Seamus Murphy: Afghanistan

I just took a look at this film, which is an introduction to a long-term project by Seamus Murphy. I’ve seen his name around for years, but don’t really know much about him. However, after one look at this film I can see the amount of time and effort he put in on this story. Plus, I can see the range of work he has, which is considerable. Afghanistan is one of those topics that after 30-years of war seems to bounce off the mindset of many people. We face a media fatigue almost beyond imagination, but I caution you not to dismiss this.

What is happening in Afghanistan impacts all of us, on a daily basis, and the topic is something we can no longer be complacent about. This story chronicles a unique culture, a unique landscape and a uniquely cruel history revealed in a way that allows us to ingest the main ingredients of what happened, what is happening and potentially what will happen in the future. I admire anyone who dares tread the well worn Earth of a place like Afghanistan. This is well worth a look especially if you are a supporter of projects like this. There are a lot of projects being crowd-sourced these days, some solid, others not so much. After nearly fifteen years of coverage, and the partnership with Mediastorm, this one looks like it has the needed legs. I hope he gets it funded.

Plain and simple, these are great images, and they speak to the range of violence, drama and humanity that encompass this story. On a side note, I reached out to Seamus and explained that I wanted to do this post. I made a request for images, and within ten minutes I had the photographs you see here. I love that, and it proves to me he is organized and ready to go. Seamus, I wish you the best.

INTERVIEW: ED GRAZDA

Austin Texas, 1990.

I was a second-year photojournalism student at The University of Texas.

Shopping for books, I found myself not in the textbook section of the store, but instead in the photography book section. All the usual suspects were there. The nature books, the celebrity books, travel books filled with stock, but then suddenly something caught my eye.
Shoving aside the enormous volumes, I found myself holding a book titled “Afghanistan 1980-1990,” by a photographer named Ed Grazda. Softbound, cover font in green, black and white lead photo, with the words “Der Alltag,” across the bottom.
Thumbing through the first few pages my heart began to race and I found my mind thousands of miles away, in the Hindu Kush and alongside the person who made the photos. I was hooked.

Afghanistan had been a subject of my fascination since the Soviet invasion, but I had never really found, or read, or discovered anything that took me to this foreign place. Until I found this book.

I purchased the book, took it to my tiny apartment and spent far too many hours pouring over the images. The book design was simple, black and white images accompanied by English text on one page, and the same text in German on the facing page. The book was exotic. The images, the foreign language, and most importantly, the idea that this man, who I knew by then was American, had gone to Afghanistan and lived amongst the war, the tragedy and the tribes to make these images. The pictures were not of war, which is what had really become associated with Afghanistan, but rather the images were about life. Daily life, tea houses, street scenes, and secret trips into the countryside with the mujahideen. Wide angle to normal lenses, black borders.

In some ways I found the book difficult to look at because for me it was evidence of what was possible, and of what I thought MY path would be. The book was a reminder, a haunting reminder that there were photographers out there doing it, devoting their lives to make pictures that were important to them.

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Ed signing books in his New York apartment.

New York City, 2009

I need to find Ed Grazda.

Much time had passed since my days in Austin. I still own Grazda’s first book, and knew now there was a follow up book, “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” which chronicled the following ten-year time frame in the life of Afghanistan. And there was also a book regarding the Masjid in New York. Doing what we do today when we try to find something or someone, I Googled Ed, and low and behold there he was. An email address. I wrote to Ed, he wrote back, and a few short days later I was sitting in his apartment with a tentative list of questions and slightly sweaty hands. Yes, I was nervous, but perhaps not for the reason you think. Earlier in the day I had been on a panel at the Javits Center, in front of a crowd of people, and my heart never went a single beat above resting, but sitting with Ed, looking around his apartment, which was filled with small stories of his life, I came to a realization. Interviewing someone like Ed isn’t easy. It isn’t easy because Ed has done a lot of important work, and no matter how many questions I asked, I was probably only going to scratch the surface.

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A rug portrait portraying Ahmad Shah Massoud.

I found myself quietly thinking, “Maybe I’m not really qualified to do this?” but the door was closed. I was inside and there was no turning back. I was able to spend about an hour with Ed, and the result is the following interview. He was also nice enough to allow me to make a few images, which I think help to set the scene.

When I read this interview I realize I have many, many more questions for Ed, and perhaps one day I will get a chance to ask them. Since the interview, I ran into a student of Ed’s who said to me, “Ed just does his thing.” I know what this person was talking about, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for this.

