The visualization of the war against the Taliban has stuck closely to the conventional understanding of the conflict in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, photojournalism has focused on the military struggles of international forces as they combat an ‘elusive’ enemy.
Starting with stories like Ron Haviv’s Road to Kabul, and evident in the contributions to the Battlespace project, the close-up portrayal of daily fighting necessarily overlooks the larger political issues. The constraints of being an embedded photographer are clear from the way different practitioners (including Balazs Gardi, Tim Hetherington and John Moore) have all travelled to hotspots like the Korengal Valley to cover American troops in action. Although their visual skills are not in doubt, the effect of photographers like this concentrating on one issue and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan.
We cannot turn the clock back to 2001, but if we could, pursuing the political and legal strategies then advocated in response to the 9/11 attacks would have been better. Now, though, we are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention in Afghanistan. Dealing with that requires reading the conflict more accurately, so that we can understand that the Taliban were never defeated, the fixation on Iraq distorted policy, and that there is no simple military solution in either Afghanistan or the Pakistan border region that will offer security.
Photojournalism is, of course, not solely responsible for this, even if the visual landscape it offers us too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory. (This political effect was part of Broomberg and Chanarin’s critique of Hetherington’s World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal – Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance; I considered this debate here). Sometimes, though, the stories that emerge from embedded photographers do reveal the futility of the fighting – John D McHugh’s powerful multimedia series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”, is visual evidence for this claim.
Recent videos of public floggings by the Taliban in Pakistan (see the Channel 4 News report from 24 March below, which begins with a beating the Taliban were happy to have filmed) confirm why anyone interested in human rights wants to see fundamentalists opposed (though see the good questions raised about them here).
Equally, the story of the 11-year old girls in the must-see New York Times multimedia report “Class Dismissed in the Swat Valley” is a visual indictment. What these demands can’t do is prescribe the best way forward to an inclusive and non-violent future. The Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy is an overdue recognition of the region’s problems, but its planned military tactics are likely to perpetuate the problem. Confronting the “neo-Taliban” – the new generation of Pakistani, Afghan, al-Qaeda and Kashmiri fighters who follow a jihadist ideology – with drone attacks that only add to the civilian death toll will be counterproductive. And, yet, as much as it might be wished, withdrawing international forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to be helpful in the short-term.
In this context, photography has its work cut out. It has been the multimedia stories that are most effective at addressing the broader issues, and more work of this kind is urgently needed if the human and political dimensions of the struggle for security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be better understood.