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Four Tumultuous Decades in Afghanistan

10 Magnum photographers reflect on their experiences depicting violence and beauty in the country from 1978 onwards

Jérôme Sessini As Friday is a holy day, many families and children spend the afternoon walking around, kite flying and riding horses on Tape Nadir Khan hill in Kabul. Afghanistan. Kabul. June 24, 2011. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos

Reflecting upon the anguish, turmoil and death that preceded the final day of the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, here we compile over four decades of coverage from 10 photographers — from 1978 to the present.

The work of Magnum’s collective builds a mosaic of portraits of the country, bringing together views from Raymond Depardon, Steve McCurry, Abbas, Chris Steele-Perkins, Alex Majoli, Thomas Dworzak, Jerome Sessini, Moises Saman, Larry Towell, and Peter van Agtmael. These bodies of work provide context and understanding spanning 1978 to the present day covering Afghanistan.

Raymond Depardon Mujahedeen rebels. On the right: Ahmed Chah Massoud. Pakistan. Peshawar. 1978. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon A gathering of mujahedeen rebels. Afghanistan. Nuristan mountains. Badakhstan. 1978. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon A mujahedeen village bombed by the Afghan army. Nuristan mountains. Afghanistan. Badakhstan. 1978. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon Mujahedeen rebels. Nuristan mountains. Afghanistan. Badakhstan. 1978. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon Mujahedeen rebels. Afghanistan. Badakhstan. 1978. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon Mujahedeen praying. Afghanistan. Badakhstan. Nuristan mountains. 1978. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon Mujahedeen rebels. Afghanistan. Badakhstan. 1978. Nuristan mountains. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon Soldiers of the Afghan army, held prisoner by the mujahedeen rebels. Afghanistan. Badakhstan. 1978. Nuristan mountains. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon Afghanistan. Badakhstan. 1978. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos
Raymond Depardon Crowds going to greet the mujahedeens. Afghanistan. Badakhstan. Nuristan mountains. 1978. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

1978: Raymond Depardon

The dramatic struggle of the Afghan people has been captured through the lens of Magnum dating back to co-founder George Rodger’s documentation of the country’s role in WWII. Ever since then, Magnum’s intrepid photographers have crisscrossed the country’s striking landscape making photographs.

The ultimate overthrow of the monarchy and brutal liquidation of Afghanistan’s constitutional government in 1978 heralded the arrival of Soviet-style communism. Those living in Nuristan Province rebelled immediately with a jihad or holy war, covered first by Raymond Depardon within Magnum. It was in 1978 that Depardon met the anti-communist Afghan rebels in Peshawar, Pakistan. The rebels offered him a clandestine visit  to their Afghanistan camp and provided a French-speaking guide.

His guide?

“Ahmad Shah Massoud accompanied me throughout my trip to Nuristan. I didn’t know he was going to become Commander Massoud of the Panjshir Valley,” Depardon said. “It was an incredible trip because he explained to me every event we encountered – prisoners, local customs.”

Steve McCurry A widow asks for alms at the Grand Ayatollah Mir Ali Ahmad Hojjat Mosque. Afghanistan. Kabul. 2002. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Camel Caravan. Afghan/ Pakistan Border. Afghanistan. 1981. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Father and daughter at home with folk art on the wall. Nuristan. Kamdesh. Afghanistan. 1992. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Hazara Schoolchildren. Afghanistan. Bamiyan. 2007. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Hazrat Ali Mosque. Mazar i Sharif. 2002. Afghanistan. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Kabul. 1992. A portrait photographer with his camera. Afghanistan. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Women shoppers dressed in the traditional burqa. Afghanistan. Kabul. 1992. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Maimana, Faryab Province. Afghanistan. 1992. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Hindu Kush Mountains, Logar Province. Afghanistan. 1984. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Coal Miner smoking a cigarette. Pul i Khumri. Afghanistan. 2002. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos
Steve McCurry | -scaled.jpg Afghanistan. Nuristan. 1979. © Steve McCurry | Magnum Photos

1979–2016: Steve McCurry

For Steve McCurry, Afghanistan has elicited special memories since his first visit 42 years ago. He arrived mere months before the Soviet invasion and reflected on what he experienced.

