How do you rebuild a home and career after it’s torn from you overnight? It’s a consuming question Australian war photographer, Andrew Quilty, who spent almost a decade living in Afghanistan, has grappled with twice in a three-year period.
Once in 2019 after unverified claims unfairly paraded by World Press Photo sunk his distinguished photography career; and now back in Australia as he searches for a purpose after abruptly leaving Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.
‘It’s a little daunting trying to find my place back here in Australia. I’m taking that slowly – waiting for inspiration to strike,’ he told Inside Imaging.
In August 2021 he was taking a break in France and Spain when news broke that the Taliban had arrived at the gates of Kabul. With the US and allied forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, the city would swiftly fall to the Taliban, marking a regime change where the militant Islamic fundamental political group returns to power.
While tens of thousands of people frenetically scrambled to escape the country, culminating in harrowing scenes at runways during eleventh-hour airlifts, Andrew rushed back with his camera and recorder to witness and document the collapse of the country.
‘I needed to go back partly because of the journalistic components. This was going to be by far the biggest “story” in Afghanistan since I arrived. But that wasn’t it. I really just felt like I needed to be there. To me, it felt like it would be missing the birth of your first child.’
To further Andrew’s childbirth analogy, the Taliban takeover was simultaneously like having that newborn child ripped from your arms. The new leadership would undoubtedly tear apart the fabric of the modernised society built over two decades in their absence.
He also felt a duty to show solidarity and be there for his Afghani friends and colleagues. He didn’t want to ‘abandoned ship’ the moment the environment became dicey. ‘It wasn’t so much that I could change outcomes for them, but I at least wanted to be there with them’.
So he hung in for two months with a handful of other gutsy photographers, journalists and foreign correspondents. And make no mistake, it was a volatile and dangerous time to be a foreign Western photojournalist in the country.
Andrew was working alongside American photojournalist, Victor Blue, when they came across a young Taliban fighter waving a machine gun and rubber hose. Andrew instinctively captured a few frames before the young man noticed, and rushed towards him. The photojournalist produced his press credentials, and the fighter screamed ‘Australia, fuck you Australia! This is my country,’ held a knife to Andrew’s neck, and whipped him with the hose.
Andrew returned to Australia in November 2021 after two final months documenting Afghanistan. A year earlier he began preliminary talks with Melbourne University Press about writing a book about Afghanistan, and the topic was a no-brainer for August in Kabul: America’s Last Days in Afghanistan.
Andrew grew up in the affluent suburb of Mosman, Sydney. While his classmates at St Aloysius College would follow their parents’ footsteps by entering high-salary professions, Andrew pursued art and photography. Like many coastal youths, after goofing off at university he threw it in and jumped in the van, with romantic plans to surf his way around Australia and camp in beach car parks.
The plan came to an abrupt end a few weeks in when the van was broken into, so it was back to the drawing board.
Andrew completed a photography TAFE course in 2004, and the following year had his ‘big break’ when his Cronulla riot pictures were published by Time magazine. In 2006 he began working as a staff photographer for the The Australian Financial Review, primarily taking informational photos of uninspiring folks like politicians and suits during press conferences. Although it wasn’t always dull – sometimes he’d photograph live music.
In 2009 he travelled along the Mexican coast with his uncle for four months taking photos, resulting in The Mexicans, a self-published photo book and exhibition. Speaking about the motivation behind the project in 2011, Andrew wanted to discover Mexico beyond the gruesome media coverage of cartel violence and general xenophobia. ‘It’s a symptom of fear the world over – that we fear what we don’t know.’
During a brief stint in New York, he discovered some hard truths about the industry – it’s about networking and sucking up to photo editors. Not an ideal vibe for a fresh-faced Australian photojournalist hoping to tackle some ‘proper’ assignments.
All roads lead to Kabul
So in 2013, after an Australian journalist mentioned a trip to Afghanistan, Andrew volunteered to join.
‘We arrived in Kabul in the middle of winter and the light was incredibly soft,’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘On a superficial level, I found the beauty of the landscape instantly captivating.’ In another article in Sharp magazine, Andrew expands on this to explain how there is minimal advertising and signage that serve as visual impediments to photography, making it a beautiful place to shoot. On the flip side this symbolises the lack of development and prosperity for the locals.
When it was time to go home, Andrew decided to linger a little longer. And then a little more longer. And he realised he was falling in love with the country. The ‘warmth and hospitality I received was unlike anything I’d experienced. The people have a mentality more akin to that of a small town; they have time to stop and say hello on the street, and that was intoxicating.’
