Few have seen as much as Andrew Quilty. The Sydney-born photographer and journalist spent almost a decade in Afghanistan, between 2013 and 2021, documenting life in a country permeated by war. Based out of Kabul, Quilty travelled back and forth between the nation’s provinces for nine years, documenting the country and its people, who have been ravaged by the ongoing struggle between the Taliban and the United States and its allies for 20 years.
In August 2021, the US withdrew its last troops from Afghanistan, abruptly ending a 20-year occupation that devastated the country. Throughout the year, as province after province fell to the Taliban, it became clear the Afghan government wouldn’t hold out for much longer. Before long, Kabul was falling. Arriving in the country on August 14, the eve of the Taliban’s takeover, Quilty was one of few foreign journalists to bear witness to the end of an era, marking the beginning of a brutal occupation, which, now one year on, has left Afghans adrift in a climate characterised by repression, human rights abuses, and the restriction of rights for women and girls.
August in Kabul is Quilty’s account of his final two weeks in Kabul – coinciding with America’s final days – beginning on August 15, the night the city fell, and ending with the last evacuation of US troops in the morning of August 31. It’s told through the stories of Afghans as a decades-long fight for peace was tossed aside. We caught up with Quilty to find out what it was like to witness the atrocities, suffering and desecration of a place he called home.
Andrew Quilty: I was wondering if you were gonna ask that question. I'm sitting in my car in a back lane in Chippendale. The very luxurious life of an author.Love that, the deeply pedestrian experience of being back home. Do you have plans to return to Afghanistan?
VICE: Hi Andrew. Where am I reaching you?
Not anytime soon. I deliberately let my visa lapse to prevent the temptation… For a time. But I imagine that one day I’ll go back there. It’s a very special place.You’ve just released your first book, August in Kabul. What compelled you to produce it? Did you always have something like that in mind?Not at all. I’d been in contact with Melbourne Uni press for about 18 months about producing a book from Afghanistan, they were looking for titles from Asia. And then one of the editors who focuses on the region got in touch with me and asked if I had any ideas, and we were bouncing some ideas back and forth over the course of late 2020, into 2021. And then about a month out from when the Taliban took Kabul, when it became apparent that it was happening, I got on the phone with the editor and the publisher at Melbourne Uni. And without really having to say it we knew that this was the obvious topic for the book. And then it was just a matter of working out how I was going to cover it. And if I was going to be there for the takeover… I don't know if the book would have happened if I wasn't. It certainly still could have happened, but it wouldn't have had the same depth of experience.
You were in France as the city's takeover was becoming imminent. What really compelled you to return? What was going through your mind?
Yeah, it's a good question. And it's – it's kind of strange. My instinct was to go back, just because I wanted to be with the people that I had experienced the last several years with in Afghanistan – at this tumultuous time I felt like I needed to be with them. I felt very disconnected being out of the country at the time. And it wasn't so much like a sense of FOMO, it was more of a sense of solidarity, that I just needed to be with them at that time and not being with them would feel like I was abandoning them. But whereas my journalistic instincts, I think they came out more as a sense of obligation. Like okay, I was going back and obviously that meant, because of the work I do, reporting on these events would have to be a part of the period to come. But it was still strangely kind of secondary to the sense of solidarity that I felt I needed to act on.Interesting. One would assume it's that sort of journalist duty, like you go to the story?I think it was different. It was different for me, in this case, because it was happening to the city that was home for me. It became a lot more personal than the work I've done in the outer provinces of Afghanistan over the previous years, where there was always a layer of separation, like a bubble. Now the story was almost too close to cover.Do you ever get afraid? Scared?
Oh, yeah, I was petrified. For sure. I mean, even before I left Paris, I've never felt stress the way I did in those days. I had a really physical reaction to it. Dry mouth, and my neck and my back just completely froze. And I just couldn't sleep because I've never, never felt anything like it. And then once I got back to Kabul, adrenaline kicked in, with all my friends there, operating on sometimes no sleep at all. Other times, a couple of hours a night for two weeks and operating with some clarity. I was really kind of awed by how the body reacts to such extreme circumstances. It was quite incredible. And then it comes back to some sort of normality once those fight or flight instincts are no longer necessary.Would you consider yourself an adrenaline junkie?Strangely, no. I’ve never been skydiving, bungee jumping or any of those things. And I don't really have a compulsion to do those things now that I'm short of activities. But it's definitely part of working in an environment like [Afghanistan]. It does become intoxicating and addictive when your work conjures that level of excitement, challenge and adrenaline. You definitely, from time to time, feel the need to keep getting a hit of it.In the intro to your book, there's an anecdote where you talk about writing a story and you're feeling conflicted about the classic journalistic rule, that you're not the story. Do you think it's truly possible to separate yourself from the story, I mean, especially in a war zone environment?