“After working at a newspaper in Philadelphia, I left to do magazine freelance assignments in India in 1978. I spent one and a half years traveling throughout India and Nepal and photographed for a variety of small magazines.”

“In the spring of 1979, when the temperature was more than 40°C, I traveled into the mountains of northwest Pakistan to explore the part of the subcontinent that I had not visited before. While staying in a small hotel in the village of Chitral, I met some Afghan refugees from Nuristan, who explained that many of the villages in their area had been destroyed by the Afghan army. I told them I was a photographer and they insisted that I come and photograph the civil war that was raging. I never photographed in an area of conflict and wasn’t sure how I would react.”“After a few days, I walked with them over the mountains into Afghanistan and spent nearly three weeks photographing life there. I was astonished to see so many villages that had been virtually destroyed with no inhabitants left to tell the tale. The roads were all blocked or under government control, so we had to walk everywhere. I met some people with whom I became very close. I was also very affected by the culture and the beauty of the country. It was a different way of life, with no modern conveniences, and I was drawn to the simplicity of the lifestyle; everything was reduced to basics. It has drawn me back time and time again.”

“I was continually under fire as I documented mujahedeen fighters and the streams of people fleeing from their villages. The human drama in such areas can be difficult to comprehend. I think documenting these dire situations and giving a voice to the people who aren’t able to tell their stories is what photography does best. Although I often work in areas rife with conflict, the images I make are about the people themselves. For me, the goal is to find some sort of universality among peoples.”

Abbas Afghanistan. City of Kabul. 1992. A Mujahideen from Ahmad Shah Massoud fights for control of the capital. A tank belonging to the faction led by General Rashid Dostom provides covering fire. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. Kabul. Pol-e-Keshti Mosque. Friday prayer. 1992. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. City of Kabul. 2001. The bazaar among the ruins of the capital, partially destroyed by infighting among mujahedeen factions from 1992 to 1996 when the Taliban took over. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. Near Kabul. A Mujahid of the Hezbi-Islami (Islamic party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) guards the road to the capital. 1992. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. Tarakhil. Classes are held in the open for lack of space in a village school donated by Japan. The ground had to be demined first. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. Kabul. Under Communist regime. 1986. Female workers of the Jangalak mechanical factory. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. City of Kabul. 2001. A militia, wielding a stick, tries to keep order among men and burqa clad women, queing for food distribution by the UN. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. Kabul region. City of Kabul. Young pioneers celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Youth Democratic Organization with Soviet style excersises. 1986. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. Jauzjan-Balkh region. Town of Mazar-i-Sharif. 1986. Young pioneers salute visitors, Soviet style. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. Kabul. A woman in burqah, the full islamic veil, has come to pay respect to the dead at the Shi'ite shrine of Sakhi Jan. 2001. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. City of Kabul. 2001. Sheep's heads for sale in the bazaar. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. Kabul. 1992. A wedding by proxy: the woman's fiancé, who migrated to Germany, is present in the photograph only. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Afghanistan. 1992. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the "Lion of Panshir," was assassinated on September 9, 2001. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

1986, 1992, 2001: Abbas

Abbas traveled to Afghanistan in 1986 to cover the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan through the lens of its Afghan regime allies rather than through the US-supported mujahedeen, with whom they were at war. He returned in 1992 and 2001. Excerpts from his initial impressions:

“I experienced a kind of permanent schizophrenia throughout my six weeks’ stay in Afghanistan. Reality did not always coincide with what the Party wanted me to see.

