I’ve been to Afghanistan eight times in the last 18 months. My apartment is slowly taking on the look of a caravanserai. I have more friends in Kabul than Manhattan. My mind is full of snippets of Dari, counterinsurgency strategy and half-remembered warlords, major and minor. My son – not yet quite born – will have a Pashto middle name. I make no claims to being an expert on the place but, God knows, I seem to love it.
I love fried liver and weak tea and fresh pomegranate juice for breakfast. I love the bemused looks I get at the neighborhood hammam in the morning, waiting with all the other men for a shower when the well runs dry and there’s no running water. I love that Afghans will seemingly set any two living things against each other in combat and then bet on the outcome: dogs, camels, quail, men. I even love climbing mountains day after day in armor and lugging too many cameras and pretending that in the other half of my life the most strenuous thing I do on any particular day is not walking to the dog park.
All of this is a far cry from how I felt about Afghanistan the first time I arrived. I came for one of those embeds where it’s 130 F, the commander hates journalists, you’re stuck waiting for days to get in and get out, and not only does absolutely nothing happen, it doesn’t happen in stark contrast to all the dramatic things – everyone assures you – that were happening up to the very last second just before you arrived. It was one of those embeds where you can quite plainly feel the hours of your life being stolen from you, one by one.
Still, apparently, somewhere along the way things changed. I left in July, returned in September. I’m not sure whether there was a specific moment when everything shifted. Thinking on it now I feel like it might have been that first morning, waking up covered in frost on the Pakistan frontier, watching the sun crest over the mountains, seeing smoke from cooking fires begin to rise from a village in the valley, watching small black figures begin to move along a nameless road connecting two nations divided by someone else’s border. It could have been experiencing those moments, some small traveler’s impressions of empire or, more likely given the world we inhabit today, it could have been relating all those things in the moment via a text message to a girl I had a crush on in high school who found me via Facebook and sent me a note that morning to ask me, “how r u?” though we hadn’t seen each other in nearly 20 years. Sometimes in this job it is difficult to know whether you are appreciating an experience in the moment or only preparing to enjoy them in retrospect as you relate them to someone else.
That was just the beginning, though. With each trip, each story, I find myself with deeper and greater feelings of affinity for the place. I know that I am not unique in this. With some journalists working in Afghanistan claiming résumés that seem to stretch back until just after the Retreat from Kabul in 1842, it is easy to see that the place lays claims to its visitors
The Digital Journalist has asked me to write about how video and photography interrelate in my work in the context of my time in Afghanistan. Because it is constantly on my mind, I would say that when practiced by a normal human with two eyes, two arms, and two shoulders video and photography are not always the best of friends. I once thought, when I first began to dabble in video – when I looked on it as a way of making home movies for my then girlfriend to watch when I came home from too many trips to Iraq – that video must be easy: take the camera, point it at something for awhile, turn it off, repeat. Anyone reading this who films anything for a living will probably be smiling at that. Video is a grim taskmaster, requiring constant attention to detail, narrative planning, technical prowess, and if you produce as I do, a thorough mastery of a subject matter – essential in order to sit down with anyone from generals and ministers to the parents of children lying with broken bodies in hospital beds and shepherds on wind-swept plains and coax from them their experiences and stories. In the midst of this, it is damned hard to find the quiet and intuitiveness necessary to produce photographs that surprise, or delight, or arrest – photographs which have a voice. (Some might suggest that photographs can be culled from the moving image but this seems to me to be no more photography than color-by-numbers is painting.) This is not to say that I have not tried. I have and with some occasional success. Some stories are photographic, others less so, but since coming to Afghanistan I have had to begin to spread out my satisfactions, to be as pleased with a good quote as a good moment, to enjoy telling the story of the moment as much as searching for the permanence of an iconic image. This has been the hardest thing of all.
What has helped me through all of this is my desire to be in the place. (For starters, fresh pomegranate juice for 35 cents a glass is something no one should have to live without.) In a day when photography is going through one of its regularly scheduled deaths (albeit one worse than usual), the only vehicle open to me to continue to work in Afghanistan, to continue to experience those moments on the frontier, is the video camera – and here, by extension, I’ll give proper credit to my patron, Dan Rather, and his program which has offered me the opportunity to work with nearly complete freedom and trust, an opportunity I see nowhere in print (though I wish more than anything that there were.) For this, I am grateful.
I don’t know where all of this is leading, whether in another 18 months I will be making feature films or shooting firefights with a pinhole camera. I suppose I hope for both. I know that Afghanistan will still be there and barely changed. For this, too, I am grateful.