In this episode, recorded in January 2016, Siobhan Toohill talks to Andrew Quilty, a Sydney-born photojournalist, now living in Kabul, Afghanistan. Over little more than a decade-long career Andrew has won many prestigious accolades for his work – most recently a George Polk award for his powerful series ‘The Man on the Operating Table’ in Foreign Policy Magazine.
Siobhan: Andrew Quilty was born in 1981 in Sydney. He’s won a World Press Photo Award and a Walkley Young Australian Photojournalist of the Year Award. Andrew began his career as a photographer at Fairfax Media in Sydney and began freelancing in 2010. He is regularly commissioned by The New York Times, Time, and The Guardian, among others, and he is a member of the Australian photographic collective Occuli. Recently returned from the Middle East and Central Asia, Andrew is now back in Afghanistan to document the first democratic transfer of power in Afghan history. This year, he was in Sydney for the festive season, and we’ve caught up with him for a chat. Andrew, we’re delighted to have you here with us in our kitchen for a chat after dinner!
Andrew: Thanks for having me.
Siobhan: At this year’s Walkleys, you spoke about the feeling that you’re a writer inside a photographer. What led you to the camera first, and the pen second?
Andrew: I was pretty much incompetent at writing, or so I was led to believe at school. I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t enjoy reading. Photography, on the other hand, was something that I was led into for the most part because I had two uncles who I very much looked up to and who were both photographers - one of whom gave me my first camera. Both of them were mentors of mine in life, as much as in photography itself. So I think photography, for me, was a creative field that I thought I could go into and perhaps make a career out of, which is what, leaving school, I thought I had to do.
Siobhan: So when did you first pick up a camera and what was that like?
Andrew: The first time I picked up a camera – a real camera, an SLR, the old Nikon F1 that my uncle gave me – was to travel around Australia for six months in 2001. I had no training.
I just had a nice little kit, with this old Nikon body, a couple of lenses and a bag full of film.
At that point I had no intention of pursuing it beyond that trip but, as it turns out, I did.
Siobhan: You have a very Australian perspective. Your favourite authors are Australian, you’ve travelled extensively around Australia capturing remote communities and you have a strong sense of camaraderie with other Australian photographers. How do you characterise your connection with this place?
Andrew: That’s a tough question because I feel like I’ve taken myself away from it in the last few years. I think when I joined Occuli – Occuli is very much centred on Australian storytelling, by Australian storytellers. And there was always the belief amongst its members that you didn’t need to flee your homeland to make great work and tell interesting stories. That has changed somewhat, for a number of reasons including the landscape around the industry. Ten years ago there were a lot of editorial jobs, a lot of jobs in editorial photography, in news photography, whereas there now isn’t. And that’s probably part of the reason that I left. I suppose it’s a case of not practising what I once preached but I still do have a lot of respect for people who focus on what they know and where they come from.
Siobhan: One of your first very high profile series of photos were those that you took at the Cronulla Riots. And the emotion in those photos is visceral. In a moment like this, how do you determine the story that you’re looking to tell?
Andrew: I think the idea here, as a photojournalist, is not to go in with any preconceived ideas and follow what you see and respond to what you see and what’s happening around you. You’re not there to create the story, you’re there to document it. That’s how I see it. I think the narrative of the story, while it’s unfolding in front of a camera, is also something that you can structure after the fact, in post-production or, if you’re writing, obviously, in the structure of the story. But in the moment, there’s very little consideration around trying to structure it yourself.
Siobhan: So is it very much, you just try to capture what you’re seeing in front of you?
Andrew: Very much. Entirely responding to what you see.
You’re not there to create the story, you’re there to document it.
Siobhan: In some respects, though, you’re more than a photographer. You’ve written essays, such as for The Saturday Paper, and often pieces that accompany your photos. It’s also interesting how you’re using social media platforms, like Instagram and Tumblr, where your photos are supported by a detailed commentary. How are you arriving at this combination of text and photography, and in particular this use of Instagram?