I was completely free to go wherever the Party wanted me to go, that is to say only in the zones controlled by the regime. It was out of the question to go to Kandahar, Herat, Ghazni or Bamyan, though these are regions that are interesting because the rebels are active there…..A ‘journalist’ accompanied me everywhere and, as I learnt from one of his colleagues, he reported every morning at the offices of the Secret Service. I could photograph whatever I wanted — except for the Afghan army, or the Russians, civil or military.”

“All my visits to institutions were, of course, organized, but my guides never tried to influence what pictures I took or what questions I asked. I speak fluent Farsi (which Abbas said was very close to the official language, Dari) and thus I did not need an interpreter. But the liberalism of their attitude was remarkable for anyone who knows Eastern Bloc countries where one is only allowed to see what is ‘positive.’ My Afghan guides never tried to hide the great poverty of their country.”

“Has the West ever seen anything in the clarion call of the Afghan resistance movement but a method to contain what it sees as Soviet expansionism? Has it ever troubled itself about the fate of the Afghans themselves?………..This reportage on Afghanistan was also, for me, a step back in time. An Iranian, nostalgic for his own country, I very quickly found my own roots here. A proud and dignified people, welcoming and generous… A turquoise sky and the light of the high Asian plateau…the ochre-coloured dust … the evening chant of the muezzin…the roses, extraordinary roses…”

Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. Government forces move towards Kabul, only to be repelled by the Taliban. 1996. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. Group of Taliban fighters outside Kabul. 1995. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. Harvesting. 1996. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. Destruction of Kabul. 1995. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. Rebuilding market in Taloquan after bombing by Taliban forces. 1998. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. Forces of warlord General Dostum on their way to the front against the Taliban. 1996. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. 1998. Summer herding of goats and sheep toward green pastures in the mountains. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. Rocket attack victim in hospital, Kabul. 1995. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Despite the war, traditions remain strong, and a middle class engineer comes back to Kabul from Canada for his wedding. 1994. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Afghanistan. Charikar. Playing bushkashi. 1995. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Displaced families live in empty schools in overcrowded, smoky, and unsanitary conditions. 1994. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos

1994–1998: Chris Steele-Perkins

August 2021 has brought daily news alerts on the Taliban’s rapid advance in taking over territory unhindered by Afghan government troops. In mid-August, US officials estimated Kabul could fall in less than a month. In reality, the Taliban was in control in the capital, except for the airport, only five days later.

Chris Steele-Perkins provides a blueprint in documentary photography of what’s to come in Afghanistan with his coverage throughout the 1990s. These images taken from 1994 to 1998 document the destruction of Kabul: residents turned to refugees and women receding into the background. Steele-Perkins recalls that, in 1996, it seemed the capital fell overnight to the Taliban. “They just moved in,” he said. “It wasn’t like a huge fight or anything. To wake up in the morning and to be told Kabul had fallen, it was very undramatic.”

Here’s his remembrance of the first days in September 1996:

“The Taliban hold the airport. We ask for permission to photograph. A young mullah comes out of a building. He is barely in his twenties — soft over-fed body and chubby, creaseless face. He can know nothing about fighting, yet he is in command. He gives us permission as long as we do not photograph the soldiers, and then disappears inside again, unconcerned over whether we follow his instructions. A battered truckload of young men pulls up and they tumble out covered in dust from their journey. They are new volunteers we are told, straight from the madrassas, the religious Koranic schools. ‘We have come to fight for Allah,’ they all proclaim. A rusty container is opened which contains an armory of automatic weapons, old AK-47s already ruggedly used. They all surge forward as the weapons are distributed. They are unsure, handling them awkwardly, feeling their weight, fumbling to take the clips off. Some stick flowers down the barrel. They laugh nervously and scramble back on the truck, wave their weapons in the air. Now they are men. Fighters for Allah.”

Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Kabul. At the stock market. 2001. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Dasht-e-Qala, Northeast region. In a restaurant talking about the American strikes. 2001. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Kabul. 2001. Refugees living in the ex Russian embassy compounds. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Kabul. Members of the feminist group founded by Mrs Soraya. 2001. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Kabul. A Northern Alliance soldier guarding Pakistan and Taliban prisoners. 2001. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Kabul. Pakistan prisoners captured by Northern Alliance soldiers during the attack of Kabul. 2001. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Dasht-e-Qala, Northeast region. Northern Alliance troops marching. 2001. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Kokcha River, Northeast region. A Northern Alliance soldier coming from the kalakata front lines. 2001. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Afghanistan. Kabul. Women in burka and child. 2001. © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Pakistan. 2008. On the road back toward Pashtun Abad, young Taliban fighters. One of the Taliban fighters says: "You don't need an argument to hate America." © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos
Alex Majoli Pakistan. 2008. The road between Chaman, the Afghan border crossing, and Quetta. a 25-year old Taliban called Dost Mohammed . © Alex Majoli | Magnum Photos

2001: Alex Majoli

After becoming a full member of Magnum Photos in 2001, Alex Majoli covered the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and two years later the invasion of Iraq. In Majoli’s words:

“‘I come from a country that no longer exists, you see. I come from Afghanistan,’ a man told me in Rome years ago.”

“I went to Afghanistan two weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks. For my first trip into Afghanistan, I followed the Northern Alliance troops located in the north town of Dasht-e-Qala. I spent almost 20 days waiting between the front lines and the ‘journalist force headquarters’ in Khoje Bahauddin for an offensive that never arrived or at least didn’t arrive on time for my assignment deadline.”

“I was not ready enough for this war. Technical stuff like satellite phones (preferably ISDN), digital cameras, electric generators, long term support from the magazine and, of course, a thorough determination from the photographer was the only way to follow the events in Afghanistan. These words are not an excuse, but a preface for the photos you are going to see. When I came back for the second trip I worked almost all the time in Kabul. Before I left the country I stopped in Tora Bora for 10 days. Tora Bora is just one of the thousands of names given to that range of mountains.”

“I never really understood where I was in this intense barren country.”

Moises Saman Afghanistan. Kunar Province. March 2010. Afghan soldiers carry a wounded comrade into an American medevac helicopter after a Taliban ambush near the village of Tsunek, Kunar Province. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Kabul. November 2010. Afghan children living in an abandoned school now occupied by several homeless families in Kabul. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Kandahar. March 2005. A boy covers his eyes during a sandstorm in the southern city of Kandahar. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Kabul. February 13, 2010. A prosthetics doctor working for the Red Cross examines the stump of a child at a facility. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Kabul. 15/06/2007. Afghan children near the tomb of King Mohammad Nadir Shah. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Kandahar. August 4, 2008. Afghan boys swimm in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of Kandahar. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Marja, Helmand Province. March 2010. Marja's new district chief Hagi Zahir (far left top) meets with local elders in Marja's district center. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Kabul. 2005. Street children fight for their turf at a garbage dump on the outskirts. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Khost Province. June 2005. Afghan National Army position overlooking the border with Pakistan in Khost Province, Afghanistan. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Golbahar. November 2001. Northern Alliance reinforcements arrive in the village of Golbahar north of Kabul to prepare for the final push to Kabul to retake the Afghan capital from the (...)
Moises Saman Afghanistan. Marja. February 25, 2010. Afghan National Army soldier in Marja, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. © Moises Saman | Magnum Photos

2001–2011: Moises Saman

Magnum photographer Moises Saman first traveled to Afghanistan in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, while on assignment for Newsday, the New York-based newspaper where he was employed at the time. Over a 10-year period, he made multiple trips. Saman talks about his memories, how Afghanistan shaped his photography and an image that still has an emotional effect on him a decade later.

“The beauty of the imposing mountains and rugged terrain, and the scars of decades of war that are visible everywhere,” Saman says, reflecting on his work in the country. “I mostly remember the children, Afghanistan’s youngest generation, and the countless times I was inspired by their toughness, and ability to make the best despite their condition.”

