Why Afghanistan? I pitched, along with a writer friend, the idea of going to Afghanistan to the Observer newspaper here in London in 1994 and they agreed. Afghanistan had a daunting reputation- I guess it still does but back then It was really a forgotten country and a forgotten war. Yet I read at the time that more people were being killed and dying there than anywhere else in the world. It was incredibly difficult to get there and the only way to handle logistics was through an NGO. Afghanistan only really came back briefly on the west’s radar with the Taliban taking over Kabul in 1996, which produced sensational reporting of wacky crazies stringing up TV sets and them forcing women to wear burqas, which was nonsense- burqas had traditionally been, and in most of the country remain, what women wear outdoors. Then 9/11 happened and it became “important”. But for how long this time?
In 1994 Kabul was under siege; there was a perilous journey by road from Peshawar through a load of completely stoned mujahuddeen checkpoints, but I will never forget arriving the following day on the outskirts of Kabul and driving through a city that was like sci-fi. People were scurrying around in fast-forward, trying to scrape a living before the next round of bombings, shellings or fighting. It was a baptism of fire for me and I learned an awful lot in that month-long trip.
Two years later in February 1996, I was back—the Taliban had just taken Herat and were beginning to be taken very seriously. When the Taliban took Kabul in October 1996, I returned again and so started my continuing involvement with Afghanistan.
I next went in 2000, and worked on the Northern Alliance side of the line. The route to the shrinking piece of territory not held by he Taliban was via Tajikistan. That was when I spent time with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary commander. I had tried for a long time to get a visa to visit Kabul during the Taliban time but they never granted me a visa. By that stage anyway I had my contacts and was able to navigate my way in with help from Massoud’s people.
My preferred method of getting around in Afghanistan is in a little car—the ubiquitous Corolla—that passes as local, and very often is. Anything bigger and involving more people gets in the way of the work and draws too much attention. For example, I worked this way in Badakshan, Balkh, Kandahar and Nangrahar over two trips in 2004, against official and concerned advice. Of course, situations change with time and some of the places that were OK or borderline that I went to in the past would be no-go areas now.
But on my last 2 trip to Afghanistan, in 2009 and 2010 I was being told not to walk and move freely in Kabul, let alone the Shamali Plain and Nangrahar, which would be seen as too risky and where I very comfortably spent some nights in villages, so paranoia plays its part. I suppose if you work for an organization- which I don’t- it’s easy to become institutionalized by their rules—I guess they have little choice—which is a shame because people are missing out on the best part of visiting Afghanistan- hanging out with Afghans.
Why black and white? It seemed to suit the mood and emotion of the times I was experiencing; it certainly matched my feelings and best able to record what I was seeing. These were epic times and despite the apparent lightness of the people, it was also a very dark time. I was in fact shooting colour throughout— fact two assignments in 1996 were in colour and published as such—but it’s the black and white that I was also shooting that eventually was more eloquent. It was also probably an extension of my roots in photography—I had really only been shooting professionally for about five years in 1994 and I felt I could say it better in black and white. At the time I remember thinking that I would never regret shooting a story in black and white but that I did sometimes resent being forced to shoot something in colour by a magazine. Black and white became a default position, and with so many other things to concern you as a photographer, this was something I didn’t have to think about.
In the end, it’s all photography—black and white or colour, film or digital, even still or moving. The real questions for me are- does it take you somewhere unexpected, does it surprise and challenge you is it honest, does it strive to be original. That’s what counts.
MediaStorm and I have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finish our multimedia film.
The project spans over 15 years of my traveling and reporting in Afghanistan. I first went there in 1994 and it became a baptism of fire for me. It was the first time I had exposure to real war and it left a deep impression on me that I carry to this day. I saw things and heard stories that changed my life. The suffering, cruelty and waste was unimaginable. But it was the humanity of the people which compelled me to return, again and again.
The result is a large archive of images documenting those years, 1994 up to the present, which documents the stories and experiences of the Afghan people. We will hear from the people who lived through those years and who live in Afghanistan now, distilling their hopes and fears for the future. We seldom hear what it is the Afghan people want and need. Stories of what happened and why things happened can give us a greater understanding of the country, and possible solutions for stability in the future.
Seamus Murphy has been photographing Afghanistan since 1994. His book A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan, is a rare chronicle of the country and its people over those tumultuous years. For two decades, he has also worked extensively in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America and most recently, America, on an ongoing project during what he calls “a nervous and auspicious time.” His accolades include seven World Press Photo Awards and a World Understanding Award (POYi) for his work from Afghanistan. Above all, his subject is the human. Philip Jones Griffiths described Murphy as “ a poet with a camera”. “Photography,” says Murphy himself,“is part history, part magic.” Visit his site here.
MediaStorm is an award-winning multimedia production studio, working with top visual storytellers, interactive designers and developers and global organizations to create cinematic narratives that speak to the heart of the human condition. Founded by Brian Storm in 2005, MediaStorm is based in Brooklyn, NY.
MediaStorm’s stories and interactive applications have received numerous honors, including five Webby Awards, three Emmys, five Online Journalism Awards Awards and the first-ever duPont Award for a Web-based production.
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