“There were more than 50 media workers and journalists killed in Afghanistan, most of them Afghans. So we’re really paying homage to them, to what was going on and what was given up.”
To many, the chaotic end of the war in Afghanistan felt like a predictable outcome to a bitter conflict that had gone on too long, cost too much, and caused too much suffering. But it was also the first time in a long time that the public in the US was actually paying attention to what the government was doing overseas. As the war dragged on for almost two decades, coverage of Afghanistan ebbed, with most Americans growing uninterested in following the details of a faraway military quagmire.
This attitude frustrates Mike Kamber, the director of the Bronx Documentary Center in New York and a former photojournalist. He believes in bringing information to people to encourage broader discussions. Kamber’s connection to Afghanistan runs deep — he worked there at various points in the last two decades and lost several journalist friends there. Kamber came up with the idea for the BDC, a community-oriented photo center that has been serving students of all ages since 2011, while he was in Afghanistan working alongside Tim Hetherington, a filmmaker who was killed in Libya shortly before the center opened.
To mark the anniversary of US involvement in Afghanistan, Kamber helped curate Urgency! Afghanistan, an exhibition that includes a singular visual timeline overlaid with insightful captions and information about policy initiatives to help educate visitors about the details of the war. The timeline is updated in real time with contributions from photographers who are still working in Afghanistan — an unusual move for a gallery.
“Everything we do is very much about providing context,” Kamber said. “One of our philosophies is that photographs don’t have to be precious collectible items, but really should be about education.”
Can you talk a little bit about your involvement in Afghanistan?
I worked in Afghanistan in 2001 and I was in Iraq for a long time. And I went back to Afghanistan around 2009, 2010, 2011, more or less. My friend Tim Hetherington was also working in Afghanistan; he did the film Restrepo. We had a lot of discussions about how we could start something like the Bronx Documentary Center. It was just a concept at the time. I was in Afghanistan when I actually purchased this previously abandoned building in the Bronx.
Tim and I both came back from Afghanistan and [started to] plan the place out. And then Tim was killed a few months later in Libya in April of 2011. Myself and a bunch of volunteers started up with the idea of providing democratic photography and journalism training to anybody who needed to, regardless of ability to pay.
Why is having a space where people can come together and look at photographs and contextualize them important?
I think it’s the foundation of a democratic society — nothing less than that. We’re not a political space, we’re guided by journalistic principles around giving people information. We have so many students and even adults who come in and say, “I knew that we had invaded Afghanistan, but I don’t know anything about the war.”
To be honest with you, the average American really has very little knowledge of the war in Afghanistan. It’s the longest war in American history and it’s a crucial thing that we need to know about and discuss and debate. You can be for the war or against the war — you can have any political point of view you want — but we still need to look at it and discuss it and learn about it.
Are there things that you think could have, or should have, been done differently to get people to pay more attention to this war?
I saw it with the invasion of Iraq — everybody’s like really excited when the war starts and everybody’s out and there’s parades and there’s rallies and there’s protests and everybody’s so involved, you know, in the first months. Then, it’s amazing in America, how quickly it just drops off the radar.
We did a talk the other night and Victor Blue zoomed in from Afghanistan and he makes the case that traditionally the US government was counting on American airpower as the best way to fight the war. The last thing that we did in Afghanistan was that we killed a family of like 10 innocent people, and it’s kind of a horrible coda to the whole 20-year effort. Victor makes the case that future people will look back on American airpower and see it actually as the thing that cost us the war, because we killed so many civilians.
I’m a student of Vietnam. I grew up as a child during that war and the parallels are just uncanny. This was the exact same story: propping up corrupt dictators, trying to do nation-building completely unsuccessfully, instilling democracy at the point of a gun. We really didn’t understand much about the culture, but we did what Americans do, which is we built. We were just building all kinds of things of all over Afghanistan, much of which was unneeded and unwanted.
It’d be great if people understood and debated the history of American foreign interventions. I just think people need to understand a little bit more about policy and be educated about it and be involved in it, because that’s our tax dollars and those are our young men and women who are going around the world. And those are our bombs that are dropping on people. For Americans to be so completely uninvolved in a war that’s killing tens of thousands of Afghans as well as thousands of Americans is pretty extraordinary.
These are really crucial questions. What’s going to happen to all these folks, how are we gonna accommodate [Afghan refugees]? I think a lot of people don’t understand that a lot of refugees to the US get six months of support and aid and then they’re out on their own. Six months is nothing. You’re talking about people who don’t speak English, who are coming here from the other side of the world that need years and years of support. How much would the average American be involved in that and care about that?
Do you feel like photography is uniquely suited to appeal to a distracted public, since photos also highlight only fractions of time?
Yeah, I think so. Photography is completely and uniquely situated to really address a lack of staying power in the American psyche right now. People see far more photos in a day or a week now than they used to see in a year. But I think to be able to come into a gallery and sit quietly and stare at a wall of photos and read the captions and spend time with each photo, I think that is uniquely designed to slow people down and make them think about a specific image and a specific experience and what that means.
There were more than 50 media workers and journalists killed in Afghanistan, most of them Afghans. So we’re really paying homage to them, to what was going on and what was given up. Those people gave their lives. I don’t think we can forget their sacrifices.