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A street camera from Kandahar.

Enjoy.


DRM: You’ve done a wide range of work over the years, but considering current events, I’d really like to focus on your work from Afghanistan. I know you have been traveling to Afghanistan for 25 years, but what was it that first prompted you to venture there? And, how difficult was it to even get in the country?


EG: I was travelling in Asia in early 1980. In a guest house in New Delhi I met some travelers who had been in Kabul when the Soviets invaded (this was only a few months after the invasion), also some young Afghan refugees – the first of millions. So I went to Pakistan – Peshawar. One could go up to the Afghan border and go to the tribal areas easily and relativelY safely. A great place to photograph. Still is. Only now you would not survive.
In 1982 I made my first trip with the mujahideen, they would take you across the border, most times in worked, but a few times I was caught.


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Taliban at Jadi Maiwand, Kabul, Afghanistan 1997. Ed Grazda

“The Afghans are everywhere in Peshawar…they drive rickshaws, buses and trucks. They open restaurants. They also fight the Russians.” from Afghanistan 1980-1989

DRM: A few weeks ago I saw a quick video in regards to Kabul in the late 1970’s and people were wearing western clothing. It was surprising to see this, and reminded me of just how many transitions this country has been through in recent years. When you first arrived, what was happening in country?

ED: My first trips in the early 1980’s were with the mujahideen, but we were only in the country side and small villages, where life has been pretty much the same for generations.. I didn’t get to Kabul until 1992. In the 1970’s Kabul was the Paris of the East.

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Mujahideen at Wageeza, Afghanistan 1983. Ed Grazda

“Almost any Afghan you meet on the street or in the bazaar will offer to take you to their “front” inside Afghanistan if you are a photographer or journalist. Or look like one.” From Afghanistan 1980-1990

DRM: Looking at your work from “Afghanistan 1980-1989” and also your second book “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” it’s clear you are not really focusing on working as a war photographer, but more as a documentary photographer, covering daily life and quiet moments more than front line action. Was this a conscious decision?

EG: yes, I was interested in the culture, landscape etc. not the war per se. I leave war photography to the professionals, with health insurance.


DRM: I’ve never been in a war zone, and when I see imagery from these places I find myself wondering not only about the images, but also about the logistics of how the images were made. What was your mode of operation, both getting in and getting out? How long would you spend in Afghanistan per trip?

EG: in the 1980’s I would go to Peshawar, Pakistan and hook up with a mujahideen group and make arrangement with them to take me into Afghanistan – illegally – sneaking across the border. They would escort me in and out of the country and I would travel with them. A trip was usually 3 weeks to a month.


DRM: The bulk of your Afghan work was done before the days of digital, so what were the logistics of your actual photography? What equipment did you use and how much planning did it require to figure this out?
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International press corps at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, early Dec. 2001. Ed Grazda

EG: I always use the same cameras leica M4 & M6, 400ASA film. Travel light, as you had to carry everything your self. If you trusted you gear to a pack animal you might be separated from it for days.

DRM: I can’t imagine being more isolated while working than being in Afghanistan during the war. Your first book also details a few close calls you experienced. Did you ever have illness or injury to deal with and how much a part of daily life was living in fear?

EG: When traveling with the mujahideen you didn’t really have time to worry or be scared, just keeping up with them took all your energy. There were the usual stomach problems and some minor infections, nothing major. I was lucky. If you got appendicitis or were wounded you were in trouble. I was once helped out by Medicines San Frontier people in Afghanistan. Great people.

“Now the problems started. Nobody spoke English. Nobody could read this document that the army sent concerning my case. And nobody wanted to go to the man in charge. Things only got worse. I was sick, my air ticket home was a few days from expiring, my exposed film from the trip was somewhere in Peshawar with some Afghans. My visa was about to expire. That night I slept in the barracks. The next morning I was still covered with huge bites and blisters. Still no one who spoke English: this was hell. The outhouse was two bricks-no hole. In the afternoon I started to yell and demanded to call the American consulate. They brought out the shackles and chains. I challenged them to put them on me. They did.” from Afghanistan 1980-1990

DRM: What was your goal with these images and did this goal change the more time you spent in Afghanistan?


EG: Basically to document the place during those unstable times. In the early 1980’s I really did not have a goal for the pictures. for me it was an interesting place to be and photograph.
I made some good friends who let me into their world and I got some good pictures. Peshawar was a very interesting place then, and safe and cheap. After a few trips my aim was to do a book.

