Paula Bronstein made her first trip to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, which sparked a series of subsequent visits to the country throughout the 14-year conflict. Unlike many Afghanistan correspondents, Paula turned her lens away from the fighting to capture an oft-invisible subject — the civilians.
Paula focuses on the legacy of the war — from the dangers of landmines to the effects of the heroin industry. Rather than embedding with the military, she spends her time on the ground with the people, who continue to feel the effects of over three decades of conflict, both mentally and physically.
ViewFind spoke with Paula to discuss the ongoing violence in Afghanistan, staying safe in the field and her forthcoming book, Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear.
Michelle Robertson: You were recently in Afghanistan. What is the situation like there currently?
Paula Bronstein: We just have to understand that things are not going that well. It’s not as bad as Iraq — Iraq would be a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of worst-case scenario. President Bush will go down in history as the president that made the worst possible decision ever.
Things in Iraq have gone from bad to worse. Things in Afghanistan are bad. Have they gone from bad to worse? No, but they’re bad. A friend of mine just recently got killed there. This is the reality.
How did you gain such incredible access to the hospital?
I knew exactly where I’d need to go. I knew I had access, I knew I could go back there and I didn’t know what kind of photos I was going to get, but I knew I had access to key places.
Tell me more about the hospital.
It’s an Italian-run hospital for the war-wounded. It’s free, and it’s only for the war wounded. What that means is that if someone comes in with a heart attack, they’re not treating you. The Pentagon [funds it].
I had really good access to the hospital. Without that I couldn’t have gotten these photos. The emergency hospital is just — it’s the best that’s in Afghanistan. And Afghans try very very hard just to get there.
Do you ever feel a sense of guilt at capturing these wounded people when they’re at their worst?
No, because I know that I’m bringing attention to something that is important. There’s no guilt there if I feel like what I am doing is working in some way, shape or form.
What are some of the most common injuries you witnessed?
The mine injuries. Some are predictable, especially in the spring if farmers are working in the fields. In the spring, [the mines will] rise to the surface. You could have a farmer that digs up a mine that’s really old — could be new or could be old — and he ends up in the emergency room. The photograph of a man with the bloody gauze, he was a farmer. I have no idea what happened to him, I only know that it was his face that was blown off. The rest of his body was fine.
How do you process the horrors you see?
I move on. You have to. If you can’t move on — well in some ways you can, in some ways you can’t — but you do your job and then you have to try to process and move on because otherwise you can’t do it.
You have to be able to handle it. Not everyone wants to do this kind of work, obviously. But I try to get underreported issues, especially from a country that I’ve been covering since 2001.
Does it ever get easier to deal with?
No it still hits me, definitely. It has to, because I’m human.
With me I know exactly what to expect, or at least close enough to it so that I can really focus on the story. I’m not saying it’s easier, it’s just that I know exactly why I’m doing it. I’m familiar with the subject, I’m familiar with the place.
Let’s talk about safety. How do you protect yourself when you are there?
I’ve been working there for many years. I’m not saying that it’s not difficult, but the way I work there now is different from the way I worked there six years ago. I don’t drive hardly anywhere except for Kabul and maybe a few other places.
You’re making compromises all the time because of the security issues. But this is why I did this update, because the idea was to bring attention to a story that right now people aren’t really paying attention to.
You mention a friend of yours was recently killed in Afghanistan. I assume you’re speaking of photojournalist David Gilkey.
I am very careful about where I go. I don’t walk on the streets by myself. There’s things I may not do that other journalists do. Where David Gilkey was, where he got killed, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have done it, flat out. It means I wouldn’t have embedded with the Afghanistan Army’s Special Forces. It’s not what I would do.
What exactly went wrong?
David Gilkey was working for NPR, and he had been working there since 2001 just like me, but they were embedded within the Afghan army’s Special Forces, so they were very vulnerable to whatever happened to the army they were with. And that is not controllable. All I’m saying is NPR thought that they had very good plans, and obviously they felt that if they took the necessary precautions, they wouldn’t have done that.
There are factors you can’t prepare for, and when you embed with the Afghan National Army, you’re already putting yourself in a more vulnerable position. It’s one thing to do it with the U.S. military, it’s another to do it with the Afghan. I would never do it with the Afghan.
What’s the difference between embedding with the US Army and the Afghan Army?
Try to think about this: How are U.S. soldiers trained and prepared before going into battle? They’re probably going through extensive training that you can’t even imagine. It’s part of the preparation of going into the U.S. military forces. When you think about Afghans, it’s maybe eight weeks.
Because I did a story on the training, I said to myself, I would never embed with these people. You can’t compare their military to the U.S. military. And if you’re embedding with them, you’re trusting your life with them. And you can’t, because the Afghan National Army is getting chewed up by the Taliban like crazy.
Why would NPR embed with Afghan troops rather than US troops?
Because the U.S. military is pretty much out of there. There’s only 10,000 troops left. Media needs to stay on top of the story. They need to know what’s going on. And we can’t go to these places that are on the front line without protection. And the media was embedding with the U.S. Well, guess what? That’s not happening now.
Why is that?
When the U.S. military pulled out, now there’s a void. And the media wants to find out, what is the story now? What’s going on? I hope after the recent deaths, other media will look at that and say, we’re not going to do it. I think they will. I’m sure about it.
And I think they look at NPR and they know they would be really well prepared and they would have taken all the precautions. But that didn’t matter, did it? So I would hope that other media would look at that and say, “This is never going to be a safe situation.” Our media, they can’t protect our media, even if they say they can. So people in charge need to make the decision that sorry, we’re not going to take that risk. I do think that it was really sad that it was necessary to see someone killed to create that, but I think it was.
Why do you think few people pay attention to the civilian cost of the war?
People are numb. Were you affected by the fact that there was this huge bombing in Baghdad? No. You saw it in the news, you might have thought for a second, oh that’s really terrible, but then you’ll go back to doing what you were doing.
The fact is, people are numb. They are sick of hearing about it. They wish it would stop, but it won’t.
Then, all of a sudden, it hits their home, their city, their cafe — someplace in Belgium or someplace in Paris — and then it starts hitting home. And then everyone starts paying attention.
How do you make people pay attention?
It has to do with putting a face to the statistic. You’re trying to take a photograph that someone can relate to in some shape or form. That really means showing a little more… showing the face of a man that was just going home from work, and he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then his face is full of 2nd and 3rd degree burns.