“The opportunity to return over a period of 10 years certainly opened my eyes beyond what was on the surface, and hopefully this gained experience is reflected in my work. I find that during these long relationships there is a moment when you shift from reacting to the “news” to trying to find your own answers, and that is when your visual language also changes to become more personal.”

“One of the most emotionally affecting of my images is amongst the last photographs that I made in Afghanistan, in 2010, depicting a meeting of elders in Marjah, Helmand Province, with the newly U.S.-appointed provincial governor. The village had just been taken from the Taliban after heavy fighting, and the U.S. was implementing a strategy known as ‘government-in-a-box’ which immediately failed. I remember feeling the energy in that room, the distrust between the people there and an impending sense of doom about the future.”

Thomas Dworzak Afghanistan, Kabul, out of French coalition Camp Warehouse, 2010/1. Georgian troops searching for explosives in the environments of the camp and airport. © Thomas Dworzak | Magnum Photos
Thomas Dworzak Afghanistan, Helmand-Nimroz Provinces. Out of US base Delaram, 2010/8. Georgian soldier on weeklong shift on a hill overlooking a small FOB, US military base and crossing between the provinces. © Thomas Dworzak | Magnum Photos
Thomas Dworzak Afghanistan. Takhar province. Village of Dashti Kola. October 10th, 2001. Village at the frontline. Northern Alliance soldier and local Uzbeks from a village on the Taliban controlled side of the (...)
Collection T. Dworzak Afghanistan. Kandahar. 2002. Taliban portrait. © Collection T. Dworzak | Magnum Photos
Thomas Dworzak Georgia, Svanetia, Mestia, 2010/9. Funeral of the first Georgian soldier, 1st LT M.Shukvani, killed in combat in Afghanistan in his home village. © Thomas Dworzak | Magnum Photos
Thomas Dworzak Afghanistan. Kunduz. November, 2001. The Northern Alliance takes the city from the Taliban. © Thomas Dworzak | Magnum Photos
Thomas Dworzak Georgia, Tbilisi, 2010/4. Mother of Georgian officer blessing him when sending him off to his 1/2 year deployment to Afghanistan. © Thomas Dworzak | Magnum Photos
Thomas Dworzak Germany, Bavaria, 2010/2. US/NATO training base Hohenfels. After completing a two-week training Georgian troops return to Georgia to deploy to Afghanistan. A military priest blesses them before tra (...)
Thomas Dworzak Afghanistan. Kabul. December 2001.

Old City destroyed during several waves of fighting. © Thomas Dworzak | Magnum Photos
Thomas Dworzak Afghanistan, Badakhshan, Faizabad, 20/10/2001

Girls School. Under Afghanistans ruling Taliban Militia women are not allowed to recive education. © Thomas Dworzak | Magnum Photos

2001– 2013: Thomas Dworzak

Two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak was in Afghanistan. He followed the Northern Alliance, which was regrouping after the assassination of its military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in an al-Qaida and Taliban plot prior to September 11. Dworzak travelled documenting the group —which received U.S. military support— in their fight, all the way to Kabul and then to Kandahar, the Taliban heartland.

Since 2004, he has been documenting the Georgian military, which had joined what former US president George W. Bush called the “coalition of the willing” along with the US and NATO’s war efforts in Iraq and then Afghanistan. In an alignment that had less to do with Afghanistan and more about Georgia’s desire to be protected by the West from Russia, Georgian soldiers trained, fought and died. Dworzak captured intimate moments in Tbilisi, including an elderly mom saying goodbye to her military officer son, soldiers blessed by priests during training in Germany, and the first Georgian soldier who died in action as he was returned to his mountain village to be buried.