Andrew: I think I came across the need to combine the two when I travelled across to Afghanistan and other areas in the Middle East. I think what I see there, which I don’t see here as much, is a story that can go underneath just about anything you can point a camera at over there. And that’s got to do with that old cliche of life and death, it really … it makes for a compelling environment to be a photographer in. So I suppose adding words to the pictures that I take in those environments is just a way of expanding on something visual. I should say, I don’t believe at all in that old “a picture tells a thousand words” thing. I think, very often, a picture needs a thousand words to go with it to tell the story. Often I like finding a picture that might be only loosely connected to a broader story. I like that combination. For me, in this situation, the photo is my interpretation of the story or the situation and I can be looser with that if I’m going to be tighter with the facts in the telling with the text.
Siobhan: I certainly, I don’t know if 'enjoy' is the right word but when I see your photos on Instagram, the piece that sits underneath I always take the time to read, because it brings it to life in a way that so much of what else I might be looking at on Instagram doesn’t. How did you land on that? What inspired you to do that?
Andrew: It just evolved that way, I think. It was also a very good way for me to understand more about what I was looking at, so if I was photographing a bombed-out old palace, I would Google it and find out a bit about it: when it was made; why it’s bombed out; what purpose does it serve today? And then it seemed only natural to relay that, as a caption. I also find it very good practise for writing, being concise. Because if there’s anywhere where people have low tolerance for anything that they don’t absolutely need, it’s in that format – the scroll and flick format of a smartphone.
Siobhan: Not a word is wasted
Siobhan: So you’re now living and working in Afghanistan, what was the point that you decided that you were going to stay in Afghanistan?
Andrew: I travelled there first in December of 2013. And I think, I’d only planned to be there for a couple of weeks but I kept extending, week by week, and I ended up being there for about three months. By the time I did leave, in early 2014, I’d decided that I wanted to go back and base myself there.
Siobhan: What was the point where you made that decision? What was it that compelled you to want to stay there?
Andrew: I think I, for the first time, really found some meaning in the work that I did. I always enjoyed taking pictures. I had always enjoyed it, but it was very rare that I found the meaning or felt as compelled to photograph in a place as I had in Afghanistan.
Adding words to the pictures that I take in those environments is just a way of expanding on something visual.
Siobhan: And you arrived at the same time as the Australian troops had left. Clearly you sensed that there was something more, something different to tell, that was about the civilians rather than the soldiers, those who live with and around conflict. What is it that you’re looking to capture or communicate or tell?
Andrew: Again, I think it’s more instinctive a thing than something that I consciously set out to achieve. But I think civilians living on the edge of conflict are, again, I keep using the word, it’s a compelling subject, and it’s a different way to visualise a war or a troubled country, such as Afghanistan. Particularly after 10 years or more in Iraq and Afghanistan – and seeing all of the pictures and the film that came out of there, for me, anyway it was – my lasting memory of that is of American troops and armoured cars and guns and desert. I didn’t feel as though I knew much about the country, I felt like I knew more about America and American foreign policy as a result of that period of history. So, I suppose, maybe I found the other side of the story, that civilian side. I was curious about it because I didn’t know anything about it, hadn’t learnt anything about it. I’d seen the very different, other side of the conflict. I’d seen the conflict, but not the people that it affected and the people who had to live through it and then live beyond it.
Siobhan: Australians are very familiar with war correspondents and photographers, we’ve all seen those stories and images and paintings of soldiers in conflict and then returning, often broken. You’re doing something a little different here. Where are you taking your cues from, and how do you see yourself as different from that tradition that we’ve so often seen in Australia?
Andrew: Tough question. I don’t know. I’m really just following my nose, I think. I’m not one to plan or to have set goals for myself, necessarily. So I’m really, again, like we spoke about with the Cronulla Riots and photographing things like that, I’m really responding to what happens.
