Andrew Quilty takes us Behind Some of His Most Harrowing Images

Jamshid lay on pillows and played with a pheasant in the courtyard at home in his village of Qualander Khel, about two hours north of Kabul, in the Bagram District of Parwan Province. Jamshid and his two friends, both named Farshid, were seriously injured while his 18-year-old brother was killed when a suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy near their home. 4 August 2014.

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.

Approximately 24 hours after two landslides buried over 2000 residents of Argo district in the mountainous northeastern state of Badakhshan under hundreds of feet of mud. The first landslide buried some 300 homes and those who had been inside or on the streets at the time as well as those attending a wedding party. The second landslide struck as villagers attempted to rescue those trapped—digging with shovels and their bare hands. Today—Saturday—rescuers called off a search for survivors due to a lack of heavy machinery required for the massive task. Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of Afghanistan’s two Vice Presidents, along with a handful of ministers travelled from Kabul to pay their respects at the site of the landslide today. Saturday 3 May, 2014. Photo by Andrew Quilty / Oculi for TIME. With the landslide in the background, men look to the sky as an Afghan National Army helicopter carrying Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of Afghanistan’s two Vice Presidents flies over the disaster. Saturday 3 May, 2014. Photo by Andrew Quilty / Oculi for TIME.

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?”

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.

“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.”

Brahim Bishar (30, left) woke at sunrise after sleeping alone in a room of an abandoned house near the Iraq/Syria border where he and his extended Yazidi family had made house after fleeing Sinjar. His son, Mazin (7) came to be with him after he too awoke in another part of the compound. 15 August 2014. Andrew Quilty / Oculi for foreign Policy.

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”.

A Turkish soldier held on to a Turkish flag on a tank overlooking Kobani, across the border in Syria. After more than two weeks of fighting between militants from the Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish YPG units in the city of Kobani on the Syrian side of its border with Turkey, the ongoing damage to the city at the hands of both the IS and air strikes from the US-led coalition could be seen from a hilltop across the border in Turkey. Four Turkish tanks were positioned on one hill overlooking Kobani near Mursitpinar while a larger grouping of nearly 30 were parked behind another nearby hill. Three large artillery positions were also visible between the tanks and the border also, while other military vehicles moved back and forward across the border region throughout the day. CREDIT: Andrew Quilty for The Wall Street Journal

“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.”

After living in and raising families in Swat, Pakistan for 30 years—since fleeing the Soviet War of the 1980s—members of the decades-old Afghan refugee community—like those pictured—have been systematically harassed by Pakistani locals and authorities alike following a massacre in a Peshawar school in December 2014 which saw 145 students and teachers killed by militants associated with the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban) (which included two Afghans). Many have ultimately been evicted from their homes. After being forced from their homes (which were also partly dismantled) by the Pakistani police and army, this convoy of four trucks carried families across the border back into Afghanistan and were aiming for Behsud District, outside Jalalabad in Afghanistan’s east, from where many had originally come but where they no longer had homes. This photograph was taken on the eastern outskirts of Jalalabad as the convoy made its way. Photo: Andrew Quilty / Oculi.

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.

A 20-year-old girl who, after her family rejected a man for marriage, was severely disfigured when the rejected man came to her house in the night and poured acid on her through her window as she slept. Here she is pictured in her shared bedroom in a so-called halfway house for women under the threat of violence, run by an NGO called Women for Afghan Women (WAW). The halfway house runs in conjunction with three other women’s shelters in Kabul. The halfway house is used as a launching pad for women who don’t have the support of a husband or family to undertake normal daily life in Afghanistan. The program teaches life skills that aim to send women out into the world to succeed. WAW also has shelters in ten provinces throughout Afghanistan and is planning on opening several more in the months ahead. Their ultimate goal is to have shelters in every Afghan province. The majority of the women at this shelter have escaped abusive marriages or families who have rejected them and threatened violence for reasons such as marrying against the family’s wishes—seen as shameful by some Afghans. Andrew Quilty / Oculi for Harpers.

“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.”

Najibah tried to comfort her daughter Zahra (8) as they both wept over the grave of their husband and father, Baynazar, just south of Kunduz City. Baynazar (43) had been wounded by gunfire when returning home from work during the Taliban takeover of Kunduz City in northern Afghanistan in late 2015. He was taken to the nearby Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Kunduz Trauma Centre for treatment. In the early hours of October 3, during his second operation, a US AC-130 aircraft attacked the hospital for more than half an hour, killing 43 MSF staff, patients and patient carers, and wounding dozens more. The US has accepted responsibility for the attack and blamed human error and technical failures for destroying what they claim was the wrong target, though many questions remain unanswered. At the time of writing this caption, it is known that 12 military personnel have received administrative punishment for their involvement, but none are facing criminal charges at this stage. Baynazar is survived by his wife Najibah, sons Samiullah (19), Khalid (6) and two daughters, Zahra (8) and Raiana (10).

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