Dworzak collected studio portraits of Taliban soldiers during his coverage of the fall of the Taliban regime in 2002. It is thought that most of these images made by a Kandahar studio photographer are of Taliban soldiers who sat for portraits in early November 2001, but could not pick them up as they had to flee the advancing opposition and U.S. bombing. He was intrigued by the dichotomy of the Taliban as a brutal fighting force and the camp aesthetic of these highly retouched images of soldiers who had asked that flattering portraits be taken in secret in the back room of a photo studio. The Taliban eschewed photography of the living in its interpretation of Islamic rules. Later, that restriction was lifted to allow passport photos.

Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Kabul. December 20, 2004. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos
Jérôme Sessini Greece. Lesvos Island. December 25, 2015.

Migrants from Syria and Afghanistan who just crossed the Aegean sea from Turkey reached the coast of Lesvos island. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos
Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Kabul. December 20, 2004. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos
Jérôme Sessini As Friday is a holy day, many families and children spend the afternoon walking around, kite flying and riding horses on Tape Nadir Khan hill in Kabul. Afghanistan. Kabul. June 24, 2011. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos
Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Til-i-Kaimand. June 04, 2010. Women in US Marines. Marines company KILO during an operation of search and seizure in Til-i-Kaimand village. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos
Jérôme Sessini Baghe Ali Mardan neighbourhood was a battleground for the most violent clashes between Talibans and mujahedeen in the 90th. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos
Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Kaboul. July 15, 2005.

French sappers from 19th enginneers regiment are cleaning up an area in the Shamali plain from weapons and amunition. They blow up 250 kg of unexplosed amunitions. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos
Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Helmand. June 13, 2010. Griffin is a Patrol Base near Karamanda village. The marines pushed away the Taliban from the area. They make daily patrols all around and search for road side (...)
Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Helmand. June 16, 2010. Griffin is a Patrol Base near Karamanda village. The marines pushed away the Taliban from the area. They make daily patrols all around and search for road side (...)
Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Helmand. June 17, 2010.

Only once per month, marines can have access to internet trough a removable satellite. They take advantage to chat with their relatives in USA the whole night. © Jérôme Sessini | Magnum Photos
Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Helmand Province. June 20, 2010. U.S. marine in Griffin forward operating base, Lance Cpl. William T. Richards. Six days after this photo was made, Lance Cpl. Richards died on patrol (...)
Jérôme Sessini Afghanistan. Helmand. June 14, 2010. Suspected Taliban fighters detained by marines. Marines of PB (patrol base) Griffin conduct a complex ambush in Tukuts. During the operation 3 people were det (...)

2004, 2010: Jerome Sessini

Magnum photographer Jerome Sessini was in Pakistan just after 9/11 in 2001. Unable to enter Afghanistan, he stayed in Pakistan to cover the issues of illicit opium cultivation, heroin production and weapons manufacturing. Three years later, he had the opportunity to work in Kabul as he was interested in documenting the impact of drug abuse on the local population.

“Afghanistan is known as the largest heroin producer and trader in the world, but locals are the most severely impacted by heroin and opium use – young, old, women and men. When I traveled there I could see all kinds of people who were for different reasons hooked on heroin.”

On multiple occasions, Sessini was embedded with the French military and the U.S. Marines.

“I was with the Marines for a month in Helmand province in 2010. My partner for patrols was a 20-year-old old Marine, from Trenton, Georgia. The last day he asked me to join a group of 10 for a risky patrol deeper into Taliban territory. I was tired and I preferred to go to Kabul for a break. When I arrived at the military camp in Kabul, I received an email from 1st Lt. Scott Cook, who commanded the squad I was just embedded with. My partner, Lance Cpl. William Richards stepped on an IED and died on the field in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Taliban, which had prohibited helicopter rescue.”

