Larry Towell | Crisis in Afghanistan

Country of origin: Canada
Project location: Afghanistan
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2010

For  thirty  years,  Afghanistan  has  known  only  civil  war. The violence and political turmoil devastating the country has left it one of the poorest nations on earth. Widespread heroin availability combined with hopelessness and despair, has helped to create over a million addicts, 10% being women, 60,000  being  children. In the past ten years alone, 1.5 million people have been killed and maimed by landmines and over 300 Afghans per month become new victims.

From a look inside civilian street culture in Afghanistan’s capital, to the soldier’s life in the U.S. military bases of Kunar province, Larry Towell documents the daily lifestyles shaped by the conditions of perpetual war.


Larry Towell and Jamie Wellford had an open-ended conversation about Afghanistan and the need for and media and photographers to continue to have a presence there.

LARRY: What do you think of the coverage of Afghanistan by photojournalists? What's missing?

JAMIE: There is quite a bit of good work from Afghanistan, but the press overwhelmingly shows the country through pictures of occupation and military force. After 10 years these images grow remarkably familiar especially when you consider we have also been looking at American soldiers in Iraq for 8 years. I actually think there is very interesting imagery from embeds, but for many viewers the adage "familiarity breeds contempt" is an issue. I think the important question is, do Americans care to see beyond the images of embedded soldiers in Afghanistan? For me, the answer is yes. I think they want to see more.

I think the story of war, conflict, and alienation is pretty well addressed on the occupation side. There is also strong and moving material about civilians in Afghanistan. What is missing is more evolved work on the Taliban and the visual accounts of their motivations for conflict and defiance.

We must also continue to talk about the conditions people face and endure in Afghanistan. We must remember and feel compassion for the victims of the enduring conflict. Images are windows to this world. We must keep caring about those who suffer.

LARRY: It's almost impossible to embed with the insurgents. The chances of getting kidnapped and killed, or at least kidnapped and ransomed or made part of a prisoner exchange are extremely high. Most would say more than 50%. Do you agree? Is there value in taking that kind of risk?

JAMIE: I think there is always a fascination with imagery and experience from and about the insurgents and their perspective. There is no question that the danger level is extremely high. Any photographer/journalist considering the ordeal is definitely taking an enormous risk. But there is real value in showing images of these fighters and trying to visualize their motivations. I have known several people who have spent time with the Taliban. I admire these photographers and writers for their work and courage. I am also relieved that they are still alive. The issue of danger is always disturbing when photographers are working in unstable situations. I can't stress enough how essential their instincts for survival are, and how their decisions and choices play such vital roles in the realization of the story. It is also fundamentally important to forever thank and celebrate the courageous and talented translators and fixers that make the work possible. So many have died for the cause.

LARRY: Tell me about your time in Pakistan.

JAMIE: I spent a year studying Urdu in Pakistan in the mid 1980's and traveled extensively through the country. There is immense diversity and beauty there. And I always found an inherent kindness and warmth in the people. But ethnic and religious tensions have always and still are severe fault lines throughout the country. I worry about the future of Pakistan and its myriad problems; a chronic war in neighboring Afghanistan that continuously spills across the border, a tense and volatile relationship with India, an insupportable political structure driven by corruption and cronyism, and of course an increasingly violent internal situation that threatens the stability of the entire region. I hope there are solutions.

LARRY: The mujahedin were the darlings of the west. Journalists went to Pakistan to cross the mountains with them to see them fight Russians. Were they questioning the role of the CIA at the time both in developing the training camps and radicalizing the madrasses which resulted in today's scenario? Who was thinking about that?

JAMIE: The Reagan administration was focused almost exclusively on breaking the Russians in Afghanistan and to a large extent journalists ignored conditions in Pakistan to concentrate on the Mujahadeen fight against the Russian occupation. The American darling on the Pakistan front was President Zia ul Haq who actively supported stricter Islamic rule and education in Pakistan. The CIA and American government generally ignored the issue of an increasingly radicalized, anti western Islamic presence in the country and channeled billions of dollars through the Zia administration and the mujahedden fighters in a proxy war to, at all costs, defeat the Soviet Union. As many as a million Afghans were killed during the war and many millions more were displaced and became refugees. When the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, the United States' interest in the region waned despite the fact that fighting continued to rage in Afghanistan. Radical elements filled the void and turned against the apostate West. In fact, one of the prime recipient's of U.S. and CIA funding during the Russian occupation in Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is credited with pulverizing Kabul between 1992-95 killing thousands in his bid to claim power in the country. We tried many years later during the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan to kill Hekmatyar, our former ally. It did not work. Many "former" allies in the Russian War in Afghanistan are now our enemies.

