Photographer Andrew Quilty on his trip to Afghanistan and how the country’s children offer a window into their communities.
By Craig McLean.
Andrew Quilty, 37, is an Australian photojournalist. He’s been taking pictures professionally for 15 years, initially motivated by a passion that he admits was rather abstract.
“I always loved taking photographs, but I was never driven by any particular subject matter; I never had any specific purpose. I knew I wanted to freeze a moment in time in a way that made it look almost more cinematic than you’d see in real time. That was all, really.”
In Sydney he worked for a financial newspaper, “and most of my time was taking portraits of overweight multimillionaire businessmen. Which was in one sense great training, but in another, it wasn’t fulfilling for me in any way.”
Then he traveled to Afghanistan.
“It was the first time I really noticed a feeling of tangible fulfilment from the work,” he says over an early-morning coffee during a stopover in London. “It finally felt that what I was doing meant something. All the photos I was taking had stories behind them, and history and weight.
“I know it’s a cliché—the middle-class Westerner going off to a foreign country and seeing the ‘exotic’ for the first time and being captivated. But clichés happen for a reason.
“And maybe I took it a little bit further, because of the fulfilment I was getting. I had a ticket for two weeks and thought that would be it—I’d be able to go home to Sydney and tell girls in bars that I’d worked in Afghanistan as a photographer, how cool is that? I never intended to stay.”
That was five years ago. Quilty has been in the country ever since, filing news images and photo-features for the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and National Geographic. Increasingly, he’s also writing stories to accompany his photographs.
He estimates that he’s visited two thirds of the provinces in a country still riven by war and conflict 18 years after 9/11 and the commencement of the so-called War on Terror.
“I’m a photographer—there’s not much point in me being there if I don’t get out and about.” And while he admits that security is in the back of his mind every day, it doesn’t weigh on him.
That said: “It’s definitely invasive—if you don’t get out of the country for three or four months, you notice it building up, this low-level anxiety. You’ll hear explosions, gunfire in the distance most nights, and that accumulates, for sure.
“But I don’t consider Kabul a war zone. It’s a big, somewhat functioning city that happens to have these sparks of violence every day.”
Many of Quilty’s photographs feature children, for reasons both poetic and prosaic. “As a photographer, I’m always drawn to kids—if I turn up in a place, they’re out, doing stuff, playing, they are more accessible. It’s an obvious way to access whichever community you’re in.”
More broadly, he adds, “I focus on civilians and the way they interact with their environments, living on the frontlines, rather than the combatants themselves. And the children are obviously a big part of that, not least because there are big families in Afghanistan—the average family has eight kids.”
His emotional connection to his subjects, and their country, is apparent in his photographs, as you can see.
“I’ve become very protective of the place,” Quilty says. “I want to show that there’s more to Afghanistan than the stereotypes of violence and oppression of women.”
Image Credit: Andrew Quilty