Larry Towell Afghanistan. Kushimond district, West Paktika. May, 2009. Arrest by US soldiers of Sadar Mailehle with his son Muhammad Anwar. Sadar is the brother of suspected bomb facilitator Naray Mailehle. © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Mazar-e-Sharif. 2009. Beggar. © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Murad Khani, Kabul. 2008. Street scene. Old City of Kabul. © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Kabul. 2009. Bicycle repairmen, pedestrians and pigeons. Old Market area. © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Winter 2009. Kunar Province. Afghan National Army (ANA) recruits in training by US soldiers at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Bostick. The most northern of US military bases and the most (...)
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Kushimond district, West Pakista. May, 2009. Afghani working with US forces during the arrest by US soldiers of Sadar Mailehle, brother of suspected bomb facilitator Naray Mailehle. © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Kushimond district, West Paktika. May, 2009. Arrest by US soldiers of Muhammad Anwar, nephew of suspected bomb facilitator Naray Mailehle. © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Kabul. 2008. International Committee of the Red Cross. Seven year old landmine victim trying his two prosthetic legs for the first time. The ICRC was established in Kabul in 1987. © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp, Kabul. 2011. Ten year old Gul Juma, a Pashtun who lost her arm as well as two sisters and another relative during the ISAF bombing of her home in Helmand P (...)
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Prosthetics Center. International Committee of the Red Cross. Kabul. 2011. Landmine victims. Eight hundred thousand persons have been wounded and 400,000 killed by some of the ten mill (...)
Larry Towell Afghanistan. Kabul. 2010. Village elder and daughter over canal construction with US military Black Knight Troop in Kunar Valley. © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos
Larry Towell Spread from the book Afghanistan by Larry Towell © Larry Towell | Magnum Photos

2008—2011: Larry Towell

“On September 11, 2001, several Magnum photographers and I were in New York City the day the Twin Towers were hit. I had been near the base of the World Trade Center when the second building collapsed, and escaped being buried alive in a tornado of debris by jumping into what I remember as a hotel lobby,” says Larry Towell.

“The day’s events scared me, but not as much as the sight of the most powerful head of state on earth declaring on TV, in the language of the Wild West, an open-ended war with no exit strategy against an enemy that had no state, no borders. In military terms, it was unwinnable. You cannot kill a ghost with a gun, a ghost that thrives in the shadows of failed nation states. It is time to rethink the War on Terror.”

“I photographed the shell-shocked people of this disfigured land between 2008 and 2011. By the end, it got under my skin and into my soul; it frayed me at the edges because I made friends there that I cared about. Three of the five Afghan colleagues I worked with had to flee the country due to death threats for working with foreigners, which is common in conflicts where the lines become blurred between occupation and military campaigns parading as foreign aid, and between journalism and propaganda created by embedding with troops.”

“As one trip followed the next, it became increasingly dangerous to step outside my hotel room, even in Kabul, let alone drive into villages, except in a military vehicle—preferably one hovering in the air. The insurrection was growing stronger, meaning the insurgents were winning at a grassroots level in areas where people had suffered most from conflict, neglect, and corruption. At the onset of the war, the official narrative was that it was winnable, that the Americans would soon beat the bad guys, that the Afghan National Army (ANA) would maintain the status quo after being professionalized by their trainers, and that, while the U.S. was still expanding infrastructure, they were also withdrawing. That narrative has fallen apart.”