I kind of like it that way,
Siobhan: Is there an overarching narrative or is it just being there?
Andrew: The narrative is setting itself and it will continue long after I’ve gone. But I suppose that we’re in a juncture in Afghanistan now, it’s at a bit of an ebb in terms of international interest. For the last 10-15 years, there have been hundreds of journalists and photographers coming in and out and documenting it. Whereas, now, I’m one of two full-time photographers, expat photographers in the country ... In the same sense that some people feel there’s a duty to document where they’re from, I almost see that for myself now in Afghanistan because I have a little bit of experience there and there’s no one else going to do it. I kind of like that, filling a bit of a gap in that narrative.
I live what’s probably a far more normal domestic life than most people might imagine – when I’m in Kabul anyway.
Siobhan: What’s daily life like, living in Kabul and travelling around Afghanistan? There’s a suggestion that foreigners and Afghans are now leaving Kabul. Is there a sense that the city is now feeling deserted? And how do you capture those bits of everyday life? How do you get internet? What’s electricity like, finding accommodation and food and building relationships?
Andrew: I live what’s probably a far more normal domestic life than most people might imagine – when I’m in Kabul anyway. I have a nice old Afghan home. I live with six or seven other expats. We’ve got a couple of dogs, cats, a veggie garden, we’ve got a spa bath in the backyard, so it’s very comfortable and it feels like home for me. But there’s definitely the sense that you’re in a – I hesitate to call it a war zone, because there’s no frontline in Kabul – but there’s certainly the blow-on effects of war. There are regular bombings and attacks, relatively close. And it’s always in the back of your mind, that’s for sure. We have safe rooms in our house, for if we ever need them ... You can live a normal life but there’s this sort of edge, that’s always lurking in the background. Apart from behind the walls of my house, I walk down the street to get milk and bread and things. Not many foreigners do that any more, most of them aren’t allowed to if they’re working for a company or organisation, there’s usually pretty strict security protocols. And that very much dictates the social landscape there as well for foreigners living there. Because a lot of people aren’t allowed to leave their compounds, they will invite people for parties or dinners, whether it be an embassy or an NGO. So you can live a semblance of an almost a village life inside this very chaotic country.
Siobhan: And you work as a freelancer, you seek out assignments from media agencies internationally. How do you work with an agency to develop a story or a piece of work, or do they simply approach you with an assignment? How does it all come together?
Andrew: It can happen one of two ways. Either I’m approached as a photographer by a magazine or a newspaper or an online publication. They will have had a journalist who’s written a story, or is yet to write a story, that they need illustrated. I’ll then be put in touch with the journalist, if he or she is there, and work as a duo. Or I will come up with my own ideas, and usually I’ll try and sell the idea before I do any reporting or travelling or work on the story. And, having recently started writing myself, that makes that process a lot easier or it makes it a lot easier to sell the idea, if you can provide words as well as pictures.
It feels kind of immense, and important, to witness these things where I’m out of a comfort zone, both my own and the people I’m photographing.
Siobhan: I’m really interested in the ethics of how you work in a place where there’s conflict. How do you work through this? You often quote your friend and mentor, the photographer Dean Sewell, who says that there are only two types of photographers, those who draw attention to their subject, and those who draw attention to themselves. How does this principle shape how you work, and do you have other principles or guides that shape your work, especially when you work in a place like Afghanistan, where there is conflict happening around you?
Andrew: Yeah, I still very much try to work to that kind of ideal. I actually find it more difficult when I have my writing hat on, to do that. I think a lot of editors nowadays like for a writer to be in their stories, so as much as I try not to include the word ‘‘I’’ or ‘‘myself’’ in a story, it will often find its way in during the editing process. Because, for whatever reason, maybe that’s what people like to read or the way people like to read. But I still very firmly believe that journalists are there to tell a story, not to be a part of the story, so I try to work by those standards.
Siobhan: Do you have certain principles around what you will and won’t do, or how you approach a particular environment?