And after sanding away the superficial veneer that initially captivated him, Andrew found there was a complexity and depth to the people, families, culture, history and political movements.
Andrew arrived in Afghanistan in his early thirties with plenty of optimism and a more positive attitude than the average seasoned ex-pat journalists, who over many years are worn down and tend to become jaded. Simultaneously, on a geopolitical scale Afghanistan was losing public interest as new threats like ISIS emerged. This greatly reduced the pool of foreign journalists to compete against.
While the drums of war may have been ringing louder in countries to the west like Syria and Iraq, Andrew’s genuine interest and affection for the region left him hungry to find untold stories about Afghanistan.
But like his colleagues with more years under their belt, Andrew noticed a feeling of pessimism for the future of the country creeping into his mind.
‘My optimism and hope for the country was slowly waning from not long after I arrived there, although the longer I stayed in Afghanistan the more it felt like home. I felt I had a real purpose there,’ he said. ‘That was bolstered by the fact that I loved the people – broadly speaking. It’s a very warm, hospitable culture. And as a journalist and photographer it always has, and probably always will be, an environment where stories are readily available and rarely told.
‘It’s a great environment for anyone whose vocation is storytelling. And I found many of those stories are important to tell, and unknown to a lot of people. There are different aspects to Afghanistan and the war that are not widely known to people outside.’
Andrew hit high water marks in Afghanistan. According to friends and colleagues, he was willing to go that extra yard for a story.
‘Andrew was interested in the political dynamics, understanding which clans and tribes were important,’ Solène Chalvon, a French journalist who worked closely with him, told the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘He had Pashtun friends, government friends, anti-government friends.’
She added that Andrew was interested in women’s rights topics when most male journalists had given up due to a lack of access. ‘They weren’t interested in this question. But Andrew was. And he really questions himself, his place and privilege, especially when it comes to gender.’
Another colleague, former BBC correspondent Kate Clark, said Andrew often spent time out on the streets while many other foreigners remained in their compound. ‘I particularly liked how he stayed in places and talked to people, and you got a sense of what was happening in people’s lives … Your safety relies on the Afghans you work with, and if you’re not a decent human being, you won’t get the support you need.’
The photo editors took notice. Assignments began rolling in from the likes of Le Monde, The New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone and the BBC. His networks grew, and he formed a tight-knit group of friends.
In 2016 Andrew won the prestigious Gold Walkley Award, Australia’s highest journalism accolade, as well as the George Polk Award for photojournalism, for ‘The Man on the Operating Table‘, published by Foreign Policy.
Andrew crucially not only told the story through pictures – with the lead image also winning the 2016 Nikon-Walkley Photo of the Year – but he also wrote the feature-length article. The article explores the life and family of Baynazar Mohammad Nazar, a 43-year-old Afghan civilian who was killed after an errant US airstrike destroyed the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, in October 2015.
Andrew, working alone, was the first journalist at the hospital. He found bodies still in the rubble – with fighting still going on in the vicinity, it had been too dangerous to remove them. He discovered one man lying on an operating table who was later identified as Baynazar.
Speaking about the story in 2016, Andrew explained he didn’t initially plan to tell the story after finding Baynazar dead. But Médecins Sans Frontières requested he hold off publishing the images as it may have caused problems for their staff, so Foreign Policy suggested that with the extra time on his hands Andrew could track down Baynazar’s family.
‘It was an excellent lesson brought about by circumstances we wouldn’t initially have chosen. In the end, yes, it enables us to humanise Baynazar – even just putting a name to his story brought more attention to he and his family than could ever be possible had he been just another nameless victim.’
As previously stated, there was no journalist working alongside Andrew, so he was compelled to write the story himself.
‘Photography is definitely more instinctive for me than writing. But writing is a personal challenge. Working as a photographer with a journalist, you can have a range of experiences and some are not ideal. You may have different leads, timetables, or points of view. Being able to do both enabled me – and anyone who chooses to do that – to cut out some variables.
‘But it has compromises. My writing undoubtedly needs more work – editing – than a trained journalist. And you might miss quotes while taking photos, or photos while writing notes. Some situations, particularly when you have time, where you’re not compromising so much.’
Plus, Andrew has ‘never believed in photography as a standalone medium’ to tell stories. ‘I never fully understood the photo essay concept, and always liked the magazine format, where you have long text accompanied by photographs. That’s the format I enjoy consuming most, so trying to carry it out myself makes sense and the outcome is quite satisfying.’