LARRY: ...Like Osama Bin Laden. Yet a lot of Afghanis consider him to be a hero because he fought the Russians. According to a recent survey, 92% of men interviewed in Helmand and Kandahar, the two heaviest areas of fighting, have never heard of September 11. We're bombing the smithereens out of them. How do you read that?

JAMIE: I think there is little doubt the Afghans perceive the U.S. and NATO forces as occupiers in the country. Afghanistan has a long history of enmity towards people who overstay their welcome. As for the outpouring of support for Osama bin Laden, it is important to note that there are always 2 sides, if not more, in an argument. Many believe(ed) in his crusade against the West and his extolling the virtues of Islam and jihad, a word often misconstrued and associated only with militant Islamic radicals. Jihad also means to fight for a true, meaningful, and honest life and all that should be charitable on this path. That bin Laden used charity and his deep pockets to win confidence is certainly true and that his tactics included destroying innocent lives in his war against anyone who did not adhere to the Wahhabist faith is also true. But many in the world see the actions of the U.S. as equally aggressive and terribly destructive in terms of innocent lives lost. We do kill and maim people who are in the way of our objectives. In the case of Afghanistan it was Osama bin Laden and in the case of Iraq it was Saddam Hussein.

LARRY: Is there still a need for photographers in Afghanistan?

JAMIE: Yes, there is a need. The story of Afghanistan is far from finished. Many suggest there is much redundancy in the photography, and that the images struggle to define the place. But of course there are so many aspects and complexities in a troubled country like Afghanistan. The need to continue and try to show these complexities is very necessary. A simple picture has the potential and capacity to do this. But good images require time, patience, discipline, and commitment.

LARRY: How did you became an editor at Newsweek, and why?

JAMIE: I had been working in photography agencies and doing freelance stints at magazines and a newspaper for a number of years in New York City. One day I saw the Newsweek's then Director of Photography, Sarah Harbutt, on an F train in New York and she asked me to work at the magazine. She was a very enlightened editor who built, in my opinion, one of the best photography mastheads at any magazine in the world. Why I became an editor? I needed a job to support my family. Why I continue to be an editor? I am enthralled by the intelligence, emotion, and process to tell and visualize stories that creative photographers possess.

LARRY: How do you pitch a story to the other editors at Newsweek?

JAMIE: If I think there is a provocative idea I pitch it. If I have strong images to support the development of the idea, all the better.

LARRY: Do you have battles with the other editors? Who wins?

JAMIE: I lose many battles. There are many picture stories that I think are exacting, aesthetically potent, and meaningful which have never been published at the magazine. I still believe in what I do and actively try to find homes for the work I believe is strong. I also win battles.

LARRY: You did a great job of making sense of LIbya and Tunisia from Alex Majoli's work, and Egypt from Paolo Pelligrin's work. Where do you start when you get a bunch of raw pictures? How do you make sense of it and how do you collaborate with a photographer in the field?

JAMIE: For this process to work well there has to be a creative collaboration between photographer(s), editors, and designers as well as the writing editorial side at a magazine. A number of editors were involved in these projects and it is important to recognize their contributions in the process, particularly for the Tunisian work which was assigned by Newsweek International. Alex and Paolo both have an enormous gift with perception. Their ability to capture moment and intensity on a frontline, in fact in any situation, is arguably among the best in the world today. I learn from them always. In fact, I learn from all the photographers I work with. There is something I deeply admire in people who try and make the attempt to photograph a story, even when the real possibility of failure exists.

LARRY: You seem to understand how a photographer thinks when his feet are on the ground. I think that's a forgotten editorial art.

