Robert Nickelsberg

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova

NURISTAN AFGHANISTAN: AUGUST 27. Three wounded U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division await evacuation by helicopter from Kamdesh, Nuristan province. They were ambushed and suffered wounds to their eyes and foreheads.

SB. What drew you to Afghanistan in the first place?

RN. I moved to New Delhi, India in 1988 as a contract photographer with Time magazine. The Time bureau covers the six countries of South Asia including Afghanistan. South Asia was a volatile region when I relocated. The Soviet Army had occupied Afghanistan for nearly 10 years; they had killed close to a million people and displaced nearly 6 million civilians as refugees. The turmoil affected South, West and Central Asia. In 1988, the Kabul government began relaxing visa restrictions making it easier for reporters and photographers to visit the country. Keeping the area in context, Pakistan and Bangladesh were under martial law, the insurgency in Indian Kashmir was set to start and a civil war was underway in Sri Lanka. The countries in South Asia with large Muslim populations were facing pressure from the mujahideen who had come to Afghanistan (through Pakistan) to fight the Soviet Army, and were not all at once going drop their fervor for creating an Islamic state in Afghanistan. The politics and strategies of a global jihad were taking shape. Once President Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Army would begin withdrawing in May 1988, the chance of the mujahideen succeeding in Afghanistan created an atmosphere of excitement, anxiety and trepidation in the surrounding countries. I witnessed and tried to document this transition.

SB. Why do you call the war in Afghanistan distant?

RN. Following the events of 9-11, the U.S. and NATO countries focused on Afghanistan. With the attack on Iraq and the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the U.S. military’s commitment to South Asia’s security issues and to the rehabilitation of Afghanistan changed course. The commitment to Afghanistan receded into the distance. This sent a message to governments in South Asia and the Middle East as well as to the militant groups operating in the mountainous areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that they could wait it out. By 2011, there was more commitment to withdrawing, and getting out. War fatigue had set in, the public’s concern drifted. News organization’s budgets shrank and fewer journalists were visiting the area.

SB. You covered wars in Afghanistan for 25 years. Your first visit there was in 1988, during the Soviet occupation of the country. Was there a difference in terms of what you were allowed to photograph under the Soviet occupation and the US invasion of Afghanistan?

RN. My first visit to Kabul was in the spring of 1988. Until the Soviet Army began its withdrawal in May 1988, photographing soldiers or tanks on the streets of Kabul was hit or miss. Once the withdrawal was underway, the Soviets and Afghan organized a few trips for the media to nearby bases to show the training they were giving to the Afghan Army. It’s similar to what the U.S. and NATO are doing today with the withdrawal.
The Soviets had nearly ten years of occupation with no western media present and had a very authoritarian way of handling access. There was a serious undertone of suspicion and anger. Walking around, I used long lenses and would try to find soldiers and civilians buying things in the street markets. At times, I tried posing them with Afghans or offered a handshake or a wave, to avoid any threatening gesture. I used a Polaroid camera as a way to get them to pose and after taking a picture with a film camera, would give them the Polaroid. Though set up, it usually worked. On one occasion, while driving around Kabul’s ring road that passed by weapons depots and the airport, an AP photographer and I were stopped for taking pictures and a cocked pistol was put to my head. We both apologized so profusely that the Afghan officer let us go. After the U.S. invasion and with NATO presence, photographing soldiers anywhere except near a base or a checkpoint was rarely an issue. Credentials were issued and foreign and local media were a normal sight on the streets.

Afghan soldier hands a Soviet Army soldier a flag in friendship during the Soviet Army withdrawal, Jalalabad Road, Kabul. May 1988

 SB. Was it difficult to work as a photographer there, especially during the Taliban years when photography was prohibited?

RN. Photography while the mujahideen were in power was rarely an issue. Cameras were new to them. Leaders and fighters generally liked having their pictures taken. Most Afghans were only accustomed to government-controlled media and those crews rarely took pictures of the fighting. Images and video were sent out of the country and publications were not seen in Kabul once articles were published. Under the Taliban, media had to be registered with the Foreign Ministry and be given a guide or “a minder,” similar to the period under the Afghan Communist regime of President Najibullah until 1992. Some Taliban minders were intolerant of picture taking, particularly of people. If that was the case, I tried to surreptitiously take pictures, wait until the reporter would distract the minder or walk around very early in the morning. If the minders were tolerant, sometimes the public would object…it was partly a game and partly a strategy one had to develop as the day and trip progressed. Even the drivers were of questionable allegiance. It was difficult to tell what would happen from one minute to the next. There were no guarantees and some trips were terribly discouraging. Street photography under the Taliban was risky if Arab fighters were passing by. At other times and with the right combination of translators or drivers, everything would come together.

SB. Were there images of yours that weren't published because of restrictions?

RN. Not in covering Afghanistan.

SB. How did you manage to send your work out to editors?

RN. Sending film out was often tricky. Film had to be hand carried. I would canvas reporters, photographers or TV crews for anyone flying out of Kabul, either to New Delhi, Peshawar, Islamabad or on occasion, flights left for Prague or Moscow and then to Paris or London and eventually New York, the necessary destination. There was the usual angst about it arriving on time. As New Delhi had no film labs worth experimenting with, the Time office had to then ship the rolls to New York. We needed locals to help with shipping in Pakistan. On a few occasions, I’d shoot a roll or two of negative film and try to get those to the wire agencies in Islamabad for transmission of a few frames. We communicated by telex. I carried a film scanner. After 9-11, I used a satellite phone and transmitters to send digital images.

