An exhibition of war photographs taken in Afghanistan over the last quarter of a century is currently showing at the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University and will thereafter be available in its archive. American photographer Robert Nickelsberg has been visiting the country since 1988, catching moments on film that are variously historic, unsettling and tender. As AAN’s Kate Clark reports, it is a visual reminder that, in Afghanistan, the horrors of war are both familiar and cyclical.
At a time when Afghanistan has witnessed the particular horrors of urban warfare (with the fall to the Taleban and recapture by government forces of Kunduz) for the first time since 2001, (1) it may seem strange to be recommending a visit to a photography exhibition on the Afghan war. However, this is a very special exhibition – moving, and, despite the subject, beautiful.
Photographer Robert Nickelsberg first came to Afghanistan in 1988; his subsequent work spans the jihad, Soviet withdrawal, the internecine battle of the mujahedin for Kabul, the rise of the Taleban, their fall from power… and the re-kindling of conflict after 2001 and ‘America’s war’.
Quite a few of the photographs in this exhibition are breath-taking. Many hold the eye and the attention in the way great paintings do, with the promise of a further unfolding of stories.
Mujahed at the wheel of a pick-up, driving towards Jalalabad, March 1989; Nickelsberg
There is, for example, a picture shows a residential street scene in Kabul. All is normal – blue skies, wide streets, no destruction. It is a tranquil scene, albeit oddly deserted, except that, plonked in the middle are two fighters, one barefoot and grimacing, the other long-haired, eyes hid by his long fringe, shooting their Kalashnikovs out of the frame to the right. From the caption, we understand that they are shooting at another faction’s position in the southwest of the capital in April 1992 during the mujahedin’s takeover. We get a hint of how war can come to a city – as a destructive, alien, taboo-breaking force.
Another picture shows a mujahed at the wheel of a pick-up truck with an RPG launcher on top, driving towards Jalalabad in March 1989. Gazing into the camera, he is exuberant, victory in sight. Then, your eye wanders and you see the disparateness of the mujahedin in the scene, wearing different headgear – turban, cap, pakol – carrying blanket or patu, gazing in different directions. Returning to that first mujahed, his furry Russian hat which you now notice for the first time, is somehow unsettling. The disunity of the mujahedin would appear to presage disaster, even if you did not know that their attack on Jalalabad would fail.
Why show war?
Nickelsberg’s photographs can be seen in the airy setting of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU) which archives documents and material to do with Afghanistan; it is a treasure trove for historians, journalists, linguists, archaeologists and those interested in public health, education, anthropology, poetry and religion (with an online catalogue) (read AAN’s report on the ACKU opening in 2013 here). The centre is built around an inner courtyard and the photos are hung on the walls surrounding that green space. It is a peaceful setting for what are often, inevitably, disturbing images.
Nickelsberg had originally offered a PDF catalogue of the prints and a Dari translation of the text of the book they come from, “Afghanistan: A Distant War” (Prestel 2013), as part of ACKU’s archive of documents; ACKU suggested holding an exhibition, as well. Nickelsberg had exhibited the photographs elsewhere, in America and Europe, but showing them in Afghanistan to Afghans would be different. ACKU asked for a slightly different exhibition with not too many violent images. “I think it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I chose the pictures accordingly – according to the potential audience and the environment. There was a lot of violence when some of the students were infants. Those sensitivities are still there.”
In a very real sense, the exhibition is about showing part of a country’s history to its citizens who, says Nickelsberg, “often don’t have that visual awareness and relationship with the past.” Radio, rather than television, was how most people got their news at the time most of these photographs were taken (many in areas without electricity still do), so it is quite possible they have seen few images of the war, particularly from the years before 2001. In previous decades, there was also heavy state control over both press and broadcasters as to what they reported and showed. Even today, history remains contested and sometimes difficult to assess or discuss. “Documenting the past has often been done for political purposes or motivated by other reasons,” said Nickelsberg, “rather than for historical documentation and archiving.” The exhibition, and the photos that will remain in the Centre’s archive, may be one way of starting a discussion.
For ACKU’s Executive Director, Abdul Waheed Wafa, it was about “refreshing and reminding people, especially the young generation of what happened in the last 30 to 40 years. “We are forgetting the history.” He admitted they had been “a bit scared” about putting on an exhibition “showing four eras of war,” but said no-one had questioned why they were showing a collection of war photographs at this time. Indeed, he said, it has been one of the most visited exhibitions the Centre has hosted.