JAMIE: The truth is that I am completely dependent on the creativity of the photographer in the field. To the extent I know, or am in the process of learning, about a story, I do try and discuss logistics and relevant issues with the shooter. It is vital to remember that a visual story is almost always in process and rarely completely finished.

LARRY: How do you understand the process of story telling?

JAMIE: It really varies. Some photographers have a great capacity and tenacity to literally define a place, to describe a moment. Others are less direct and show the atmosphere that envelops the story. Images that capture both qualities are exceptional.

LARRY: So what makes a picture work for you?

JAMIE: It's the feeling that lingers in my mind when I have turned away from the frame. And also very importantly, the impact of the image that makes me consider, think about, and contemplate what is outside the frame, the environment and conditions that exist beyond the image but which are articulated by what is captured in the picture. I often think of good photography as a window to the world, a threshold that allows us to cross over to the other side. I think a photographer should have a strong sense of the story they are embarking on, but I am a big believer in the journey and PROCESS, the finding and discovery of the unknown and unexpected.

LARRY: With alternative media, especially with audio and perhaps video, we can do more. Is there a danger however in weakening the meaning of still photography?

JAMIE: I think the meaning and potency of still photography will always be formidable. It still, like no other visual media, has the inherent capacity to be revelatory, to express something beyond the literal and to explore the psychology of a moment. That said, adding audio and other elements to a still visual story is remarkably effective and when done well, is powerfully creative. I am an advocate. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend Tim Hetherington's project Sleeping Soldiers which, in my opinion, is a formidable multi-media experience. The central aspect of the piece, the haunting feeling one walks away with, at least for me, remains the beautifully silent and austere still images of sleeping soldiers in the presentation.

LARRY: Many years ago, even before digital, Henri Cartier-Bresson said there were too many pictures in the world. Do you agree?

JAMIE: I agree. But there is too much wine in the world as well. This does not mean it is all good.

LARRY: Are we too addicted to immediate gratification?

JAMIE: Yes. Massive amounts of information devour us daily and the results of all this stimulation I think can be anti-climactic. And yet we are all, almost all, addicted to speed and immediacy. However, there is much to be said for slowing down and contemplating cause and effect. I advocate reading books and organizing meals that take longer than an hour to prepare.

LARRY: I remember being at a World Press Photo Anniversary in Amsterdam a few years ago, I think it was the head of AP in Paris who said they used local photographers to cover the 2004 Tsunami because it was cheaper. Do you experience this transition?

JAMIE: I have often failed to send a photographer to a breaking news story because there is no financial support. In many situations though, local photographers are often the only photographic solution. Some of the shooters can be very good. I think of Iraq during the violence of 2006 and Gaza during the Israeli bombing in 2009 when only local shooters could effectively photograph the situation on the ground. Whatever the case may be, local or from the outside, when I work with a photographer, I want and hope to bring the very best out of them. It is worth noting that even among the most celebrated photographers, there is always the struggle to make a strong, meaningful image.

LARRY: Because Newsweek is popular, we tend to think it has a lot of money. Has your budget been affected by the transitions we are going through?

JAMIE: No question journalism has been undergoing difficult times. Financial woes have effected most organizations, and news coverage, particularly international, has taken a big hit. Despite these troubling circumstances many have persevered and I applaud all the places and people who continue to support photography, writing, and graphics and remain committed to addressing, exploring and trying to explain the chronic issues that are pervasive in the world. And to all the photographers who pursue stories because they care, and who often work with little or no financial support, I feel an enormous gratitude. These people still believe and think that reality matters and that when people are exposed to powerful stories, they respond. Journalism, when it works, should be a bridge to the unknown. Images show the way, and when an editor supports good photography the world becomes a more involved and curious. As for Newsweek, there is a renewed interest in photography and with that, more support for the image.

LARRY: How do you think my work can be helpful towards addressing challenges in Afghanistan?

JAMIE: I think it is important to remember that many people never have a chance to see your work. How do we change that? We must create an exhibition that travels throughout the world and that constantly changes to reflect circumstances in Afghanistan. Lets call it the Afghanistan initiative and assemble the photographers, writers, poets, thinkers, designers, and financial institutions to mount the shows, build the site, and organize the symposiums that address all the issues that both strangle and potentially liberate the country.