A photojournlist's first experience in a conflict zone - By Martin Middlebrook
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A photojournlist's first experience in a conflict zone - By Martin Middlebrook

How on earth did I end up being a photojournalist?

It’s pretty easy really, all you have to do is call yourself a photojournalist and you are. It’s how I became a photographer first. People would ask what I do and I replied ‘Hey, I’m incredible, I’m a photographer’. And almost in its saying, I became it - that’s how it felt anyway. Of course, that was back in the day when we were less that two a penny - in fact for years I never came across another photographer…  which was nice.

Now when people ask me what I do for a living I reply writer or director or gynecologist, because I can no longer handle the pitying looks. But ‘photojournalist’ still holds some caché, especially in Paris where I now live. It’s been a strange and complex journey.

I started photography at eleven, had my first camera at fifteen (a Yashica FX3), a dark room at sixteen. I went to art college to study illustration and then had a graphic design business. I soon discovered that if I proposed creative executions for my corporate clients that involved photography, I could double up on the fees, and it became the perfect vehicle for finessing my skills. And then in 2003 I was invited, through contacts, to Afghanistan to do a piece for the UN and the then nascent Government. It was not my first experience of photojournalism, but it was my first experience in a conflict zone.

My first experience in a conflict zone - Kabul, Afghanistan - 2003

In those days when you landed in Kabul, the airport was strewn with the remains of airliners that had either crashed or been shot down. It was a deeply sobering panorama. I was picked up at the airport, and taken to a cafe that was the base for MI6 and the CIA. I went from being a man sitting in meetings about communication strategies for building products, to being part of a movie set. It is impossible to now relate the mix of emotions I felt - but it broadly ranged from a kind of ‘aghast thrilled’ to a ‘terrible fear’. In the ten days I spent in Afghanistan in 2003 I realised that photojournalism is a toxic drug, that you know you shouldn’t take, but you can’t help but seek out

In 2003 Kabul had been laid to waste after years of terrible internecine war. Over 500 rockets a day would pound Afghanistan’s capital.

I was invited to photograph President Karzai as he held a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Palace. We drove through the gates in a convoy of armoured B6 Toyota Landcruisers and stepped from the vehicle and into a meleé. Karzai at that time was protected by members of the US Secret Service, and they quickly swooped on me, ordered me to lay prone on the ground, leaving my kit some ten meters away. From my now horizontal position, I looked up to see multiple snipers fixed on me from their position on the rooftop. An Alsatian dog was called and it gave my kit and I a thoroughly good sniff, testing for explosives. My tripod case was of particular interest.

It is a rarely mentioned fact that what was part and parcel of the attacks on New York in September 11th 2001, was the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masud, the would be President of a new Afghanistan, leader of the Northern Alliance and a national hero. On the 9th of September just two days before the attack on New York, terrorist posing as a TV crew had first interviewed Masud, before detonating and killing him. They had transported their explosives through tight security by hiding it in their equipment, including their tripod cases. This made me of particular interest on that morning at the Presidential Palace.

After long and protracted negotiations, I was allowed into the inner sanctum, an ante room adjoining the cabinet. It was the days of film and I had some Fuji Velvia and Provia 100 with me. I loaded a roll, and as I was about to enter, a Secret Service operative came up to me and said ‘Who are you, and what the @*%$ are you doing here?’. I was out of my depth. This was most assuredly not the West Midlands.

Photography is about many things, but at its heart it’s about anticipation, which in those days meant managing your ASA (ISO’s). I walked into cabinet and to my horror all the curtains were closed - it was dark. There was a long table flanked on each side by ministers, many of whom were warlords. The notorious Marshal Fahim gave me a beady eye, and then to my absolute surprise, at the end of that long table, Karzai stood up and bowed to me. I was almost trembling. The Secret Service operative whispered in my ear ‘You have two minutes exactly, and you cannot get within five meters of the table’. Before entering they had told me I could take one camera and one lens, and as I looked out across the scene that lay in front of me, I knew then that I had the wrong lens and the wrong film. I uprated my Provia 100 to 400 ASA, shot what I could, and in a blink of an eye I was ushered from the room, with Karzai once again bowing to me as I left. It was only two minutes of shooting, but it was the most incredible experience I had ever had at that time and I was exhausted.

A smiling President Karzai holds a cabinet meeting for the nascent government after the US led invasion. Things would not stay the same.

My whole ten days was like this, and I learned ‘fear’. Members of the Afghan Government were being assassinated at an alarming rate - Fahim had survived two attempts on his life in the previous few months. One morning I was slated to spend a day with the then Minister for Rural Development Hanif Atmar. We would travel by convoy west to Paghman District to meet with tribal leaders. I woke early and vomited yellow bile. It may have been the previous nights food, but I always put it down to being terrified. Because I was. It’s difficult to explain how you feel sitting next to someone that you know people want to blow up, a vehicle in front full of AK 47’s and security details, the same behind, and pretending that everything is normal.

As we travelled home that evening after what felt like the longest eight hours of my life, I watched as Minister Atmar stared whimsically out of the window and I asked him what he was thinking. He replied ‘This area used to be the garden of Afghanistan. It was full of lakes and forests, vineyards and almond groves. I would come here with my extended family for holidays, before the Soviets invaded in 1979. We were perhaps thirty, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters. And you know something Martin, I am the only one left’. I sat in silence as the desertified landscape swept by. Afghanistan had been cut down and here was the proof.

I finally left Kabul on a day of blizzards. All flights were grounded, but I was flying with Ariana Airlines, the national carrier that was flown by pilots who had learned their skills during the long wars that had blighted the country. Kabul sits in a high plateau circled by the Hindu Kush mountains, that rise almost vertically forming a deadly natural barrier. Those old Afghan pilots had learned to land and take off vertically to avoid both the mountains, but most notably the ground to air missiles whose legacy could be seen on the runway’s apron - all those rusting carcasses. The radar had been destroyed by the US during the invasion so it was Visual Flight Rules only - which is a challenge in a fogged in blizzard. But Ariana didn’t mind.

In an old Boeing 707, filled with veteran internationals who had chased wars for a living, we took off and went nearly vertical. Everyone around me sat with their head between their knees, praying and stuttering, with many crying. We climbed and climbed for what seemed like an eternity and then suddenly blue sky filtered through our windows, the mountains were below, and we levelled off and I headed home. I would never be the same person after that. Something burned inside, like a drug determined to addict my future, and November meetings about Glass Block marketing campaigns lost their allure.

So that’s how I became a photojournalist. It was simple really, it wasn’t in the saying of it… you just had to do it once and you would never want to do anything else again.


Some other photographs from the trip

The image from my first trip that got me noticed. A small child looks out across Kabul with the destroyed Mausoleum of King Nadir Shah in the background

 

The ancient sport of buzkashi was banned under the Taliban. After years of oppression Afghan horsemen took to their stadiums once again.

 

Children extract water from a recently installed well in Carte Seh, western Kabul

 


 

Martin Middlebrook - Photographer, Writer, Director

Martin originally trained as a wildlife artist before commencing a career as a commercial photographer, eventually turning to photojournalism full time. In 2010 Martin was commissioned by the Government of Afghanistan to produce a photo essay for the Kabul International Conference, a series of images that went on to exhibit at the British Museum in London in 2011. Martin has also written over 80 articles for many of the UK’s leading photography magazines, including being lead columnist for Professional Photographer Magazine.

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