From a guest house in Taloqan the provincial capital of Takha, Northern Afghanistan, photojournalist Andrew Quilty spoke to Blink’s Kyla Woods about his beginnings in photojournalism, the founding of his photo agency Oculi and the risks of being a freelance photojournalist.
Kyla: How did you get into photography?
Andrew: I don’t have one of those “it’s always been my dream” stories. Two of my uncles were photographers. One of them gave me his old Nikon F3 and a bunch of lenses and the other gave me a little camera bag. I had this ready-made kit, and I went traveling around Australia for six months. When I got back, I enrolled into a course and the path continued. But at that point I didn’t know what sort of photography I was interested in at all.
Kyla: How did you get into photojournalism then?
Andrew: It was mostly because of my peers and company. While I was studying, I worked at a bottle shop. One of my customers was a picture editor at Fairfax Media in Sydney, one of the two main print media organizations in Australia. I’d talk his ear off about my growing interest in photography and he was always very supportive. One day he said, “why don’t you come in and gain some work experience with us?”
So I did, and that’s when I met established photographers who very quickly became my idols. I started spending more time with these people and eventually some of them became my friends. They shaped the way I thought and inspired me.
Kyla: What section were you working in?
Andrew: I was working for The Australian Financial Review. I had no interest in finance, but the fact that I was being paid to take photos was pretty incredible. I got mentored by senior photographers. At the same time I tried my different genres of photography such as sports photography.
Kyla: Tell us about your photo collective Oculi?
Andrew: Started in 2000, it comprises of photojournalists and documentary photographers who were working in staff positions for either Fairfax or News Limited. It was born partly out of frustration of many problems including not getting their work published the right way. The Internet, however, allowed them to take control of their own work. All were Australian working specifically on subjects within Australia and the region. Founding members included Trent Parke (now with Magnum Photos), Dean Sewell and Nick Moir, both of whom have pushed and inspired me.
In the past fifteen years the group has changed significantly. The most marked difference from its genesis is that only half of the collective consists of what you might refer to as traditional photojournalists, while the other half pursues other avenues of both funding and distribution. The group is proud of nurturing young talents as well. Oculi’s newest recruit, Raphaela Rosella was awarded a World Press Photo Award.
Kyla: When did you join Oculi?
Andrew: I joined in 2007.
Kyla: Are most of your colleagues freelancing in Australia?
There are still some who are working for Fairfax through Getty. As you know Fairfax signed a deal with Getty which was turned down by many former staff members at Fairfax due to pay reductions, no benefits or rights. As a result, work is hard to come by there for them now. For people who had worked there, even as freelancers, Fairfax was their bread and butter, and probably at least 50% of their work.
There are photographers in Australia who have won multiple World Press Photo awards but are really struggling to make a living. I think I probably left Australia at a time that, in hindsight, was fortuitous, as I’ve managed to make some inroads with outlets outside the country. I think only 20% of my work comes from Australia these days.
Kyla : When and why did you relocate to Afghanistan?
Andrew: I came to Afghanistan about an year and a half ago. I was interested in Afghanistan simply because I thought there was potential for work. I don’t think that was the case when I moved to New York though. I moved to New York to make connections with editors and publications.
Kyla: Did you make some good connections?
Andrew: It was good to meet the people who work at these places. I discovered that you don’t have to be there to work for them. When I was in New York, I would be jumping for joy if I got to shoot something for The New York Times, and get paid for a day’s work. Whereas in Afghanistan, the stories are at a level that I’ve never experienced in Australia or in the U.S.
I honestly can’t remember having to work on a single story here that has been the least bit trivial. Everything you point a camera at is compelling as a photographer.
Kyla: How do you work on stories in Afghanistan? Can you talk about the pros and cons of freelancing?
Andrew: Yes, it usually depends on the assignment and publication. I might be working with a writer who may or may not have staff fixers, whereas if I am doing personal work or self-generated work, I’ll have to employ a fixer, translator, or driver myself and cover those costs. Unfortunately, it’s close to impossible to make back the money that you put into it in the short term.
The danger, as a freelancer, is that it’s often very tempting to save a few dollars by, for example, walking instead of paying for a taxi, or going to shoot something without a translator. While staffers here have all that covered, freelancers have to weigh up the possible risks and gains and act accordingly. Of course there are benefits as a freelancer as well; freedom being the major one. I suppose the important thing is being responsible with that freedom.
Kyla: How do you work over there?
Andrew: The way I work is here is very different from the way I worked at home. I like to spend a lot of time with the people I photograph, whereas here, the general rule of thumb is ‘don’t stay in one place for more than half an hour’. So, it’s often a case of get in, get what you need, and get out before anything can be organized to affect your security. Those sorts of basic precautions have kept me safe to this point.
Friends and colleagues here are very supportive as well. Everyone knows the drill about calling in once or twice a day, using tracking apps on your phone, etc.
Kyla: Can you tell me one of your dangerous experiences?
Andrew: One time I was two hours drive out of Kabul in a province just to the North. I was working on a story with Azam Ahmed from The New York Times about how close the Taliban insurgency was to Kabul. We were going to this place that was reputed to have a heavy Taliban presence and to get there we needed a police escort. As the armored escort carrying the district governor was coming to meet us at a police base, they were ambushed, blown up by IEDs and attacked with gunfire. We were about 10 minutes away from the ambush.
Kyla: Are you covered by insurance?
Andrew: I can’t afford to have insurance 100% of the time I’m here; it’s completely unaffordable for a freelancer in a place like Afghanistan. Instead I’m selective about when I use it. Generally speaking, that means anytime I leave Kabul for the provinces.
Reporters Without Borders is one of the few that offer it for Afghanistan. You can buy it on day-by-day basis online as you need it. I think Syria is the only country where they do not offer coverage at the moment. For the most part though, planning is the best insurance – doing what’s possible to mitigate risk.
The front lines are almost invisible in Afghanistan. You can walk the streets in a district in Helmand one week and the next it’s been overrun by insurgents. It’s not like the Taliban has a uniform that you can watch out for. There’s an old surfing saying that for every shark you see, seven or eight have seen you. It’s pretty similar here I think.
Andrew Quilty is a freelance photojournalist and member of the photo collective Oculi. His work has been commissioned by world known publications including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Harper’s, Mother Jones, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Le Monde, etc. He was recently renamed the 2014 Walkley Young Australian Photojournalist of The Year Award. He is currently based in Afghanistan.
Kyla Woods works as a freelance writer based in New York, specializing in current affairs, photography, and design. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Kyla has contributed to articles featured in Long Cours, Le Figaro, Le Point, Gatopardo, This is the What, and Foam Magazine. Kyla has also been featured in the French magazine Jalouse. Since 2013, Kyla has regularly written for Musée Magazine, a digital magazine dedicated to displaying the work of international emerging photographers, Peril Magazine, an online magazine that focuses on issues of Asian Australian arts, and worked at the Bronx Documentary Center. She was also involved in the 2015 PhotoBook Melbourne Festival.