Photography | Afghanistan: A Distant War

Image: Robert Nickelsberg, Prestel Publishing

A poignant and sometimes disquieting book, ‘Afghanistan: A Distant War’ transports the reader to the infamous war torn country, past the glare of mass western media and deep into the less accessible (and quite frankly dangerous) sections of a society fractured by years of conflict. At times it is easy to feel anxious for veteran photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg, who has managed not only to infiltrate, but beautifully capture moments normally only seen from a (safe) distance, such as Taliban insurgents in their fortressed compounds and mujahideen soldiers preparing to attack.

Nickelsberg work for publications such as Time magazine and The New York Times, documenting the countries struggle for peace, bring together a chronological amalgamation of Afghanistan’s turmoil’s. His photographs span the past thirty years and not only depict a country (shown in the majority of western media) of trouble, but one finding its feet again and again. I personally find the photograph towards the end of the book, showing a number of Afghan schoolgirls (educating females was banned under Taliban rule) crossing a road quietly triumphant. In fact, it is not the photographs of war itself that are most intriguing or thought provoking, but those of peace and empty space. It is easy to forget what a vast and beautiful country Afghanistan is, but Nickelsberg repeatedly reminds (or even educates) the reader of this, with wide sweeping shots of mountains and forests. Candid shots of farmers and villagers show us the people who have to live their daily lives  alongside the threat of violence, reiterating the idea that there is more than one kind person in Afghanistan, not only those in support of radical regimes.

Such photographs are intermingled between pages of graphic violence and destruction, making the point that even in a country plagued by years of violence there can still be beauty and the desire for peace. By doing so, Nickelsberg manages to portray an intriguing and optimistic depiction of the country, rather than one which could have easily focused on pessimism and violence. Alongside the extremely interesting pictures are several essays on the history of Afghanistan’s conflicts, including a foreword by Jon Lee Anderson, a war correspondent for The New Yorker, which provides an extremely helpful contextual grounding for the pictures.

Given the complex nature of the countries stability it is easy to forget that conflict did not begin simply with the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York, but with the arrival of Soviet Troops at the beginning of the 1980s. By providing the reader with a basic understanding of the situations that have been photographed I believe there is much more understanding and interest to be found in them, meaning they avoid the fate of simply fading into the memory of generic war photography. Whether a fan of high quality photography, politics or simply in need of something interesting, this book is definitely worth looking at. Not only does it go where many do not dare to tread, it also stops what is seen from being overlooked or forgotten.

Afghanistan: A Distant War by Robert Nickelsberg is available now from Prestel Publishing at £40.00

Rosie Stagg

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