Andrew: In an ethical way, you mean? Yeah, of course. I think it’s always going to be different from situation to situation. And I don’t know if I can think of any specific examples, or a hypothetical to put myself in. These sort of things are always sensitive when you’re photographing around sensitive issues, like death, which is unfortunately a very common one in Afghanistan and has been something I’ve been dealing with, or concentrating a lot on in the last few months. I’ve lost track of how many funerals I’ve photographed in the last few months. Just before I left, it got to the point where I found myself almost feeling comfortable approaching a group of mourning women over a grave and asking in my very limited Dari or Farsi language whether they minded me taking photos. You know, it’s something that you don’t want to lose sight of, you don’t want to become desensitised to, but the more time you spend in a place like Afghanistan, where death is really a part of everyday life, you realise that it’s not as confronting a notion for people to deal with there as it is here, for example. So it’s something that you can experience a lot more thoroughly, a lot more intimately than you can here, as we’re used to it.
Siobhan: You’ve talked already about the importance of doing work that’s meaningful, that’s compelling. I’m curious to know a bit more what this is for you. And in the future, when you look back, is there a particular kind of impact that you’re seeking to have?
Andrew: I think it’s just photographing subjects and people who are experiencing really fundamental, tangible points in their life. And, unfortunately, they’re so much more tangible in a place like Afghanistan, where it’s really a struggle to get through every day for a lot of these people. And it, you know, it feels kind of immense, and important, to witness these things where I’m out of a comfort zone, both my own and the people I’m photographing, who don’t really know what a comfort zone is. It doesn’t really exist for so many of these people. While in a society like the one that we’re used to in inner-city Sydney, where there are definitely momentous occasions in life, but they tend to be a lot more ceremonial, and less day-to-day. Whereas there, it’s really part of day-to-day life, even the struggle of getting water for the family is, you know, these little things that are the difference between – I’m exaggerating – but the difference between life and death. And it’s really palpable there and it’s easier in a way to photograph it or for a subject to be compelling in those conditions. But it’s just, I’m just drawn to it and it’s kind of hard to turn away from it. I certainly find myself feeling that life here is a lot more humdrum, coming back to it, and not being drawn to pick up a camera as much as I was once here – which I’m not happy about or proud of – but it’s a life-changing view that you get, living in a place like that.
I think these sort of things, like post-traumatic stress, are things that creep up on you.
Siobhan: So for all that you see, how do you remain empathetic without becoming overwhelmed, and how do you retain the capacity to keep working in an environment that is surrounded or filled with conflict? And are there times when you do take action or present a response for human tragedies that you see? I can’t help but refer to the extraordinary photo of Baynazar Mohammad Nazar, the man on the operating table [ed: see Quilty's Foreign Policy article], and you might want to talk a bit about that, and now raising funds for his family? Do you have a way of rationalising your work, and then working through your emotional response?
Andrew: The short answer is probably no, but it’s something that I’m very aware of, and it’s something that people who work in the media in these sorts of places are very aware of now, whereas 10 years ago they weren’t. Just like those in the military are more aware of it now and in all sorts of fields, in stressful environments. So I do simple things, like try to get out of the country to release the pressure valve every now and then. I’ve a lot of good friends in Kabul, all of whom are very much aware of the stresses that we’re all under – some more than others – but that’s very important, having very open friendship networks with people you feel comfortable to speak openly with. Other than that, I think these sort of things, like post-traumatic stress, are things that creep up on you and you probably don’t have that much control over whether or not you’re going to suffer it or not. I think people probably reach that point of no return after it’s too late, that’s the nature of the point of no return. I don’t want to leave Afghanistan now. I have no intention of doing so, so I think it’s just something you’ve got to keep an eye on, and keep in check. But I don’t think there’s any silver bullet for that.
