Adam Ferguson is a 36-year old Australian photographer who first traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2008 on a self-funded trip. After his first experience there, he returned several more times embedded with U.S. Army units and on his own. The body of work he produced while there was shortlisted for the European Publishers Award for Photography. LensCulture assistant editor Alexander Strecker talked with Ferguson about the series, his thoughts on photojournalism, and his plans for life after war photography.
Why did you first decide to go to Afghanistan? The photos are all from 2008 or later—once many of the headline seekers had already left for more "topical" locales.
I identified as being anti-war in my earlier years. I detested, naively I can now admit, the idea of conflict. Being from Australia, a country that has only ever been involved in the wars of its imperial allies probably inspired my sense of skepticism. I always felt the rhetoric about serving and protecting had holes in it. The way war is unabashedly glorified in popular culture has never sat comfortably with me. But within this rejection of war was a deep, conflicted fascination with it. The images of my grandfather in his fatigues during World War II left an indelible impression on me. Why did people go off to distant lands to partake in a form of violence that defined nations and identities? As a young man, I felt an urge to understand war for myself.
I was a university art student when the so-called ‘War on Terror’ started. I woke on a couch to find the Twin Towers smoking, on news loop. Two years later I marched in a protest against Australia’s decision to support the invasion of Iraq. By the time I graduated from college I knew that photographing war was my immediate path. Afghanistan felt like the most significant war of my time and I desperately wanted to comment on it.
Have you been to other war zones, other battlefields? For example, you were “in the trenches” with heroin addicts in India: was it incomparable to Afghanistan or more the same than different?
I had worked in smaller conflicts in India, but Afghanistan was my first exposure to a full-scale military occupation or intervention. No doubt all conflict scenarios are unique. It was exciting to start with—the work I was creating felt important for a while. In 2009, Obama announced the troop surge and there I was, in the thick of it, working for some of the world's most distinguished publications.
But then the mood changed. This was partly my mood and partly the mood of the country. I started to stumble trying to assimilate the intensity of the things I was witnessing. Hope faded, resentment towards the U.S. grew, and it all started to feel like a folly. I would be out patrolling through remote villages with soldiers or marines, maintaining a daily grind of so-called security, and I discovered there was a disconnect between the justification for war and the objectives being achieved. It was then that I became very disillusioned with my work, what it meant and how it had an impact. Photographs really do have a life of their own and I was uncomfortable with some of the news narratives my images appeared in. Nothing was changing while the personal risk was high. It just didn’t seem to add up any more.
In the series, war photographs sit right next to "non-war" photographs: a boy flying a kite, a man at a market, birds in flight, or, a bit differently, Afghans using heroin. Did one follow the other seamlessly or were you in different mindsets when photographing these different contexts?
At first, the work I did embedded with the military in remote parts of Afghanistan felt very different from the work I created unilaterally. Being out with the military means assimilating and I did that scarily well. I became a solider by embracing a readiness for violence. Then, when I was working on my own and engaging with Afghans, I feared the military. It was like having two different characters that I would play. One week I would be running into gunfights with body armor on, the next I would be sipping tea with Afghans.
Now, as I compile a book and attempt to weave a cohesive narrative from the photographs I made in Afghanistan, I’m forced to rethink many of my experiences. I’ve had some strong opinions and emotions over the years and a key part of editing this book is letting those go and allowing myself to see a bigger, more timeless picture.
You talk about inhabiting two different characters: Did you feel loyalties towards either side or only a duty to capture what you saw? How do personal feelings and professional/artistic obligations relate?
I don’t feel a loyalty to either side. I think if I were American that might be different but I’m an outsider. Ultimately I feel a loyalty to whoever is on the losing side. I think that’s healthy when contributing to journalism. Sometimes I notice a romantic and sentimental feeling in photographs made by other people in Afghanistan but I have attempted to make images that are a counterpoint to this, this is my personal benchmark. For me personal feelings trump professional obligations. Subjectivity is what makes work interesting, that’s what we call art.
I have heard many photojournalists describe their work not as a profession, but a way of life. Do you agree?
Yes, making photographs is a way of life. As a photographer I’m personally invested in the work I create, so it’s hard to see it is a merely a job. I never stop thinking or seeing pictures, despite my attempts to turn off from time to time. But this is not a trait unique to photojournalists. Whether you’re a baker or a surgeon and seek to have an impact, you must make your work a way of life. That’s what art requires of you.
But being a ‘war photographer’ is not a way of life for me. War is simply something that I have photographed .There has been a barrage of thought lately about this romantic notion of war correspondents and I don’t buy it. War can give people a sense of purpose, but it also gives people a new realm of emotions to digest. It’s not a normal thing to do, nor is it brave or humble. I believe that the cultish rhetoric around the topic is self-indulgent. We all make our choices and don’t deserve extra credit for them.
Have you ever doubted the work that you do as a photojournalist? What keeps you going?
I doubt my work everyday. What others would deem my best pictures, I have felt are my worst. Any of my photo editors will tell you I panic on assignment and think I am not getting it. Making photographs is a tumultuous experience that I never seem to be in control of, so for me doubt is essential to the process. Pictures are an inherently limited means of story telling so if I felt like I ‘got it’ at the end of a trip, I would have definitely missed it.
I keep going because the world is saturated with two-dimensional narratives that are dictated by business and advertising more than they are by independent accounts. Despite journalism's flaw, I like being one of the people attempting to report my independent accounts.
When have you felt scared in your photojournalistic career?
The fear comes after the climaxes of danger. It’s easy to be fueled by adrenaline and get consumed by a gunfight or seeing someone get hurt. It doesn’t take a hero to thrive on violence—it’s one of the most fundamental, primal urges humans have. It can be a shock to the self to realize how easy one can be enthralled by it.
But after, when the violence has passed physically, it leaves behind an emotional footprint you have to walk in. While the war is seemingly over, it still rolls on. That’s the toughest part, that’s when the real courage is required. Waking up at home and feeling war, that’s the scariest moment I have had.
I get young photographers contacting me all the time expressing their desire to be war photographers. They don’t understand the physical and personal consequences of war and the dark emotional residue it leaves. But neither did I when I first started out.
What's one thing you'd love to capture but don't think photography is up to the task?
Photography is about the photographer’s voice, not the subjects. I’d like to explore some stories where I allow the subject to be more present. Video seems to be the medium for this.
What's the future look like for photojournalists?
I was working in Bangkok a few days ago, covering the recent military coup in Thailand. I found myself alongside the legendary James Nachtwey, a man who I respect deeply. There was a sea of cameras around, both amateurs and professionals. Neither of us needed to be there to tell the story and at this moment I had the sensation that there will never be another ‘great’ photojournalist like Jim.
Issues are exposed so easily now with digital media, and I think this is excellent: digital media has democratized the distribution of information. Although we still struggle to disseminate and process much of it intelligently, the world is no longer dependent on a few roving photojournalists to expose stories. People can tell and share their own stories, which leaves intelligent photographers to move beyond the news and make art (for lack of a better word).
Where's one place you dream of taking photographs?
Australia. The more I have covered war, the more I have fallen out of love with photography (and the more my curiosity has been dampened). Exploring my own story has been my rehabilitation, and I am currently working on a personal project with regional youth in Australia. Through this work, my love for making images and telling stories is coming back.
Editor's Note: Adam Ferguson's book, tentatively titled "Afghanistan," is a work in progress.