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Three young photographers who covered the war in Afghanistan talk about their experiences

'I am a photographer and I quite often get sent to photograph wars, I report on the human condition'

In the winter of 2001-2002, between 4,000 and 8,000 journalists were sent to cover the war in Afghanistan—writers, reporters, the now inevitable army of television crews, and, of course, the photographers.

War photography has a history stretching back almost to the moment of its invention. War photographs range from the early images of the barricades across the streets of Paris during the revolution of 1848, photographed by H. Bayard (1801-87), the only photographer present; through the miraculously saved despatches and the negatives that were almost destroyed by fire of Robert Capa’s Normandy landings in World War II; to the famous photo-reportage of the events in Prague in 1968, smuggled over the border and published anonymously—to protect the family of the now famous photographer Joseph Koudelka—by Magnum.

All these have become historical documents, images which required courage and initiative on the part of individual photographers, who dared to risk their lives, to make it possible for us to see what happened.

While there have been many changes in war reporting, particularly from the time of the Vietnam War, from technology to the numbers of reporters, the essence of the job is still the same for a lot of the photographers: their images are meant to speak for themselves, but they extrapolate events from the context in which they are photographed, yet they are justified by history simply because of the direct way they speak to the viewer.

But what do the photographers who have worked in this and other theatres of war think? What is their work like and what do they think? The Art Newspaper asked three young photographers who covered the conflict in Afghanistan to give us their opinion.

Thomas Dworzak

Dworzak was born in Germany in 1972 and has been an associate member of Magnum since 2002; he began his career at the age of 16 in Northern Ireland, and then in Serbia, Macedonia, Chechnya, Palestine and Afghanistan.

The Art Newspaper: You have said you do not know why you began as a war photographer, but why do you now want to continue to be a war correspondent?

Thomas Dworzak: Photography is my work, and war is part of it; I want to photograph the everyday reality of war. I think that for those involved in it war becomes a particular mental state, which satisfies the individual in some sort of way. In wartime life is very simple, everything is reduced to black and white, there are no nuances; war brings out the best and the worst in everybody. In times of war run-of-the mill problems and classic Western stress do not seem to bother me.

TAN: Tell me about the dangers and risks you encounter.

TD: For anyone who wants to be killed, who wants to die from a bullet wound or a bomb, the chances of success are very small.

TAN: What is the role of the photographer today?

TD: I don’t think the photographer can change the world, but the world might be a worse place without photographers. As a photographer, I am limited by what reality offers me. Photography is the medium available to me and I don’t think it is any more valuable than a newspaper article or any other kind of testimony. Undoubtedly photography has given me the opportunity to translate into images at least part of the cultural baggage and knowledge that I have accumulated over my professional life.

TAN: How has technological progress changed your working life?

TD: Photojournalism has recently tended to become “author’s” photography: pictures that years ago would have won prizes are considered too banal to publish nowadays. I am not interested in giving my photographs a style; what is important is the content. If I think back to my recent experience in Afghanistan, the logistical difficulties were not due to the size of the country (which is vast), but to my feeling of being “choked” during the offensive.

TAN: What does photographing a war feel like?

TD: This time I felt unusually awkward. It is difficult to explain. There were no moments of respite, when you know you are doing the right thing, as for example happened to me in Macedonia. When I was there I lived with the soldiers and shared their experience. There were some wars in which I have felt intimately involved, for example in Chechnya because I spoke their language. It feels strange and embarrassing to photograph other people’s misfortune, but basically you feel awkward anyway when you photograph someone in the street without asking their permission. In Chechnya, when I was about to take a photograph, I felt strange, I felt deep shame for what happened. I tried to be polite, to show that I was participating, but at the same time I was worrying about there not being enough light.

Gary Knight

Knight was born in England in 1966 and began his career as a photographer in 1986-87. He is a founding member of Agency VII

TAN: How did you begin your career as a photographer?

Gary Knight: There is always a transition period between when you start taking photographs and when you become a professional photographer. I began in 1986-87, but it was not until 1999 when I moved to Thailand that I became a full time photographer. I don’t feel like a war photographer; the name is misleading: I am a photographer and I quite often get sent to photograph wars, I report on the human condition.

TAN: How have changes in technology affected your career?

GK: The media are always in the forefront. First the army appropriates the new technology, then the media adopts it immediately afterwards. Technological progress is evolution, not revolution; it has changed the way of taking a photograph, but it has not changed our eyes, our philosophy, or our need to take photographs.

I sometimes find myself next to a colleague who is using a digital camera while I am using a film, but what matters is that we are observing and reporting the same event. Thanks to technology, travelling and producing photographs is less expensive than it was, therefore a larger number of people can afford it nowadays. But people are becoming immune to certain images, they no longer have the power to surprise or to move.

More media means more points of view, but in fact there are fewer photographers than there used to be; there were more photographers in Vietnam than in former Yugoslavia. There are huge stocks of photographs now it has become so cheap, so it produces quantity rather than quality—this is not because of the photographers, but because of the big companies like Getty Images which tend to monopolise the market.

TAN: What is your rule, if you have one?

GK: I do what I want to do, I don’t rely on anyone else, I don’t believe in anything until I have seen it with my own eyes.

War is desperation, frustration, rage, physical pain. My feelings about war are always changing: I think that it occurs as the result of inability or lack of will to resolve conflicts and differences, which therefore are never resolved. There is nothing positive about war. If you think back I suppose you can notice changes and improvements, but one war generates another.

TAN: In order to photograph war, do you have to go to the front line, or are there other ways of reporting war?

GK: I don’t think that the photographers at the front are the only important ones; in fact I think they are quite boring and they only provide a partial view of war.

War is not only soldiers with guns: in a country with seven million inhabitants, all suffering and all involved in the war, only about 700 people are at the front. In theory it is right to go to the front, if you survive, because you become part of the nation you are photographing, You don’t take part, you become a part.

Alex Majoli

Born in Ravenna in 1971, a member of Magnum since 2002

TAN: John Steinbeck said of his friend Robert Capa, “Capa knew that it is impossible to photograph war, because it is mainly an emotion.” Do you agree?

Alex Majoli: It is true that war cannot be photographed. The events of war stretch over a long period, and you cannot be everywhere. When you are right in a battle it is more of a visual experience, when you go the front you are really with the soldiers, with the people, and the soldiers forget that you are there. It is impossible to record everything, to photograph the soldiers’ reactions or the whistling of the bullets. It is easy to stay in the background, on the pretext that it is too difficult or dangerous in the front line, and reap great aesthetic benefits: for example you can photograph hospitals, funerals, deserters.

TAN: Why do you photograph war?

AM: I am a photographer. I live in the year 2002. I know that I cannot change the world; I go there to inform myself, I feel a need to find out about and to photograph the times in which I live. I don’t think being an explorer-photographer makes sense anymore. I want to be the person who enters into stories in order to understand them and to understand himself. I feel that I have a role, it is my job, and I go where there is a war. I do it mainly for myself, although of course the people who see the photographs…

TAN: How do you choose whose side to be on?

When I think that one side has been aggressive in its attack on the other, I am thinking of the Serbs against the Bosnians in Sarajevo, I want to be with those who are being attacked, but in fact there is evidence to show that both sides are in the wrong. I take sides, but I can always change. You have to go with those who will accept you. In Afghanistan I was with the Northern Alliance, but if the Taleban had invited me to cover their movements I think I would have accepted.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'After the shooting stops'