A veteran of many wars, photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg found Afghan terrain tricky, the language unfamiliar and the recklessness scary. Yet, he kept returning to document it all.
He calls himself a post-Vietnam person. Anti-war sentiment was running high in America with protests across university campuses. The media, he thought, was biased. Robert Nicklesberg was a teenager at the time, the 1960s, and he was intrigued by events so far from home. The war didn’t make political sense to him, and he wanted to see for himself events as they unfolded.
Over the 1970s, he travelled to such conflict zones as Nicaragua, and other countries in Central America, where he was concerned with the role of America and “how [it] got into these regions to eliminate oppressive Communist regimes”, and in 1981, he moved to the region as a photographer for Newsweek, and also shot for Time.
This was before the internet era, back when visual storytelling was a challenge. The narrative form was still not what it is today, says Nickelsberg. But war and its stories were everywhere. He would have to shoot on film roll, sneak his rolls out of the countries he was shooting in, and wait to see what he had captured. It wasn’t easy, but it could be done.
It was in 1988 that he first went to Afghanistan on assignment. By then, he was already a veteran war photojournalist. He would return again and again to document the war. It had started with the retreat of the Soviets, just before the end of the Cold War.
In his book Afghanistan: A Distant War, published by Prestel, there is a shot of Russians on their tanks, and a rose held by a soldier. In the background, you see mountains rise, black and threatening. It wasn’t an easy landscape. The war continues. But these photos document a period that’s crucial to understand a phase in the history of this region, and why it continues to be a mystery.
History is a matter of perspective. Nicklesberg went to the region as an American photojournalist who thought the world was like a chess board and this was the biggest match. Everything had to do with the Cold War. It hadn’t really ended. The blocs remained, so did the geopolitical stakes and opinions. But again, in visuals there are truths—of the photographer, and of the subject. In layers, you could begin to unfold the events. But there is no single truth to be found.
A photo shows Taliban commandos sitting on the wings of a plane after the Taliban took over Khost province in 1991. It spelt the end of the Kabul regime, he says. The photo is significant because it also shows the importance of borders, and the reach of the Taliban in recruiting almost-illiterate young men from villages, men who were delighted to perch themselves on the wings of this plane. Photos are significant in the telling of the story of a war. But again, it is the perspective that counts, and fighting prejudices is hard.
It wasn’t an easy place to be. Central America, where he had been previously assigned, had no winters. He didn’t need armoured vehicles to dodge any bullets there. Here, in Afghanistan, it was a battle on many fronts. The terrain was difficult, the language unfamiliar, and the recklessness scary. But he kept returning. The compelling concern, he says, was to document the time before 9/11. Understanding this rugged country also meant having to understand its neighbours: Pakistan and India. A lot of reading was part of his work here, which spans almost 25 years, a period of much action.
‘Settling into New Delhi at the end of 1987, I had little time to orient myself to the region before I left for Peshawar to cross the Khyber Pass in mid-January, 1988, and enter Afghanistan on a one-day visa,’ says Nickelsberg via email of his time in Afghanistan. ‘The event was a funeral for 98-year old Abdul Gaffar Khan, or Bacha Khan, a Pakistani-Afghan and well-known Pashtun nationalist who had asked to be buried close to his native land near Jalalabad. Fighting between the mujahideen and Soviet army was relentless, though a one-day truce was declared in eastern Nangahar province for the funeral service. Soviet Army Spetsnaz (special forces) met us at the Torkham border, staring at us suspiciously from eight-wheeled armoured vehicles.’
‘Halfway through the funeral ceremony near Jalalabad airport, two massive explosions occurred a few hundred metres away in the parking area. Pandemonium ensued, with several thousands in attendance fleeing for their cars, trying to escape. Everyone expected more explosions or a firefight to break out. In this chaos, I was unable to locate my driver and jumped into a vehicle with a Pakistani driver who spoke only Pashtu and whose car’s windscreen had been blown out from the two bombs’ impact,’ he recounts.
‘We reached the Torkham border at sunset. The final two-hour drive to Peshawar was pure white-knuckle agony, both of us were barely able to see the 90-degree turns on the Khyber Pass. The driver’s eyes were already half- closed and bloodshot from smoking hashish all day. Each time he overtook a slower-moving vehicle, I figured we’d crash through the guardrail and end up at the bottom of the ravine. The only help I could offer the driver was to yell out if we got too close to a stone wall. The night was clear, but our eyesight was totally blurred. He dropped me at Peshawar’s Pearl Continental Hotel around 11:00 pm whereupon reaching my room, my windblown body collapsed on the bed. The next morning, I read the headlines: 15 people had died in the two explosions in Jalalabad. The bombs had been planted in two Pakistani buses,’ writes Nicklesberg.
To Nickelsberg, risk is a relative term.
“Going to Karachi is also risky,” he says. “Only through locals, can you get there. I am always scared. You operate with fear. You study the terrain, and the people, and you have to be aware. I read, I explore, and I am a good observer.”
