In his new book, Afghanistan: A Distant War, veteran photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg offers a vivid close-up of the past quarter-century of Afghan history. [Nickelsberg spoke about his book in New Delhi today]
Below, Hannah Bloch in National Geographic online:
Bob and I worked together from 1997 to 2002, when we both covered Afghanistan for Time. In a recent chat, we talked about the years preceding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That date is a dividing line: Our short-memory world has made the pre-9/11 years seem distant and irrelevant. The current era of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan makes it easy to forget that anything existed before. But it did, and Bob Nickelsberg’s powerful evocation of those years reminds us of how much they mattered.
Hannah: Let’s talk about what it was like for you as a photojournalist during the Taliban years, from 1996 to 2001. Among their many rules and restrictions was a prohibition of photography, unless it was of inanimate objects—no photos of human beings or other living creatures allowed. Plus you had to have a Taliban minder at your side at all times. How did you get your work done?
Robert: Each trip was a gamble. You had to register with foreign ministry and were given a guide and were not allowed to work without him at your side. Everything had to come onto a wish list of stories or interviews and they worked on it for you. They’re also reporting back to their seniors about you, what you’re like, if you’re some narrow-minded gringo, did you only want to take pictures of women—or of schools, when schools were closed. They tried to put you in a box and classify you. At the same time, we were doing the same to them.
You could see if they’d take money at the end of the day, ten dollars or five dollars. If they did, you could see what did it get you the next day. You’d have to try everything—luscious meals, heavy meat lunches. If they went for the bait, so to speak, you might have a successful or fairly successful trip, or at least get to every appointment you hoped for. I’d often test them by raising a camera, just thinking of taking a picture—of lines at a bus, for instance, because there were fuel shortages and people had a hard time getting from A to B to C. You’d keep them in view so they would have to react or not. Very often they would not even permit that kind of a picture. But often we’d find people on the streets would yell, “It’s prohibited, how dare you,” and you’d know they were pro-Taliban. You didn’t just worry about what your minder told you to do. More: