Andrew Quilty on the Unravelling of His Chosen Home

It’s a cool spring evening in Kabul, and Andrew Quilty is giving this interview from a motorbike winding through the city streets on his way to a friend’s place for dinner. Quilty came to Kabul in 2013 as a photographer commissioned to shoot one story and then leave. Almost a decade later, he is a veteran of the Afghan-based foreign press.

It was in Afghanistan that the. Australian photographer found new focus and fulfillment in his work, which has been published globally and earned a Picture of the Year International Award of Excellence and the Gold Walkley, Australian journalism’s highest accolade. But the work of chronicling everyday life became especially wrenching as his home city of Kabul (and the whole of Afghanistan) succumbed to the Taliban insurgency last August. Thanks to a surprisingly decent phone connection, Quilty spoke to SHARP about writing his first book, August in Kabul; his love for the city; and how it feels to be leaving Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban resurgence.

You have been based in Kabul since 2013. Do you consider it home?

I do. I am, however, considering relocating and finding another home. I’ve been thinking about finding a new home for a few years. And with what happened last year, and with the way it has changed Kabul and the community and the atmosphere, it’s kind of like the halcyon days are over. That sounds very callous to say, for all sorts of reasons. Because life has been very hard for most people in Afghanistan during the times that I have been able to enjoy here. And the fact that I can leave whenever I want is obviously something that my friends and colleagues and I have a pretty difficult time with. We feel a lot of guilt about it.

In megacities like Toronto or Sydney or New York, there are so many visual impediments to photography, which a place like Afghanistan is bereft of. Of course, that is often to the detriment of the people living there.

Andrew Quilty on experiences that drew him to Kabul

So you are not planning to remain there and cover the Taliban administration?

Things have become pretty bleak. There’s not a lot to look forward to. There’s not a lot of hope within the community and within Kabul, the town I’ve started to call home. And as I said, I’ve been thinking about leaving for some time, and then what happened last year and the fallout from that has made the decision very easy for me. I feel like the decision was made for me. It did feel like home for so many years, and not only because I had a home here; I also had community. So many people have left — I mean, 95 per cent of my Afghan friends left in the evacuation last year, and those that remain are pretty fearful of the future. It’s a very oppressive atmosphere. And, luckily for me, I have the ability to leave whenever I want, and the time is definitely now.

What initially drew you to make Kabul home?

I started to fall in love with the country. And I found a real buzz in my work in a way I hadn’t before. I found a geographical home for my photography in a way that I hadn’t previously. And, yes, I felt very fulfilled. And I made friends. It was a very imperfect but close-knit community that’s obviously very transient, the expats that come and go. But there’s always sort of remained a bit of a core throughout. And it’s not a news flash to recognize the fact that strenuous circumstances form bonds a lot more quickly and with a lot more strength, perhaps, than less strenuous environments.

What was one of the first things to grip you visually about the city?

Initially, it was very superficial things. I came out here in the winter, and the light in winter here  is just incredible for a photographer. It makes life pretty miserable for people living through the atmospheric interference that causes the beautiful light, the pollution and the smoke from wood-burning and coal-burning fires to keep warm and for cooking. But as a photographer, that was pretty captivating. And then also — this is really tricky territory; it’s superficial and looks at a place like Afghanistan through an Orientalist lens — but the fact that there’s very little advertising on the streets. In megacities like Toronto or Sydney or New York, there are so many visual impediments to photography, which a place like Afghanistan is bereft of. Of course, that is often to the detriment of the people living there. It’s an indication of the lack of prosperity or development.

These kind of things were, in the very first instance, what drew me as a photographer, or made life here as a photographer more appealing. But then it became more about realizing that there was so much to tell beyond what could be contained in a photographic image. I just found that, for every photo I took, there was a backstory, whether it’s the history of the location, or the family history of the person in the photo, or the fact that there was a significant political moment on the corner of the street — an assassination or a Taliban bombing.

andrew quilty photograph kabul
An injured man uses a piece of timber as a crutch to move away from an area of small businesses and a hospital in central Kabul following a bomb blast.

It’s just so rich with history and context beyond what can be contained and framed. I found this led me to become not only a photographer but a storyteller. And I’d never had that experience as a photographer before. And I suppose that’s how I ended up getting into writing, that evolution from photography to storytelling. So that’s where I am now; photography is more like a supplement to the words, whereas previously it was the other way around.

Your shift toward writing is evident in your new book, August in Kabul. Was this project something you started before the fall of the Ghani administration?

I’d been talking with my publisher for more than a year about doing a book, and we’d been going back and forth about what the main themes would be. And then when things started crumbling last summer, weeks from the fall of Kabul, I got on a call with my editor and publisher and we all sort of knew, without having to say anything, that this was what it should be about. And I’d be in a unique position to report on it.

Portrait of Andrew Quilty by Balazs Gardi