Picture Story: Untangling the Afghanistan Tragedy

By David Walker

© Seamus Murphy/VII
Seamus Murphy has made 14 trips to Afghanistan since 1994, traveling independently and focusing on the evolving  fortunes (and misfortunes) of civilians going about their everyday lives in the war-torn country.

The new multimedia production of “Afghanistan: A Darkness Visible” presents Seamus Murphy’s 2008 book by the same title in an entirely new dimension. Combining Murphy’s black-and-white photographs with historical news footage and contemporary interviews, the half-hour multimedia production from MediaStorm offers a lucid account of a national tragedy unfolding over three decades.

Unlike many other journalists who have reported on the war in Afghanistan, Murphy tells the story mostly from the perspective of Afghans. The project also underscores the country’s bleak prospects in the face of a U.S. military withdrawal scheduled for 2014.

Murphy, www.seamusmurphy.com, began documenting Afghanistan in 1994. “It was an extraordinary time to be there,” he says. The Soviets had pulled out in defeat five years earlier, leaving behind much destruction. That was followed by a civil war. “It wasn’t being covered,” says Murphy, who with writer Anthony Loyd finagled an assignment from the Observer to do a story.

“I had no intention of doing a long-term project,” Murphy explains in the multimedia production, which includes video clips of the photographer giving his first-person perspective on the story. He found himself engaged by the Afghan people, who were “extraordinarily kind and gracious,” as well as by their history and struggles, which reminded him in some ways of his native Ireland.

Afghanistan was also a challenge to photograph, because it was so dangerous and because the authorities—various warlords at first, and finally the Taliban in 1996—frowned upon photography. But civilians and even some fighters were willing to be photographed “so long as people didn’t see,” Murphy says.

By the time the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks, Murphy had made four trips. From the start, he roved among the farmers, street vendors and people “getting on with their lives,” while relying on local contacts to help him weigh the dangers. He has since made a total of 14 trips to Afghanistan, always moving about independently, in contrast to most other journalists who rely on military embeds for safety.

He doesn’t dismiss the risks, but says foreigners have been conditioned to overestimate the dangers by the security contractors they have come to depend upon for protection. Murphy’s insistence on traveling independently distinguishes his perspective—and his work. “It was Afghans I was dealing with. That was always the story I was interested in,” he says.

He won POYi’s World Understanding Award for his Afghanistan work in 2005. Saqi published the work as a book in 2008. Afterwards, Murphy recounts that he talked with MediaStorm founder Brian Storm “once or twice” about turning the project into a multimedia production. (They had a previous connection through Corbis, where Storm once worked and represented Murphy, who is now represented by VII.)

Though Murphy had no audio or video for a multimedia production—all he had was an archive of tens of thousands of negatives, which were not scanned or catalogued—Storm couldn’t resist the project.

“The book was fantastic, but I felt like we could give a lot more context,” Storm says.

Murphy delivered all the images he’d shot in Afghanistan, and Storm sifted through them, selecting 7,000 in a rough edit. So MediaStorm producers could begin laying out the story, Murphy created lo-res scans of all the images with an inexpensive ION scanner.

Then he returned to Afghanistan to gather video interviews “to give voice to the people” in his photographs, and to get the perspective of Afghan officials, opposition leaders, U.S. military officials and foreign observers with expertise about the country.

MediaStorm gave Murphy a crash course in video production before the five-week trip in late spring 2010. Murphy also traveled with a cameraman, so he could focus on the interviews. The South Asian Journalists Association provided a grant to fund the trip.

Murphy interviewed Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s ex-foreign minister and runner-up to Hamid Karzai in the 2009 presidential election (Karzai declined Murphy’s request for an interview). He also interviewed Prince Ali Seraj, president of the National Coalition for Dialogue with the Tribes of Afghanistan, and several other Afghan policy advisers, as well as U.S. military officials and Nancy Hatch Dupree, an American expert on Afghanistan who has spent much of the last 50 years there.

MediaStorm producers used archival TV footage and Murphy’s interviews to give an overview of Afghanistan’s history since the 1960s. The interviews and Murphy’s photographs tell the story from 1994 on.

“With the interviews,” says Murphy, “It’s almost like the history is being spoken. You can then choose the images that will suit the mood, the texture and the statement that the [interview subject] is making.”

“The spine of the story was going to be a walk through history,” Storm says. “That was really obvious.”

Eric Maierson, who produced the story, explains that he and associate producer Leandro Badalotti whittled 25 interviews down to their essence and then used spreadsheets to organize the interviews and B-roll by subject to form a logical narrative.

“It was a full-on effort for eight months,” Maierson says. “When I first looked [at all the material], I was completely overwhelmed. The effect of organizing is becoming very close to material and knowing every nuance of it. I don’t think you can start editing until you know what you have.”

The story is divided by subject into four chapters, and includes an introduction and an epilogue. Woven into the historical narrative is a story about an Afghan family named Ba Deli. Their story reflects the changing fortunes of Afghanistan over 15 years on a more intimate level. Murphy met the family by chance on his first trip. The 1994 photos show a widower and his four sons simply enduring in the midst of civil war.

In the 1996 photos, only two sons remain (the others had been killed). The father had aged noticeably, and the family’s fear is palpable. By the time Murphy tracked them down again after the U.S. expelled the Taliban, the father had died. Two sons remained. They ended up working as tailors as Afghanistan’s fortunes improved. One, Farhuddin Ba Deli, eventually got married and had two sons of his own. Murphy interviewed him on video in 2010.

“You see the war through loss of family members. Then they start to come back. It’s this beautiful cycle of life that’s happening. Integrating that into the [multimedia] feature is super important,” Storm says. “Without it, it’s just a history lesson, and [the family story] makes [the project] more accessible to people who don’t live in Afghanistan. That’s universal: We all love our kids.”

Although MediaStorm raised $10,000 for the project through a Kickstarter campaign, “that didn’t even scratch the surface of what it cost,” Storm says. He adds, “We’re not going to make money on this project. That’s not why we did it. We make money on other projects so we can produce projects like this. Our mission is to get stories out there that are too big, too gnarly or too expensive for most people to do. This story is going to matter for a long time.”

And Murphy isn’t quite finished with it. “I always think there’s more to be done,” he says. Indeed, the final chapter of the story—called “A Changed Mission”—underscores the potential for Afghanistan to spiral out of control after the U.S. pulls out its troops. Murphy was scheduled to return in January to photograph the Ba Deli family again for a Stern magazine feature. The obvious question is what kind of a country—and future—Farhuddin Ba Deli’s sons will inherit with no sign of peace or stability in sight.

Watch the multimedia production of "Afghanistan: A Darkness Visible."

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