 Taliban soldiers fire a rocket at retreating forces of the Northern Alliance army north of Kabul. September 1996.

SB. Were there tricks you used to get the photograph you wanted?

RN. Taliban minders were the main obstacles to taking a desired image. Pre-focusing the camera and shooting from the chest while the minder looked away was one method. Pre-focusing the lens and shooting while smoking a cigarette proved useful. Using the reporter to act as the subject of my picture, I would use a specific lens to shoot slightly left or right of the reporter if I wanted a shot of a building or a crowd. Or by using a wide angle, I could aim in the general direction of the subject without really alarming the minder and then instruct the editor to crop the frame. Unlike today with digital cameras, I used film cameras and the minder wouldn’t really be sure of what was being shot. Coughing when the shutter was released was one way to muffle the sound. We knew minders kept a record of how we worked and acted, if we were polite and collaborative. I can recall days when there was no joy at all.

SB. Were there areas of Afghan society that were inaccessible to you as a Westerner?

RN. As a male and a westerner, gaining proximity to Afghan women was the biggest challenge. In the past, there were career women who were open to the camera. Before the mujahideen came to power in 1992, offices in Kabul had many women working in schools, banks, at the government radio and television station, and in hospitals where women were open to having their picture taken. Things changed in 1992 with the mujahideen.

AKabul family flees its home during factional fighting between President Rabbani's government forces and opposition Hezb-i-Islami and Hezb-i-Wahdat fighters in western Kabul. March 1993

SB. Did the fact that you are American affect how you saw and covered the conflict?

RN. My approach to the conflict was as a photographer who lived in the region. I was an informed outsider.

SB. How did the war affect the daily life of the Afghan people, many of whom don't even remember what peace is?

RN. Afghans have become accustomed to living in continual limbo. They’re adept at negotiating around the main areas of conflict. Overall, most families have been adversely affected by violence, death, trauma, dislocation and exile. Peace is a relative term.

SB. Were you careful about the message of your images while working there?

RN. Living in the region, I took care to be an informed and focused journalist. Afghanistan is a complex country with layers of regional diversity, nuances, and sensitivities. I looked at each visit as a unique opportunity to peel back a layer of their society. I made an effort to always have an experienced guide, a person who could help me navigate the terrain. This pertains not only to safety but also the new environment and it’s cultural subtleties.

A contingent of American troops conclude their tour in Afghanistan and prepare to fly home from Bagram Air Base. Others arrive (on right), wearing their helmets. May 2013

 SB. Has the human rights situation improved as a result of US military forces presence?

RN. It’s true for some urban areas. In cities, more schools have been opened and more girls are now enrolled and children overall have access to a better education. Universities are more vibrant. Parts of the country’s infrastructure have benefitted. The middle class has grown with better security in urban areas. But corruption prevails as never before and many of the culprits remain immune from justice. People in rural areas are caught between the local government and the Taliban.

SB. In 2001 you met with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Where did you meet him and what was he like?

RN. I met Ahmed Shah Massoud in May 2001 in Khoja Bahauddin, Takar province. Reporter Anthony Davis and I traveled through Taliban lines to reach Massoud who at that point maintained control of only 10% of the country. The Taliban and al Qaeda controlled 90% of Afghanistan. The trip was to find out how he financed and maintained his army. Massoud’s network controlled one of the worlds only lapis lazuli mines which he exploited as well as an emerald mine. He received some aid from the Russians through Tajikistan and the Iranians were also assisting. I had worked around him in the past and knew him to be a charismatic leader, well educated, and experienced in fighting against the Soviet Army. Massoud was a wonderful storyteller, read Persian poetry and loved talking about previous military campaigns, both Afghan and historical battles. He also knew that in Kandahar bin Laden was planning something big with his al Qaeda network.

May, 2001 Former mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud walks through a garden in Khoja Bahauddin, Takhar province. Massoud was assassinated on September 9, 2001 by two Arab-al Qaeda members posing as journalists.

 SB. Are you optimistic for the future of Afghanistan after the US troops leave the country?

RN. Right now, I maintain a day-to-day perspective. I’ll wait to decide once the troop levels are decided upon and the number of bases is fixed.

SB. Is "Afghanistan: A Distant War" a warning that history may repeat itself and another civil war may devastate the country again?

RN. It would be unwise not to examine the recent past when trying to plan for or predict the future. Nations and humanitarian organizations need to remain engaged in the country. Rumors are part and parcel of daily Afghan life as is the current market price of a Kalashnikov rifle and it’s rising.

SB. How did you manage to keep your mind together after spending so much time in a war zone? Did you ever experience PTSD?

RN. By living in the region, South Asia, I had a different emotional threshold. Each country I maintained a watch over was in a state of turmoil. Leaving Kabul for New Delhi in the early 1990’s, I came back to the violence of Hindu-Muslim riots over the Ayodhya mosque issue or the conflict in Kashmir. I remember flying into Karachi, Pakistan around midnight in the early 1990’s. Upon leaving the airport, I watched two army helicopters hovering over slums with searchlights during horrific internecine battles between two political groups. It was so dangerous; I could find only one journalist willing to go back in there the next day and even that proved illusive. To say that I was numb to these events would be misleading. Afghanistan, like the other places I worked and traveled in, kept me alert. It was invigorating to see and document events that unfolded onto a front page on a regular basis. I had wonderful support from editors at Time magazine and great colleagues to work with. It gave me the necessary endurance. I’m sure I suffered some effects of PTSD, but more so after working in Iraq.