A fund has been launched to assist the family of "The Man on the Operating Table" - a story of mine published last week by @foreignpolicymag. After receiving many queries from people asking how they could help the family of Baynazar (including his wife and daughter pictures here)—the man killed during the U.S. air strike on the MSF Kunduz Trauma Center—a fund has been established by a trusted friend, @siarahbari, in Kabul. If you'd like to contribute, click on the link on my profile page. 100% of funds raised will go directly to the family to do with as they wish. Andrew Quilty for @foreignpolicymag. @doctorswithoutborders
A photo posted by Andrew Quilty (@andrewquilty) on
Andrew: In terms of empathy towards people and working around and with, again, I think that’s something that you have to always maintain a clear idea of and have that in your rationale. If that’s not first and foremost in the way you’re working, the way you’re dealing with people, I think maybe that’s another sign that you’ve been in a place to long, or you’re working in an environment that you shouldn’t be. I think it’s again, ethically, it’s probably not even an ethical thing, but maybe more of a moral thing, that is very paramount to my work. When I see other people working in a way that I don’t necessarily agree with, I find that very grating. Sometimes I find myself also getting tense or getting emotional in a way that’s affecting the way I’m dealing with people around me, and I have to remind myself. I read a book by a cameraman – I’ve forgotten his name, a very well known Australian cameraman who worked in Vietnam and Cambodia – and one thing he said in this book was of utmost importance, was always treating the people he worked with with the same respect that he would wish to receive from them. And that’s something I always try to remember.
Siobhan: And when you see a certain scene, sometimes, are there times when you choose to take action, or times when you don’t. What is that compels you to do that?
Andrew: I haven’t been in too many situations where I’ve had to make that decision. But yeah, it’s a common question. Fortunately [it’s] one that I haven’t had to make a decision on myself too much yet. I mean, I’ve had … I’m just trying to think whether there’s been anything that I haven’t … no. It’s something that I think about, but it’s something that as yet, I haven’t had to really confront.
Siobhan: So you’ll soon be leaving Sydney summer to return to the winter of Afghanistan. You’ve said that you’re not willing yet to leave, but what would it take for you to leave?
Andrew: To leave Afghanistan? I was just discussing this with a friend of mine, after a recent bombing of a restaurant that happened quite close to where we all live. The girl I was speaking to, she said, “What would it take for you to leave?” And I didn’t really have an answer, but she said that she’d been speaking to a friend, and she thought that if a friend of hers was killed, or if there was a really targeted attack on someone that they knew, or a group of people that they knew … for me, I don’t think I could answer it until the time came. But at the moment, there’s nothing that I can think of. Well, certainly there are things that I can think of, but I’m hoping that it doesn’t come to that. As far as my own interest towards the subject goes, I really can’t imagine, having been there at any point during the last 37 years, and not being interested in what was going on there.
Siobhan: So what are we likely to see from you in the future? Are we likely to see you embrace new platforms, new ways of telling these stories? Different kinds of stories?
Andrew: I think I’ll probably try to develop my writing a bit more. I don’t want to let photography go at all, it’s still 100 per cent my first priority and the best platform – the platform that I can best convey the story on. But probably that combination of words and pictures, which is the way I personally like to take on my information. So I think it’s kind of a dream, I guess, to be able to really do that. I always thought, I almost enjoy reading more than I do looking at photographs but I’m just better at taking photographs, so that’s what I’ll do. But I guess, challenging myself to put some words on paper has made me realise that maybe I can do both. With a bit of work. I think that’s what I’ll keep trying to develop.
Siobhan: Andrew Quilty, thank you so much for sharing your stories tonight on Out the Front.
Andrew: My pleasure, thank you for having me.
Recorded in January 2016 in Newtown, Sydney, Australia.
Interviewer: Siobhan Toohill
Produced for Out The Front by Program & Content.
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Photography: Fiona Morris
Interview photography: Brett Boardman
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Fiona Wright & Matthew Collins
This interview has been proudly sponsored by Program & Content.
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews