Embedded in Afghanistan


Embedding photojournalists with combat units was one of the military’s greatest victories in the Iraq war. Narrowing their focus in time and space to the unit they were with produced images putting brave soldiers front and center, with both context and victims out of range. Now, with the Obama administration’s “Af-Pak” strategy being questioned, we are being offered similar visual cues from Afghanistan.

Three soldiers peering into a remote valley, rifles at the ready, the enemy seemingly elusive. High tech weaponry is readied against the elements. This is a war machine looking for a reason, certain a threat is out there, but unsure of its form. There’s even a moment of pathos, with the man on the left in his pink boxers and exposed legs lining up with his comrades. Then there is the second photo, shot from behind in the same place, but showing a strongman taking time out for a gym session. One shows a vulnerable body, the other a muscular physique, but in each case the American soldier is the subject of the photograph.

What unites these pictures is their location – the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. The embedding process is taking photographers and reporters to this location above all others, and photographers have been prominent in the coverage of US operations there. Balazs Gardi and Tim Hetherington travelled there in 2007, John Moore spent time there in November 2008, producing both stills and a multimedia piece, and Adam Dean and Tyler Hicks have filed stories from an April 2009 embed. (See background to the Hicks’ story here).

Although the visual skills of these practitioners are not in doubt, the stories they have produced are remarkably similar in both content and approach. US forces are the locus of the narrative and combat scenes are repeatedly pictured. The local community is largely unseen, except for when they encounter the Americans, and never heard. They are rendered as part of an inhospitable environment in which civilians are hard to distinguish from ‘the enemy’.

The effect of concentrating on one location and one side has been to badly limit our understanding of the strategic dilemma that is Afghanistan. The photographers might want to do otherwise but the embedding process is designed to produce this constraint. Its success can be judged by the way these stories effectively structure the visibility of the war in a way that foregrounds competing American military interests.

How we judge the photographers’ responsibility here is difficult. Logistically, being embedded is the only feasible way to cover some frontline locations. Without it we might not see anything. But the consequence of embedding is the production of a visual landscape that too easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory.  This political effect was part of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s critique of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo-winning image of an American soldier in the Korengal. (Hetherington responded with a statement about photojournalism’s continuing political significance, which I have considered here).

Picturing the Af-Pak war comprehensively and in context is a major photographic challenge. It cannot be easily disentangled from the politics. We are stuck with the consequences of the Bush-Blair military intervention, but there is no simple military solution in Afghanistan that will guarantee security. 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 (see John D McHugh’s series Six Months in Afghanistan, especially the film “Combat Post”), 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.

Photo credit: David Guttenfelder/Associated Press, from WSJ.com Photo Journal, 12-13 May 2009.

This is a cross-posting with No Caption Needed. It develops thoughts from an earlier post on Afghanistan. Updates after posting are in the comments below.


Thinking Images v.6: Gaith Abul-Ahad’s Taliban photographs, 26 November 2010

The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan, 17 December 2010

15 Responses to “Embedded in Afghanistan”

  1. David Campbell

    Danfung Dennis is a freelance photojournalist undertaking a project that will see him embedded with US forces in the Korengal Valley. He discusses the practical and economic challenges of doing a multimedia project at http://www.charliebeckett.org/?p=1464

    Dennis has posted a video of work he did on civilian casualties in Afghanistan at http://www.danfungdennis.com/video.htm

    This one of the few pieces I have seen which includes the voices of Afghanis, and as such it begins to address some of the challenges I have outlined above about the content of stories arising from embeds in Afghanistan.

  2. David Campbell

    From the ‘No Caption Needed’ cross-post — comes an informative response from one of the photographers mentioned, TIM HETHERINGTON.

    I have copied it in full to this site to keep the debate going. My response with new links is below. And it is followed by further comment from Tim and my rejoinder…all part of a good blog conversation.

    “May 23rd, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Hi David

    I read the piece with interest. As always, it’s nuanced and complicated territory. However, considering my work solely through the lens of Vanity Fair or World Press does not adequately represent the scope of the Afghan project that I worked on. The different forms are important parts of my practice – many of which fall outside of the ‘photojournalism’ category you are considering me in.

    Also, with regards the Vanity Fair article, it’s useful to consider it in the context and time it was produced. Sebastian Junger and I were among the first people to highlight the level of combat in the Korengal Valley (June – Oct ‘07). At that time, it was news that no one else had covered. We were there to follow a platoon of soldiers for an entire deployment – something that had not been done during this war – and continued to do so until August 08. We also filmed for ABC News, producing two long form pieces for ‘Nightline’, as well as shorter news reports. Contrary to self censorship suggestions in Adam Broomberg’s article -I broadcast a dead US soldier on ABC news uncensored- which was viewed by 22 million people. The piece also included rare footage of civilian casualties from a US bombing raid (but I accept, it is seen in the context of US soldiers). Still, plainly 5 dead, 10 wounded civilians at US hands.

    By February ‘08, 75% of photographic embed requests were for the Korengal Valley – although the US military public affairs office turned them all down (if it was such a great idea – perhaps they should have kept them coming). We were in the process of making a documentary – and for some reason, were allowed access. I think this was partly because we were so far away from the bureaucracy and developed a relationship before. Obviously the proof of the pudding about whether we were co-opted or not will be when the film comes out in January 2010.

    Further to this, I have an installation that was well received in the NY photo festival that immerses the viewer into an unheroic vision of war, and a both Sebastian and I have books forthcoming.

    I accept that the embedding process has meant the focus lies on US forces but am the first to say my project in Afghanistan is about the soldier’s experience – precisely because of the constraints. Surely the intention is key – and I never suggested to give a more comprehensive view of the Afghan war – or else I would not have followed the deployment of one platoon for a year.

    If you do want to see a more comprehensive political oversight to a conflict, then please read my book ‘Long Story Bit by Bit’ about Liberia, which I made over the course of 6 years – initially starting with an embed as the only outsider to live with a rebel army that pushed Charles Taylor from power, and later as a resident of Monrovia. During that embed, I had no idea that i would spend the next six years focused on Liberia.

    Likewise, perhaps it is also too early to tell what may come of my Afghan work.”

    MY RESPONSE, SUNDAY 24 MAY, 12.20pm

    Dear Tim

    Its great to have your engagement with this post, and the information you provide about the context of your work in Afghanistan deepens our understanding of your particular project. This is complicated territory and certainly requires nuance. To continue the conversation in that vein, I’ll offer a few further thoughts.

    Is intention the key? That depends on the question being asked. If I were simply reviewing the detail of the many photographers who have been in the Korengal Valley in the last couple of years then, yes, intention would be an important factor to consider. As you say, your work there was explicitly about the soldier’s experience so following a platoon for a year was both logical and necessary.

    However, the main point of my post was about the effect – in terms of the visual landscape of war in Afghanistan that has recently been presented to media consumers – arising from the circumstances in which a number of photographers have worked. In this context, intention is far less important, as the effect produced by a series of unrelated projects viewed over time may run counter to the personal intentions of individual photographers. Here I think we are in agreement, especially when you note, “the embedding process has meant the focus lies on US forces…”

    The embedding process is also a complex one, and it would be wrong to suggest that it is just a crude tool of censorship. Of course, there are stories from Iraq of photographers being prevented from taking some pictures or having files deleted. But, as your experience in Afghanistan shows, once in place photographers have often had considerable freedom with regard to the pictures they take, distribute and see published. If we take a step back, though, and focus on the structure of embedding, then we have to acknowledge a series of constraints through which, notwithstanding the relative freedom of the individual photographer on a specific embed, a particular vision of the war in Afghanistan is being produced. So this is not about individual photographers being co-opted or not; it is about the totality of visual knowledge being produced by a community of practice.

    To repeat a point I made in the post, how we judge photographers responsibility here is difficult. We need to see what has been shown, but has that given us a comprehensive view? From the perspective of what is at stake in Afghanistan and how the war is being prosecuted I am sure the answer to that is, no. But does each individual image-maker have to offer a comprehensive view of the Afghan war in every project? Again I would say no, largely because I don’t think every single project can assume that burden, either practically or theoretically.

    Where does that leave us? I would sum the issue up this way – with respect to pictorial coverage of Afghanistan, the problem is not the presence of work arising from embeds in the Korengal Valley; the problem is the absence of different work showing other issues central to the war. It would be good if one or more photographers operating in Afghanistan wanted to reflect on the totality of the war’s visual representation and find a way to build that assessment into a body of work. As with your Liberia project (which I am looking forward to considering), that is most likely to be a long-term effort. And it is most likely to be a truly multi-media effort involving photographs, video, audio, and text. I know that is the way you have been working for some time, having first seen you present at the Side Gallery in Newcastle back in 2000. Now ‘photojournalism’ is a category that needs to keep on expanding to more often include these questions and these ways of working.


    World Press Photo 2008 interview about winning photo of US solider in the Korengal Valley:

    Foto8 audio interview from NYPH09 festival:

    Tim Hetherington’s “Sleeping Soliders” at NYPH09

    Tim Hetherinton’s “Liberia: Long Story Bit by Bit”


    “May 24th, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Hi David

    I think we agree in many ways – though, given the opportunity of posting, I am going to contextualize my own work and point out ways in which my reports do not fit neatly into your thesis.

    So, yes, we are not being given a single comprehensive view of the Afghan war, but then again how many wars have been comprehensively covered while they are ongoing? I was effectively embedded during the Liberian civil war with a rebel group and prevented from working on the government side – and yet, could make a body of work that, I will argue, added something useful to the conversation.

    In your initial post, you mention ‘brave soldiers’ and ‘victims of out range’ – the idea being that the visual landscape being produced ‘easily fits with the idea that more troops or heavier fighting could lead to victory.’ Speaking for my own work – I disagree. As mentioned in my previous post, I showed on US network TV, images of the aftermath (3 hours later) of an Apache helicopter attack on a house that killed five Afghans and wounded ten others (mostly women and children). I also showed US soldiers breaking down and crying when one of their own is shot dead during a combat operation – hardly heroic acts. The interaction with the local population (made while on the embed) underscores the futility of the whole venture.

    While on the surface my work may appear similar to others, I think – on balance – it is different in approach and content. I think this is because I mined the embed system beyond what it was designed for. As mentioned in the previous post, no one else, to my knowledge, had followed a group of US soldiers for an entire deployment – strangely, a novel approach. Consequently, the trust we built up has allowed us to tell a much complex story – with fundamentally deeper and more insightful content (like instances described above). Sure – I accept that it is still about US soldiers, and you are pointing out that we need other areas of inquiry – which I accept, but I think it’s more complex than just pointing to photographers in the embed system – which was the impetus in your initial article (though I read in your last post that it is ‘the absence of different work showing other issues central to war’).

    I would agree with this – that the problem is not about being embedded in the Korengal Valley, but ‘the absence of different work showing other issues of war’ – and I note your emphasis on pictorial coverage. Coverage from an insurgent perspective is almost completely absent. I’ve mentioned some areas where I think my work differs from others produced in similar situations, but obviously there are others trying to evolve a more complex view of the war: Elizabeth Rubin of the New York Times has written insightful essays on the war for many years, and I hear that Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has recently started to build a body of work with the insurgents. Increasingly in the multimedia environment, we take information from many points of reference and form (one of the reasons why I work across numerous platforms). Drawing upon the different sources may help (and I agree, there aren’t many for an major war like Afghanistan – which points more to those holding the purse strings than a lack of imagination by media producers), but I doubt images alone will ever clarify the ‘strategic dilemma’ in Afghanistan.”

    MY SECOND RESPONSE TO TIM, Monday 25 May, 8.00pm

    Hi Tim,

    As you say, there are many points of agreement, so a brief rejoinder that I hope avoids the narcissism of minor differences. From my point of view it is certainly productive to hear more of the thinking behind and about your work.

    Its worth remembering that the format of the ‘No Caption Needed’ blog, for which the post was originally written, is to take one or two recent photographs from public culture and unpack an argument from them. That’s why the focus is on photographers in the embed system even if – as I’ve tried to repeatedly underscore – the question of a photographer’s responsibility is complex, and it is a responsibility they do not bear alone when it comes to offering a complex and comprehensive account of the strategic challenge that is Afghanistan. You are absolutely right to say that images alone cannot be expected to provide that.

    That said, I don’t retreat from the larger and general points I made about the totality of visual knowledge – and hence the overall visual landscape of the war – being produced for those who do not witness the events first-hand by the combined effect of the photographic work emerging form Afghanistan. Of course there are going to be differences between the practitioners identified in the post, and you have articulated those differences as they relate to your way of working and the work it produced.

    For me, the particular question that arises from your comments is this: does showing the aftermath of an Apache helicopter attack on civilians, or the emotional toll suffered by US soldiers, necessarily guarantee that these images are read as ‘un-heroic’ and evidence of “the futility of the whole venture”?

    Now, its very important for me to be as clear as possible about the thinking behind that question, so let me try and articulate this clearly. I do think that what you have shown should be shown, and is important to show. I do think that what you have shown provides a more complex, comprehensive, deeper and insightful account of the situation. I don’t doubt that your intentions are to present something that challenges a heroic narrative and provides evidence of the futility of the venture. I, too, would read your images of the civilian toll this way, and I think other work, such as John D McHugh’s film “Combat Post” (linked to in the original post) makes similar points via an embed.

    But…I don’t believe that any of us can say that such images, by their content and nature, secure one particular meaning over and above all other interpretations. All images are polysemic and polyvalent – they can have multiple meanings and are open to many interpretations. This is not to invoke Semiotics 101 for the sake of it. It is to keep at the forefront of our thinking the differing political work photographs can do depending on context etc. Would it not be possible for people to construct a narrative of heroism and sacrifice around pictures showing the emotions of soldiers who have lost a close friend to the Taliban? I would say in fact say that that is far from uncommon. Would it not be possible to construct a narrative about the need for a military surge from stories of tactical failure that have cost civilians their lives unnecessarily? I suspect – although this has nothing to do with your work directly – that something like this is behind the increased American military commitment to Afghanistan.

    I said this was going to be brief, but it has turned out otherwise! That’s testament to the fact your comments have provoked many thoughts. I don’t think there are any answers to these questions. I genuinely believe, as I wrote previously, that both photographic practice and writing about photography has to live with tensions and contradictions. It is in the spaces produced by those tensions and contradictions that we get to examine the way the world is made visually for us.

  3. David Campbell

    Writing on PDN Pulse, Daryl Lang has more background to, and a critique of, the photograph of the soldier in the pink boxers. Lang writes:

    “Based on the incredible attention it has received in the last two weeks, this picture seems likely to join Luis Sinco’s Marlboro Marine in the canon of popular 21st-century war photos…[However], it’s a white-washed version of a complicated war. This picture is like a Norman Rockwell painting. It assures us things are as they should be. This observation is not meant to diminish Guttenfelder’s work; obviously this is not his only picture from Afghanistan. But it does reveal why war journalism is so tricky. It’s easier to summon an audience when you show people what they want to see.”

    See http://www.pdnpulse.com/2009/05/defense-secretary-commends-pantsless-soldier-in-ap-photo.html

  4. David Campbell

    Some more links to Tim Hetherington’s work from Afghanistan:

    The Valley of Death is story he filmed for ABC News, broadcast in September 2008.

    His most recent work, “Sleeping Soldiers,” is discussed in more detail on Photo District News, 27 May 2009.

  5. David Campbell

    Reuters photographer Jorge Silva has been embedded with the Canadian military in Afghanistan. He discusses his experiences, and shows some of his work, in a post called “Showing the Taliban

    One question for Silva’s photos is — do they really show the Taliban? Who are the Taliban? Are the civilians pictured Taliban? Despite being good work, these images raise a lot of questions about what we actually see.

  6. David Campbell

    Gary Knight of VII Photo has written about the narrowing of the view effected by some stories from the Korengal Valley — it chimes with my original post.

  7. Just some links « The Unknown Snapper

    […] As well as another post by the same author (and quite old) on embedding (really interesting exchange… […]

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