Tag: war zone

Andrew Quilty’s journey from Australia to Afghanistan

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.


Gul Ahmad, an infant boy suffering from acute malnutrition, is covered by his mother's scarf while being treated in the therapeutic feeding centre ward at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) administered Boost Hospital in Lashkar Gah, the capial of Helamnd Province in southern Afghanistan. ©Andrew Quilty/ OCULI

Gul Ahmad, an infant boy suffering from acute malnutrition, is covered by his mother’s scarf while being treated in the therapeutic feeding centre ward at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) administered Boost Hospital in Lashkar Gah, the capial of Helamnd Province in southern Afghanistan. ©Andrew Quilty/ OCULI


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?

Andrew: Many are freelancing. Last year, Fairfax let go of around 70% of their photographers nationwide at their flagship newspapers, like Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Financial Review.

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.


Photo By Andrew Quilty

Street scene from the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan. Andrew Quilty/OCULI



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.


Street scene from Kabul, Afghanistan. Andrew Quilty/OCULI



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.


Before sunrise on the northern edge of Herat in western Afghanistan – only a couple of hundred meters from the US Consulate and on the edge of a main road – families from Ghor province warm themselves by fires and in makeshift shelters and tents. The 300 or so Internally Displaced People (IDP’s) left their homes for reasons including factional fighting as well as because of drought and the associated effects on the farming communities’ source of food and livelihood. The temperature was -8 degrees celcius soon after sunrise. Andrew Quilty/OCULI


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.

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Connect: Sebastian Junger on the importance of safety training for freelancers.

As media and news organization staff numbers shrink, they increasingly rely on freelancers to produce content – often putting those freelancers in harm’s way. Thankfully, there are organizations committed to giving you the skills and training needed to stay safe and react appropriately when disaster strikes.

Laurence Cornet chats with Sebastian Junger, founder of RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) who explains why freelancer safety is important and how to be prepared.

Sebastian Junger, you have covered conflicts on and off for 18 years. What made you stop war reporting?

My last war experience was with a photographer named Tim Hetherington. We worked together in an outpost in Afghanistan where we shot Restrepo, which was nominated for an Oscar. Two weeks after the Oscars we were supposed to go on an assignment to cover the Arab Spring, but I found out at the last minute that I couldn’t go. Tim continued his work in Libya as a freelance photographer and was killed in Misrata on April 20th, 2011. He was hit in his groin by a mortar fragment; it was not a very big wound, but it hit his femoral artery and he died of blood loss. Had he been with the American military, the medics could have saved his life, but nobody around him knew what to do. I wouldn’t have known what to do either. I would have watched my friend die.


Very few journalists on the field have medical training…

Freelancers do most of the front line war reporting but they are often the least prepared, and the least supported by the industry. After I learned that Tim was killed I decided within an hour to stop war reporting. I started an organization called RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) where we train experienced freelance war reporters in combat medicine for free. We originally did it in New York, and we are now starting to do it in other areas of the world.


How many people have you trained so far, and do you have any feedback from them?

We have trained 200 people in three years. The response has been amazing. Journalists, especially freelancers, are not used to anyone doing anything for them. Our organization puts them in a hotel for four days and gives them medical training for free. A lot of them cannot believe it.

The deal is: if you get the training, you have to always carry your medical kit with you in a war zone. Not in the car, not in your hotel room, but on your body.

Anti-trust laws in this country make it illegal for freelancers to unionize or to collectively demand fair pay, and they prevent news agencies from agreeing to elevate pay. However, there is no law against someone making a statement about what they believe, and RISC just issued a statement.


Can you talk about this?

For me, a huge safety issue is fair payment. If you don’t pay people well, they are economically desperate, and they might take risks they would not otherwise take. If you pay them decently, they will be a lot calmer and wiser about the decisions they make in a war zone. When successful news organizations pay $25 for a combat photo, they are exploiting people. It’s not any different than paying a Mexican migrant $1 an hour to pick fruits in an orchard. It’s exploitation and it has a direct impact on the journalist’s safety.