Well, I always found it relatively easy to separate myself, at least, that’s what I tried to do. But as I think I also said, in that passage you're quoting from, that once the war reached a certain proximity, and once it started affecting my friends and colleagues, and even myself, that was when that line really started to blur for me. I found it very difficult not to draw on not only my own experiences, but people with whom I had personal relationships, because it was it was happening to them, and it had a much more personal effect on me. And, you know, for the first time I felt like I was really able to feel what I had only been able to try to empathise with in the past, in terms of how this war affected Afghans. And so look, I think, when it comes to writing a book, as opposed to writing a news article, there's a lot more scope for personal experience, and it was certainly something my editor encouraged me to inject into the manuscript, which I hadn't done in my first draft.
With your photography, do you feel morally conflicted about the documenting of suffering? How do you wrangle that?Seeing it happen in Kabul, where I felt a lot closer, psychologically, to the subject matter, made me consider that even more than I had in the past. To an extent, it's the bread and butter of the work that I've done over there. And while I questioned it, I still engaged in it. And part of me wonders whether, or worries whether, you know, in 10, 20, 30 years’ time when I look back on this, on that kind of work, whether documenting the worst days in people's lives will be morally conscionable. I suppose, in the present, I try to work in a way that is morally conscionable to me. And while I'm conflicted about it, I'm still comfortable enough to continue to do that kind of work.
I was wondering how you feel about those old photojournalism rules of separating yourself from the subjects? Does it help you to keep yourself completely separate from your subjects? Is it a rule that you keep to get the job done, or do you prefer to break rules?It's such a fine balance, isn't it? I think. And it depends on the subject. I think for some stories where you're reliant on making a connection with your subjects – whether it's an individual or a family or a group of people that you need to build trust with over time – then obviously, you're going to make some kind of connection with them and probably empathise with them to an extent. I became quite conflicted about that when photographing the Taliban became possible, after they took control and after there was no longer the same level of risk from them that there had been when they were in opposition. And there was actually quite a bit of criticism on social media, particularly from Afghans in the diaspora, who found it offensive that people like me were photographing the Taliban in a way that they thought humanised them. I think I could completely understand why they would be offended by that. And I really relished those moments in the weeks after the Taliban takeover, when the Taliban were wandering around the city like tourists, and there were some incredibly surreal photographs to be taken. I do look at those photographs a bit differently now. I don't think it's necessarily my job to determine whether a scene like that, where I may or may not be humanising a Taliban fighter, is, in fact, having that effect? But as someone who has a lot of friends and colleagues who have been severely impacted by the Taliban and what they represent, I do understand that point of view.
Your work has obviously been really well received. I was curious whether you give a damn about the awards? Awards are part of the work, I guess, it's a way of maintaining or bolstering a professional reputation. But look, you collect a trophy, and get a round of applause. I think it’s a doubly vexed issue when the awards are coming as a result of documenting the suffering of other people. So I've kind of stopped, in the last couple of years, posting to social media as is the norm. I’m not doing the usual machine gun approach to social media posts when it comes to awards. It's just a bit icky.
After living and working there for so long, what is something that you want people to understand about Afghanistan? What's something you wish people knew?I initially went with the impression that everyone was a potential threat. When you hear about Afghanistan, on the news, and you all you see is bombs and war, you think that that is a is an accurate representation of the country as a whole. And that's obviously not the case. Never is, but nonetheless, I was pretty nervous when I went there. I thought we were gonna get shot out of the sky. Every time I’d leave for a while, I’d feel a lot of trepidation about going back. And sure enough, as soon as I step off the plane, and, you know, even with the grumpy customs officials… Afghans are just so warm and generous and hospitable. That's a big part of why I stayed there for so long, I think.Andrew Quilty’s first book “August in Kabul” is out now, via Melbourne University Press. Follow Arielle on Instagram and Twitter.Read more from VICE Australia and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, This Week Online.