Seeing history and the human detail
The exhibition contains a visual documentation of some of the key historical junctures in Afghanistan’s recent history. However, Nickelsberg’s ‘painterly’ quality means the photos go beyond recording the moment: the viewer is frequently driven to scan the faces and wonder what the actors were thinking and feeling.
The first day of the Soviet withdrawal, May 1988; Nickelsberg
On the first day of the 1988 Soviet withdrawal, Nickelsberg photographed the driver of a Soviet tank with pink and purple flowers tucked into the metalwork, as he takes a red flag from a young, fresh-faced Afghan soldier. It is the beginning of the end of a bloody eight-year occupation, which left 15,000 Soviet soldiers and one million Afghans dead. The two men are both smiling, not at each other, but in different directions away from the camera. Three years later, another photograph shows the moment that presaged the fall of Dr Najib’s regime: the most senior Jamiat commander, Ahmad Shah Massud, has persuaded two PDPA militia leaders, General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Sayed Mansur Naderi in 1992 to defect: their shift in allegiance would open Kabul to mujahedin capture.
Taleban mullah giving a sermon in central Kabul after its capture, October 1996; Nickelsberg
Four years later, it was the Taleban’s turn and, after their takeover of the capital in 1996, we see a mullah in central Kabul giving a sermon on top of a white minibus to a vast crowd of onlookers– what were the onlookers thinking and who is the foreigner in sunglasses in the crowd? Another photograph shows a pudgy, innocent-faced General Abdul Malik with the Taleban’s then interior minister, Abdul Razzaq (now one of the dissidents opposing Mullah Mansur), striding purposefully away from the shrine in Mazar-e Sharif in May 1997. He has just betrayed his leader, General Dostum – and most would argue the people of Mazar – by signing a secret deal for the Taleban to enter the city. Looking at this photo, we know that further betrayal, rebellion, mayhem and massacre are soon to follow.
Deputy leader of Jombesh-e Milli, General Abdul Malik, with the Taleban’s interior minister, Abdul Razzaq, after signing a secret deal for the Taleban to enter Mazar, May 1997; Nickelsberg
Many of those pictured in this exhibition are ordinary people – civilians and fighters; women fleeing with their children; a shepherd, calling out over an empty desert landscape after a US airstrike – or they are famous people not doing anything in particular. Ahmad Shah Massud, his face the only still point in a picture where everything else is moving and blurred, is shown in May 2001, months before he would be murdered. We also see the United States ambassador, Afghan-American Zalmai Khalilzad, in sunglasses, white teeth flashing into the bright sun, at Kandahar airbase in September 2004. Despite the prayer beads and water bottle in hand, he looks like a mafia don. One of the members of his close protection team, with dark glasses, long, grey, straggly beard and machine gun in hand, looks to be kin to those wild fighters of the civil war in Kabul seen earlier in the exhibition.
Nickelsberg’s photographs are unsentimental, particularly noticeable when it comes to pictures of children. A favourite of this author is of two young boys pausing as they pump water in the midst of destruction: they are on Jada-ye Maiwand, the road running through the heart of Afghanistan’s commercial district, now in March 1994, a frontline. The two boys stand like men, staring into the camera. One looks curious. The other, mouth open, hands on hips, looks so weary.
Cycles of war in Afghanistan
On 13 October 2015, a resident of Kunduz returning to his city after its recent fall to the Taleban and eventual recapture by government forces, wrote on Twitter (abbreviations expanded):
There is still some fear and people are kind of broken but mostly markets are opening, people have started rebuilding destroyed shops and buildings.
How easy it is to imagine the photographs Nickelsberg would have taken were he there, (2) but also how terribly familiar the scenes must be from other places in Afghanistan and at other times in this long war.
The exhibition runs until 31 October 2015 and may extend. Opening hours are 8:00am to 4:00pm, Saturday to Wednesday, free to everyone. Entrance via Kabul University’s main gate. If you encounter any problems getting in, says Executive Director Abdul Waheed Wafa, please call 0700 276 440.
Robert Nickelberg’s photographs can also be seen in his book “Afghanistan: A Distant War” (Prestel 2013). His website is here.
(1) In most places in south and central Afghanistan in 2001, the Taleban fled without fighting. It was in Kunduz, their last stronghold in the north, that they made their last real stand, fighting Northern Alliance forces before negotiating a surrender.
(2) Photographers are now starting to get into Kunduz. See, for example, the work of Andrew Quilty, who published the first pictures of the aftermath of the 3 October US airstrike on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz (See AAN reporting here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020