When asked if there was a lightbulb moment when he realised writing was also in his repertoire, Andrew modestly replies with a chuckle ‘I haven’t had it’. A low estimation coming from a Gold Walkey winner!
Andrew was fortunately refining his writing skills, as his career would take a sudden and unexpected turn in 2019.
World Press Photo cancels Quilty
At the height of his photographic career, the World Press Photo contest announced it had ‘disinvited’ Andrew from the 2019 award ceremony in Amsterdam over allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour’.
Andrew received a brief phone call from then-WPP director, Lars Boering, shortly before the story went public. He wasn’t given an opportunity to respond to the allegations, or hear any details about what he may or may have not done. And in an instant, his photographic career was put on hold.
To this day WPP remains tight lipped about what exactly constitutes ‘inappropriate behaviour’, which could amount to anything from a off-colour throwaway remark to full-blown criminal acts. They simply served up some guff about their ‘protocols’, without ever explaining what those protocols were.
As the story broke, the Washington Post photo editor cancelled an assignment. Andrew was dropped by National Geographic, Time and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
‘Corroborating information is one of journalism’s core responsibilities,’ writes journalist, Tim Elliott, about the incident in Good Weekend. ‘But it’s unclear what, if any, measures Andrew’s former clients took to verify the allegation made against him.’
Given none of the aforementioned respected media companies ‘reached out’ to him, it’s fair to conclude these journalism institutions failed dismally at their most basic function.
Solène describes the outcome as causing Andrew a ‘social and professional death’.
‘I was so angry with the World Press Photo Foundation. You don’t, from a rumour, decide to ruin someone’s life. And it’s very bad for the cause. We have so many women who are benefiting from #MeToo, and when I see cases like Andrew’s, it just casts a very bad shadow on the whole movement.’
Elliott’s recent feature on Andrew probed the matter once more, but lo-and-behold it got nowhere. Andrew is still considering to continue pursuing the World Press Photo in Dutch courts, which remains in the preliminary stages.
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The abrupt departure from Afghanistan didn’t provide Andrew ample time to prepare for the next chapter. While he knew his time was drawing to a close, it came suddenly. Now, back ‘home’ in Sydney, he’s living a transient lifestyle sleeping on friends’ couches or in spare rooms. Waiting for something to come knocking.
He’s deliberately kept himself rather busy. From mid-November, he wrote almost every day for 80 days, averaging approximately 1200 words per day.
‘Some writers do that without breaking a sweat, but it was pretty intensive for me. To be honest, soon after I handed in that draft I collapsed and had a bit of a meltdown. I think while writing there was still this adrenaline, and perhaps it was almost an instinct or survival mode to get it done. I would have been screwed if I had to write this over the last four or five months. There wouldn’t be a book.’
To clear his mind and ‘stay sane’, he’s been regularly swimming in ocean pools. But Andrew has come to terms with the realisation that his mental health needs more work. Like many of us, he carries personal issues that were pushed aside for too long, and found himself feeling lost and without an identity or purpose.
When collecting his belongings from Taliban-controlled Kabul in April, Andrew felt like a stranger in a foreign land. ‘I didn’t like the atmosphere in town, and had become pessimistic and down-hearted about the place. It was hard to get enthusiastic about photographing or writing about it, even though it’s sorely needed now. More than ever, arguably.’
Upon his return, he drove straight to the Blue Mountains for an intensive 10-day Vipassanā silent retreat to learn a method of meditation centred around discipline. For the non- spiritual types, the idea is you sit around in complete silence, deprived of life’s vices.
‘I just like the idea of, you know, coming home to what I was expecting to be emotionally turbulent circumstances. I thought diving into the deep end, going 10 days without speaking and having only my thoughts as company, is both challenging and hopefully enlightening. It was appealing to me.’
And the result? ‘It wasn’t like the lightning rod that others have described it as being, but I’ve continued the practice for maybe an hour a day. Partly keeping faith that the long-term subtle benefits will come my way’.
A decade spent documenting a war zone is understandably going to take an emotional toll. As is an abrupt return to a mundane and ordinary existence in the land of Oz. That being said, Andrew remains pretty busy. He’s currently at Visa Pour l’Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France, a brief trip sandwiched between a promotional book tour. Next stop on the boot tour is Melbourne Writers Festival on September 9, followed by dates in Balmain, Avalon, Adelaide, and online.