DRM: When you put your first group of images together from Afghanistan what was the reaction to the work, and did the reaction and demand change the longer the war went on?

EG: The only time there was a “demand” (slight) was right after 9/11. Financially it was always a loss, but it was just something I wanted to do. if there had been”interest” from the general
public, perhaps america would not be in the place we are in now in Afghanistan.

DRM: How much of this work ended up in the editorial world? What other outlets did you find for these images?

EG: Many of my photos from the 1980’s were published in The Christian Science Monitor. A few in Time, Newsweek, Soldier of Fortune.etc. But no major assignments.

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Jalaladinne Haqanni (white turban) heads to a bank in Peshawar with suitcase. 1986. Ed Grazda

DRM: When was the last time you were in Afghanistan and what impression where you left with as you departed?

EG: I was last there in 2004 for the first presidential election. At the time I thought things might work out. The country was relatively peaceful and safe. Most afghans were very pro American and the election process had seemed
to work.

DRM: Another photographer told me you have one of the few images ever made of Mullah Omar. True? And if so, what is the back story on how that image was made?

EG: I wrote a story for Vanity Fair about the Mullah Omar photo (Feb 2004.) it is on line at VF.com. (Here is the link: Vanity Fair)

DRM: Your second book, “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000” covers a time frame when the Taliban were first coming to power. We all know the Taliban views on photography, so how were you able to work?


EG: I went to Kabul in 1997, under Taliban rule, at the time photography was frowned upon, but not yet banned. One could work, but not easily. When I went back in 2000 it was almost impossible to photograph anything.

DRM: Looking at your books it is clear to me you developed a genuine friendship with the people you photographed. Have you been able to keep in touch with any of these people, and were they ever able to see the books?

EG: I always sent photos back to people I knew and later the books. I am still in touch with some of the people from the 1980’s. Afghanistan Diary was for sale in Kabul – and may still be. Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000 was for sale from about 2002 at the book shop in the Kabul Intercon hotel by the man who was written about in the dreadful “Bookseller of Kabul” Also, many friends from the 1980’s kept photo albums that still have my photos in them.

DRM: What is your feeling about what is happening in Afghanistan now? Do you see any hope?

EG: Basically the US government has done nothing to help the Afghan people, everything the Bush
goons did was wrong and self serving. They should be handed over to the Afghan people to be tried as war criminals. I have little hope for a good outcome.

DRM: It seems impossible to do your style of imagery in modern Afghanistan, just due to it being nearly impossible to get out and live with the population. What do you think of the photography coming out of this region today?

EG: I see a lot of dramatic war stuff from “imbeds” but after a while wars seen close up all seem to look the same. And don’t tell me much about the place. I don’t like the idea of working in a situation where I need a government I.D. Etc.

“No one really expected Jalalabad to fall, and the hands of the foreign powers – USA, USSR, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – were becoming more noticeable. There was not going to be a simple ending. As I spoke to people in Peshawar I realized that it was going to be a long time before things would be settled.” from Afghanistan 1980-1989


DRM: Do you have any plans to return to Afghanistan?

EG: Not at the present time.

If anyone who reads this post has comments or thoughts, please feel free to share them here or email me at milnorpictures at gmail.com

Also, if you are interested in Ed’s books you can find them here.


Grazda Books

Get Serious


I still remember, all those years ago, heading off to the the Museum of Television History in Los Angeles. Most people seemed bent on getting to watch the first episode of Gilligan’s Island, or The Brady Bunch, but not me. Me, I went right for the Nixon press conferences regarding Cambodia.

There was Millhouse, with enormous wooden pointer in hand, pointing to a map of Southeast Asia. “Cambodia?” “What are you talking about?” “I’ve never heard of it.” “Never been there, never will be, etc, etc.” “Next question.”

I was riveted. Through my pursuit of the iconic moment I also found an early broadcast from Soviet occupied Afghanistan, a brilliant piece with Dan Rather who had gone across the border with the freedom fighters. I think it was also my first introduction to the extreme importance of a safari style shirt, jacket, outfit, jumpsuit, costume, etc.

People this is a critical link in any wanna be photographer’s arsenal. I dare say as important as what you have around your neck.

Getting the right safari/bush jacket or shirt can take years of pounding the pavement, years of trolling back rows at Army surplus or sometimes it happens in a stroke of pure luck. Some would call it genius.