Peter van Agtmael Afghanistan. Mian Poshteh, Helmand. 2009. Marines debrief after a patrol. Their patrols were accompanied by an Afghan translator. The Afghan, who gave his name as “Rocky,” was a contractor who had (...)
Peter van Agtmael Marines rush towards a ditch under fire during a large firefight on a foot patrol south of Mian Poshtay. Minutes before, a local farmer had warned the Marines that there were Taliban hidden in the (...)
Peter van Agtmael Afghanistan. Mian Poshteh, Helmand. 2009. A few minutes earlier, Marines on patrol had noticed some suspicious activity. A motorcycle had driven by slowly, the driver staring at them intently. From (...)
Peter van Agtmael USA. Torrance, California. 2007. Simone Ferrara before her brother Matthew's funeral. Lieutenant Matthew Ferrera was killed by insurgents while commanding a platoon in the remote Waigul Valley on t (...)
Peter van Agtmael Afghanistan. Eastern Afghanistan. 2007. This Afghan soldier was badly injured by an IED. He awoke during the medevac flight, disoriented and terrified. He pitched his head back and shrieked, “Allah (...)
Peter van Agtmael Afghanistan. Waigul Valley, Nuristan. 2007. A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter lands at the Ranch House, a small American outpost deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. There were no decent roads a (...)
Peter van Agtmael Afghanistan. Nuristan. 2007. View of the outpost of Aranas, an isolated American outpost near the Pakistan border. Most of the garrison was wiped out in an ambush several months later. © Peter van Agtmael | Magnum Photos
Peter van Agtmael Afghanistan. Mian Poshteh, Helmand. 2009. The Marine on the left, Corporal Matt Kaiser, had nearly been killed by an IED earlier that day. He was sweeping the road with a mine detector when the dir (...)
Peter van Agtmael USA. North Ogden, Utah. 2019. Jennie Taylor measures a tombstone for the grave of her husband, Brent. She wasn’t home when the casualty notification team arrived at her door and received a cell pho (...)
Peter van Agtmael | NYC82002 Afghanistan. Jalalabad. 2007. Lieutenant Erik Malmstrom turns away from photographs of three of his soldiers killed in a Taliban ambush in the Waigul Valley on August 11, 2006. By the end of the de (...)
Peter van Agtmael Marines rush towards a ditch under fire during a large firefight on a foot patrol south of Mian Poshtay. Minutes before, a local farmer had warned the Marines that there were Taliban hidden in the (...)
Peter van Agtmael USA. Glen, Mississippi. 2010. Rosie Ricketts wakes up her son Aiden before the viewing of her husband Seth, killed in Afghanistan the previous week. The temporary coffin carrying Seth Ricketts arri (...)

2007–2009 and ongoing: Peter van Agtmael

In 2007 and 2008, Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael spent several months embedded in the remote American outposts of eastern Afghanistan. Following this, he worked without an embed in Kabul and in the northern part of the country. When not in Iraq and Afghanistan, van Agtmael photographed the war at home, following the recovery of wounded soldiers and the families of the fallen. Van Agtmael describes his experience:

“I first went to Afghanistan in 2007. I’d been covering the war in Iraq, which largely dominated the news coverage at the time. I began to wonder what was happening with the American presence in Afghanistan and arranged for an embed. It was a completely different war. I went to the east, where fighting was beginning to escalate in the mountains.  I was shocked by the tiny American presence tasked with the vague mission of interdicting insurgents coming in from Pakistan. The mountainous landscape was utterly vast, whole valleys patrolled by a few dozen Americans, and even fewer Afghan allies. I remember asking a young commander what would happen if they were able to control the valley. He looked at me like I was insane and said, ‘They’ll just go to the next one where we don’t have a presence.’”

“It’s hard to pick my strongest memories, but I suppose they are from the first small patrol base in the Pech Valley I embedded in, nicknamed “California.” The unit was in the last weeks of a 15-month tour. They were covered in dirt and filth, and lived in bunkers that looked like World War I. Quite a few soldiers were regularly smoking hash with the small Afghan unit stationed there. The leadership barely ran patrols.  Stray dogs wandered around, and periodically children from the neighboring village would come to sell food to the soldiers sick of MREs. I ate some, got terrible food poisoning, and remember sweating through a mortar barrage hoping I wouldn’t lose my lunch all over the cramped bunker. The Marine adviser I was with couldn’t stop giggling at my predicament. He was killed not long after.”

“From the beginning, it was hard to imagine Afghanistan as a winnable war. The geography was vast, the rural population was generally incredibly hostile to the Americans and their Afghan proxies, and the grand strategy seemed muddled at best. This dissonance between the vast war machine lurching forward and the unsustainable conditions on the ground shaped the way I worked.”

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