’s photos “successful” is an interesting one. Andrew judges his photos by their ability to challenge stereotypes and shed a different light on the established truth, and admits that when he first moved to Afghanistan, he fell into the trap of trying to recreate things that he’d already seen in the media. “Now I’d like to think my coverage is much more nuanced and that I’m able to contextualise it based on what I’ve absorbed in the three years I’ve been here,” he says. Andrew considers “technical aptitude” to be something that should be a given in any successful photograph, but that it’s not necessarily the defining feature of a great shot. What really defines Andrew’s work is the situations that he puts himself in. “Right place, right time” is the most over-used phrase in the book. But it’s true. Unlike the popular rhetoric, Andrew’s being in the right place has nothing to do with “luck”.
“I don’t subscribe to this being a matter of luck,” says Andrew. “Great photographers can pre-empt and predict. Whether it be in a split-second moment in the field, or understanding the dynamics of a particular city or country and placing oneself where you’re most likely to encounter the kind of moments that can be translated into successful photographs.”
The dangers associated with living in Kabul are most real. But you get the sense that Andrew isn’t one to dwell on the “what ifs?” I ask whether his profile makes him more of a target to kidnappers and he tells me that to a kidnapper he’s just another white guy in Afghanistan. The fact that he’s won awards and had photos published in the New York Times is irrelevant. “If a kidnapper had done their research though, and knew I was Australian, they’d know that getting a ransom for me would be much harder than say a Frenchman or German, whose governments pay ransoms,” he says. “Australia doesn’t, nor should they.”
Living in an extremely privileged country like Australia, Andrew’s day-to-day in Afghanistan is hard to imagine. We’ve a serious tendency to concern ourselves with the trivial—where we’re going to eat at the weekend, where we’re going to go at Xmas, if we’ll ever be able to afford a meagre slice of Sydney’s ludicrous housing market… I ask Andrew whether he struggles with interacting with his peers when he returns to the increasingly vanilla Sydney, and his answer is as honest as I’d hoped.
“To be honest, it shits me to tears hearing dinner conversations about real estate and babies, but I’ll probably be there one day too, so I try hard not to be too judgemental,” he says. “For the most part though, my friends and family are aware of how trivial their problems might seem to me and are wary about letting on. At the same time, problems are relative, and those of a middle-class guy living in Tamarama—while probably less ‘life and death’ in nature than those of a 30-year-old mother of nine living in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan—to him, are probably no less ‘real’ than hers. I feel lucky to have a fraction of the perspective of that Afghan mother when confronted with worries of my own, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t always hard to remember that in practice.”