What it’s like to photograph Afghanistan

“Very rarely does my work here feel like work.”

A few weeks ago, photojournalist Andrew Quilty was at a an office in Kabul, Afghanistan, ready to get to work. Suddenly, the windows blew out. Outside, a massive plume of smoke was rising. A bomb had exploded.

Quilty’s client, the head of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), started rushing everyone towards the safe bunker. “I looked at her and my face must have betrayed what was going through my mind — I didn’t want to be stuck in the bunker,” he said.

She told him he wasn’t going anywhere. “We went to the bunker and stayed there for three to four minutes; when it became obvious that we were not under immediate threat, I rushed out and got onto the street, looking for the smoke.”

The bomb had been detonated about two kilometres away, in Kabul’s Green Zone, which houses most of the embassies and foreign offices. Gunning his motorbike through the crowded streets, Quilty arrived within 10 minutes of the blast. His photographs of the aftermath sold around the world, including to the New York Times.

After photographing the site of the explosion and the local hospital, Quilty returned to the IRC, climbed into a van and traveled outside Kabul to a school for displaced children, where he took more photographs. On his return, he sent emails to news sites, did a few radio interviews and also one for ABC News 24.

And then he called his mother. “Mum’s usually a few hours behind,” he said.

Quilty, whose photojournalism has won awards including the 2016 Gold Walkley and the 2014 Nikon-Walkley Photo of the Year and Press Photographer of the Year awards, is coming to Storyology this year, in Brisbane from Aug. 24–26 and in Sydney Aug. 31.

His first session is Storyology After Dark, where he will present stories and photographs from daily life in Afghanistan. He’ll also appear in conversation with Paul Barclay from the ABC Radio National show Big Ideas, talking about his life as a freelance journalist in that country. And he’ll be on a Storyology Saturday panel, On the road: Foreign correspondence.

In Sydney Quilty will appear in conversation with his cousin, the celebrated artist Ben Quilty. Ben went to Afghanistan in 2011 with the Australian Army as an official war artist, producing an acclaimed series of paintings that are now part of the permanent collection at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Quilty explains the different experiences they’ve had of the country.

“Ben was embedded with the Australian Army. But I have freedom of choice about where I can and can’t go. Soldiers are on edge 24/7 and are always looking over [their] shoulder. My experience is a lot more positive than that; I interact with people on a more human, less threatening level.”

Soldiers can’t believe that the photojournalist goes out on his motorcycle without a weapon. “They think it’s suicidal, but it’s not. They have a mindset that everything’s a threat and that they are always on guard. But most journalists are used to working in that frame of mind, where they can rely on their personal skills to get out of trouble — we use means other than a weapon.”

Andrew Quilty’s 2016 Nikon-Walkley Photo of the Year: “Man on the operating table”, from the scene of a bombed MSF hospital in Kabul in 2015.

At Storyology, Quilty will also talk about how he uses Instagram. Though he was initially sceptical of the social media site, in 2012 he was commissioned by TIME magazine to join a group of journalists reporting on Hurricane Sandy using SLR cameras and iPhones. The experience changed his perspective, and he now posts regularly to his 149,000-plus Instagram followers.

“That project did give me an insight into how it can be used effectively, with the same level of ethical principles that are assumed in proper, traditional forms of media.

“I’m conscious of getting the balance right between covering the war and the day-to-day issues, though they often cross over. My Insta feed gives people a sense of what people are experiencing.”

Asked how he feels about working in Kabul, Quilty replies, “Very rarely does my work here feel like work, and being a freelancer plays a big part in that. It gives me freedom, variety, unpredictability. If I worked for the wires, I would be very restricted and have very little opportunity to work outside Kabul.”

Though he says he has no firm plans for the future, he notes that he has “an eye on Syria as an example of the post-ISIS world.”

Catch Andrew Quilty’s visit back to Australia and other fearless foreign correspondents at Storyology events in Brisbane. Get tickets or explore the full program across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.