This is one of my top get ups. Lapel on shoulder is key. Something to flap in the wind as you stare down at…at…perhaps an invading Turkish army?

My advice is to get out and look the part. And I mean now.

Afghan Dreams

I’m in awe of photojournalists.

Those people that put everything on the line to make pictures. The life of a photojournalist is rife with risk, and in many cases, there is little in return other than the actual images and the privilege of being a witness to history.

Tony O’Brien is a photojournalist and has been for several decades. Until recently I had never met Tony, but had heard about him, and seen his work for a long, long while. The mutual friend thing, you know how it is, “Hey, do you know so and so?” “No, but I keep hearing about him,” kinda thing.

Well, I finally got to meet him, and luckily for me, I was also able to attend a lecture he presented as well as a gallery opening featuring his work

This lecture and opening revolved around a recent project dealing with Afghanistan.

Now even mention Afghanistan and my palms begin to sweat, not just because this country is an active war zone, but also because I have had an interest in this region and land for quite some time. But, I’ve never been. Mostly because I’m a total chicken.

Not only has Tony been to Afghanistan, he has been going since 1986, which you history buffs will realize was during the time of the Soviet occupation.

Imagine disguising yourself as a freedom fighter and sneaking across the border into Afghanistan, hiking for miles and miles across some of the most foreboding landscape on Earth, trying to make pictures and praying to any and all gods that you are not spotted by a Soviet chopper or MIG fighter.

Now you know why my hands are sweating.

It takes a certain type of person to do this, flat out, and Tony is one of those people.

I think what carries someone during a mission like this is simply an inner quest they absolutely believe in. They need to see, to record, and nothing will stop them. You can cover different kinds of wars, ones that you can return to a hotel each night, but when you are exposed as this, working perhaps hundreds of miles behind the lines, without support and completely self-reliant, I believe your passion goes beyond being known as a photographer, or winning some prize.

Your there because there is no other place you could be.

Oh, and on a side note, things did not always go as planned for O’Brien. At some point in time, during his travels there, he “got on the wrong bus” as he put it and ended up getting arrested.

This was no simple detainment, and things went from bad to worse, with an eventual outcome of Tony spending six weeks in an Afghan prison. Now I don’t know about you, but the word prison conjures up some nasty visuals in my mind, and I’m talking the “nice” kind of prison with TV, three meals a day, and a nice orange jumpsuit.

I can’t even imagine what the Afghan’s consider prison. Really, I don’t know, don’t want to know, but the visuals I’m fabricating are not good.

I recently had a small brush with the “authorities” in Mexico, and thought for about one hellish minuted that I was going to see the inside of a cage, inside a van, and then a Mexican prison, and if I HAD seen these things I’m not sure how quickly I would have returned to old Mexico.

Not only did Tony return to Afghanistan, he returned again and again. Remember, internal quest, driven, passion, etc,

His recent lecture and gallery opening were regarding a recent project titled, “Afghan Dreams” which is, of all things, a children’s book. The book is a compilation of work that focuses on the children of Afghanistan and their dreams for today and tomorrow.

Imagine what many of these kids have been through, and what they continue to endure. The past saw caravans of Soviet troops and today these children see caravans of American and NATO troops. Many of them have never known a life void of war. When you consider this, the idea of dreams will perhaps take on a different angle.

Tony explained that many of the kids wished and dreamed for things like education and a house. The basics. There were no wishes for Xbox 360 or a Ferrari with a quadraphonic Blaupunkt. Life in Afghanistan is about survival, and these kids just want a chance at a normal life.

The lecture, held at the College of Santa Fe, was standing room only, packed, with several people who stood in the entrance of the building, unable to see the presentation, but still able to hear what he had to say.

Tony’s daughter read passages from the book, which she did with great enthusiasm, which was a nice way to present this material.

Oh, on another side note, Tony had not shot color in fifteen years, and had NEVER shot digital. So imagine going to Afghanistan, not sure what is going to happen, and trying to learn digital on the fly! I had to laugh at that one. Somehow he did it.

Several nights later, Verve Gallery of Photography, held an opening for Tony, which was part of a three artist exhibition.

If you get a chance, take a peak at this book.

Afghan Dreams


Verve Gallery.

So after this past week, I’m more than ever in awe of photographers like Tony who do things like this.
I think those of you who read this who are photographers will know what I’m talking about. An iron will is not easy to forge. There are so many reasons NOT to go, but to the benefit of all of us, he went. And if I had to guess, he will continue to go. Again and again.