Nickelsberg Captures Unseen Forces
HOUSTON, April 1, 2014 — Robert Nickelsberg considers a bustling street now congested with cars as something good. Especially if it’s a street in Kabul. Nickelsberg, who began photographing Afghanistan in 1988, believes that such a scene captures the resiliency of a country that has suffered so much, enduring power struggles, strife, and wars.
As he observed, if there’s activity, then markets are busy. “When it’s noisy with vendors, cars, and people and polluted that means there’s no violence. I like what it’s becoming.” With Afghanistan on the eve of the April 5 elections, Nickelsberg’s current view contains optimism he didn’t always have.
Nickelsberg’s work as a photojournalist brought him assignments from the world’s leading media such as TIME Magazine, The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal. He operated out of New Delhi and was dispatched to cover developing events in Afghanistan marked by the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1988. The next 25 years would provide him with first hand exposure to brewing tensions that would ultimately lead to a conflict with America. As such, his presentation began with a photo of Soviet tanks leaving and ended with an enormous U.S. air base used to launch drones.
He continuously remarked how mountainous areas with high elevations put the U.S. Military on extremely difficult terrain. Some troops would go from sea level to elevations of 5,000 feet or higher. These were among some 45 photos he shared with an audience at Asia Society Texas Center. The background for each captured a significant turning point for the country. Each struggle costs thousands of lives, topples governments, and caused power shifts in which Al Qaeda and the Taliban controlled more than 80 percent of the country.
He caught the rise of fundamentalist groups in the Afghanistan and Pakistan tribal areas and Al Qaeda. He witnessed the emergence of the Taliban and jihadists factions. Describing a seemingly innocuous photo of some men rolling along in a truck, Nickelsberg said, “Osama Bin Laden was two miles from where this photograph was taken.”
Nickelsberg took a photo of a training camp in 1991. Wedged between two mountains, he said the “camp is still there and is one that President Clinton launched missile strikes against in response to terrorist attacks against the U.S.” He photographed a tribal leader who had strong suspicions that Al Qaeda was plotting something big and a mere three days later prior to September 11, he learned the man had been assassinated. Moreover, he photographed a subject believed to be a key figure in the funding of global jihad. “This man is the Don Corleone of Afghanistan.”
Nickelsberg’s observations and photos told stories about pandemonium and life as Kabul fell in 1992. He snapped a tranquil moment of men dancing at a park filled with almond trees. As fighting escalated, the spot soon became the front line in a prolonged battle. A photograph he took of 25 men riding in a mid-size Russian Volga underscored the depravity war brings. “There’s no public transportation and no one is able to work.” His photographs of refugees fleeing conveyed more hardship. “You notice what people take when they are under siege and have to leave in a hurry: a bicycle, tea cup, chickens, bags of food.”
Asked how he was able to do his job in very dangerous surroundings, Nickelsberg said: “You need to know when to leave a situation. The Taliban gave you guides. I got by with guides, translators, and a driver. Your guide is key.”