Afghanistan is a multi-layered country, he says. It’s a mystery, and to document a country like this, one must embrace mystery.
“It is not fun to be shot at,” he says, though. “But it is attractive.”
Things changed over the years. For instance, he has shot a portrait of Jalaluddin Haqqani, an ethnic Pashtun of the Jadran tribe who was the leader of the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group fighting against US- led NATO forces. Haqqani, with his piercing eyes and a face that betrays no emotion, also fought in the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan, and later also directed pro-Taliban militants in their jihad against the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Those days, they were happy to pose for a photo,” he says. “As journalists, we had access to them.”
It became dangerous for journalists in the region only later. There were killings and kidnappings. Yet, the need to capture events overrode such worries. “Everybody was following this,” he says. “When the US closed its embassy, look what happened. Civil war ensued. It created a vacuum.”
Again, in storytelling, one often takes sides. This could be shaped by one’s affiliation—ideological or otherwise. But a body of work cannot really be independent of the creator’s personality.
When Nickelsberg speaks of the Great Game—in which the Cold War played a 20th century role—he tends to dismiss other countries and their points of views. Take the late 1970s. The Soviets had invaded and America would help. People in India often see it differently: from varied points of view. Most times, these need not tally with one another. Take 2001. Is it America’s ‘commitment’? Or an occupation?
It may all depend on how one sees it. And what people get to see is never the whole picture, just snapshots. In visual storytelling, the photojournalist says, there is always a risk the picture might be used to project something false. That’s how vulnerable photos are.
Again, working with reporters on a story is a challenge in itself, he says. The reporter analyses the situation and brings in his or her perspective. “I am documenting a particular event and I understand the environment. I bring in the noise and the colour, and the descriptions of the frontline. I work on my own. But again, it is also about what the viewer brings in. Any photo is a documentation of the moment, an educated one, but not the ultimate truth.”
Doing his book, he says, has helped him understand the country better. “America’s disengagement could mean bad [things]. If we leave, or disengage, the threat of violence could possibly return,” he says. It is among this ‘we’ then, that the photographer places himself. Whether one can disengage from this ‘we’ is again a contentious issue in journalism.
But the book is important. As a visual history of the region that also lost its own narrative somewhere. “All this is going back to the country. It is going to be translated, and donated to Kabul University. The pictures belong there. They need it,” he says.
But history is owned in parts. It is coloured. Whose history is it? That is always up for debate.
Such things aside, Nickelsberg’s photos are significant and beautiful. The region, with all its chaos and violence played out in medieval settings— trenches and fields and mountains— seems so far off and yet so close. His images hold you, and sometimes provoke you. There are reactions— sadness, fear, and marvel. Those alone are redeeming factors for any creator. He manages to transport his audience to a country that has remained out of bounds for many but has never quite let go of one’s imagination.
Pictures bring it all to vivid life. Faces of fighters, like ones he has captured shooting missiles from the ground, or of Jalaluddin Haqqani, staring straight into the camera. Or refugees, generals in their uniforms, children with vacant eyes, the dead with their limbs mutilated, the shock of death visible on their faces. There are shots of just the land with its future and past and its desire to be what would be a ‘normal’ place, like the photo of a busy marketplace in Kabul that Nickelsberg says Afghans want their country to be like—bustling with routine things and not booming with guns. One look at such scenes, and it would be clear to any Indian that it is not a distant war.
Besides Nickelsberg’s brief notes on various images, his book offers essays by experts and journalists on Afghanistan.
There are images of hope. There are also images of pain. There are destroyed cities, and caves, and unrelenting mountains, and tankers, and guns. But there are also homes, and markets. There is the past, the present, and a sense of the future.
“I miss the chaos, and the drama,” says Nickelsberg. A perfect photo, he says, is a mix of content and chaos. To me, that image is the one of the ‘illiterate’ young Taliban fighters on the wings of a plane in Khost.
Nickelsberg’s descriptions are only incidental, beyond a point. The image can be viewed in a million different ways. At some point, the creator will lose his hold on it as it rolls into the world.
The book ends with a photo taken at the end of his Afghan mission as a photojournalist. ‘On 16 May 2013, 25 years later, on my last day in Kabul, I took pictures of two blown up and destroyed Chevrolet Suburban SUV’s carrying 6 US instructors traveling to a training session for the Afghan National Army. They had been rammed by a suicide vehicle packed full of explosives near Bala Hisar, a fifth-century fort. Ten Afghan civilians were also killed, a total of 16 dead, with dozens wounded. The violence remains unpredictable but still comes with a lethality that all those exposed to it want to see go away, to disappear, forever,’ he writes in his email.
That’s why his image of the market with bananas and umbrellas and women and men and cars and everything else that a bazaar should look like is an important one. That’s the hope. That Afghanistan will return to normalcy— if such a thing is possible.