Our statement lists what level of medical training and what equipment freelancers should have, and what they should get paid per word for an article, per photo, or per day.

A photographer just forwarded us an email that she sent to an editor declining a job in Syria and including the link to our statement. So it is starting to be used to demand fair payment from editors.


What about their liability?

I am not a lawyer so I don’t know what the liability of companies hiring freelancers is. Ethically, however, if you send reporters to a war zone you should support them. But this goes in both directions. Employers have the right to expect that freelancers being sent to a war zone have a bulletproof vest, a helmet, medical care, and have been medically trained. It’s a fair thing for employers to expect. And if they are hiring someone who has those things, the freelancer has to right to expect fair payment.


In the meantime many reporters take fishing trips to war because that’s a great opportunity for them to sell a story…

That’s true. That’s a great reason to go overseas. That’s one of the great things about journalism. You can just go overseas, start working, be recognized and work your way to an assignment. It’s amazing. You can’t do that as a lawyer, an accountant, or as a doctor. In journalism you can just go.


So would you advise freelancers to cover wars, warning them about the risks, of course?

Yes. I wasn’t conscious of the risks and of their consequences when I was 30. I wanted to be a journalist; I was totally self-focused, which you are supposed to be when you are young. If you are not self-focused, you are not going to go anywhere. That’s natural, but there is a point, at least in my life, there is a point where I made it; I didn’t need to go back to a war zone in order to become a journalist.

There is also a point of maturity where an experienced war reporter starts to understand that war is super exciting, compelling, frightening, very demanding, it’s all these amazing things, but it’s also incredibly sad. And it takes a long time to understand how sad it is.


Let’s go back to the notion of risk, for people around you.

Until Tim was killed I always thought of the risks that I took as a personal matter. I was gambling with my life and if I lost that gamble I was the one paying the price. Then, when Tim died I suddenly realized that actually, if you get killed you are the only one not suffering the consequences, ironically. Once you are dead, there are no consequences; but the emotional consequences continue for a lifetime in everyone you care about. Your family, your loved ones, your friends, everyone else you love is going to pay for that shit their whole life.

It suddenly made war reporting sort of selfish, and it only felt selfish because I was 50 years old. I think there is a point in your life where you have to start living for others primarily and not for yourself. Tim’s death triggered that realization in me. I am no longer married but my wife and I got the news about Tim by phone. I realized that if I continued war reporting, even if nothing ever happened to me, every day that I was gone she would jump every time the phone would ring. That would have meant inflicting harm to someone I love, there is no other way to put it. And I just couldn’t do it. There are other people, younger people, doing really important work and that’s why I am trying to support them. If you can create a sense of mutual responsibility between freelancers, everyone would be better.


What about you? Can you tell us a few words about your latest movie, The Last Patrol?

I took two soldiers from Restrepo and a photojournalist named Guillermo Cervera who was with Tim when he died, and we did a long walk along the railroad lines from DC to Philadelphia, to Pittsburg. What I wanted to do was not a matter of survival so much. I wanted to experience the closeness of combat at home, and you need hardship and difficulty for that.

I think it is really healthy. I cannot ethically advise people to put their life at risk, but you don’t have to be in danger in order to be out of your comfort zone. You have to do things that you dread in order to lead a really interesting and fulfilling life. If nothing scares you, you are not doing enough.


Sebastian Junger is a freelance journalist, documentarian and best-selling
author of “The Perfect Storm,” “War,” “A Death in Belmont” and “Fire.” He
has covered major international news stories since the early 1990s in
combat zones around the world including Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and
Afghanistan. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and his work has
also been published in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, National
Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Men’s Journal. Junger’s documentary
“Restrepo,” which he co-directed with close friend and colleague Tim
Hetherington, won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival
and was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2013, Junger directed “Which Way
is the Frontline From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.” In 2014
he released “Korengal,” a sequel to “Restrepo,” and “The Last Patrol.”

Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.

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