Daily Picture Show

Earliest War Photography From Afghanistan

Photographing the war in Afghanistan is hard enough as it is. But imagine doing it with a huge view camera, lugging around a darkroom and fragile glass plates — and protecting those plates from gusts of dusty wind.

"I think it's absolutely unbelievable," says Matthew Butson, vice president of Getty Images' Hulton Archive. In the 1880s, the men documenting wars weren't just photographers. In Butson's words, "They were explorers, they were weightlifters, they were chemists, they were scientists, they were artists. They were everything all in one."

  • Two armed Afghan tribesmen in traditional clothing during the Second Afghan War, circa 1880.
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    Two armed Afghan tribesmen in traditional clothing during the Second Afghan War, circa 1880.
    John Burke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Getty
  • Sirdar Habiboula Ghilzai and other Afghan chiefs who fought against British rule during the Second Afghan War, circa 1880.
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    Sirdar Habiboula Ghilzai and other Afghan chiefs who fought against British rule during the Second Afghan War, circa 1880.
    John Burke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Getty
  • A British military commander and his men, inspecting captured guns after the defeat of Ayub Khan at Kandahar, which put an end to the Second Afghan War.
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    A British military commander and his men, inspecting captured guns after the defeat of Ayub Khan at Kandahar, which put an end to the Second Afghan War.
    John Burke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Getty
  • British troops in occupied Kabul in 1879 during the period of British Imperial rule in India.
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    British troops in occupied Kabul in 1879 during the period of British Imperial rule in India.
    John Burke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Getty
  • Exactly 100 years later, Russian paratroopers landed in Kabul again, the country already in civil war. Afghanistan's prime minister tried to usher in a more westernized policy, and was met by a strong traditional opposition, and a guerrilla force called Mojahedin, a holy mission for Allah. Here, an Afghan child joins the guerrilla movement, 1980.
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    Exactly 100 years later, Russian paratroopers landed in Kabul again, the country already in civil war. Afghanistan's prime minister tried to usher in a more westernized policy, and was met by a strong traditional opposition, and a guerrilla force called Mojahedin, a holy mission for Allah. Here, an Afghan child joins the guerrilla movement, 1980.
    Keystone/Getty Images/Getty
  • Members of the Mojahedin, rebel Muslim tribe, wearing Russian breathing apparatus for use in chemical warfare, Afghanistan, 1981. Russia claimed that it had been invited by the government for support.
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    Members of the Mojahedin, rebel Muslim tribe, wearing Russian breathing apparatus for use in chemical warfare, Afghanistan, 1981. Russia claimed that it had been invited by the government for support.
    Ken Guest/Keystone/Getty Images/Getty
  • Two Mojahedin fighters, Afghanistan, circa 1990. By the end of the 80s, Gobachev withdrew Russia from Afghanistan, and extreme Taliban fighters had taken tighter control of Afghanistan law.
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    Two Mojahedin fighters, Afghanistan, circa 1990. By the end of the 80s, Gobachev withdrew Russia from Afghanistan, and extreme Taliban fighters had taken tighter control of Afghanistan law.
    John Downing/Getty Images/Getty
  • After wresting control of the city of Herat from the Soviet-backed communist regime, Mojahedin fighters, armed with AK-47 automatic assault rifles and wearing typical Afghan turbans, sit on top of a Soviet-made armoured personnel carrier in western Afghanistan, 1992.
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    After wresting control of the city of Herat from the Soviet-backed communist regime, Mojahedin fighters, armed with AK-47 automatic assault rifles and wearing typical Afghan turbans, sit on top of a Soviet-made armoured personnel carrier in western Afghanistan, 1992.
    Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images/Getty
  • The Soviet War in Afghanistan was a nine-year conflict which ended finally on February 15, 1989. Following that was more civil war, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996 and, finally, the 2001-present War in Afghanistan.
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    The Soviet War in Afghanistan was a nine-year conflict which ended finally on February 15, 1989. Following that was more civil war, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996 and, finally, the 2001-present War in Afghanistan.
    John Downing/Getty

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Butson oversees an unimaginably large photography archive, and will be sharing some of its images here from time to time. He recently sent me a presentation about about the archive's war photography — and I was intrigued by some of the earliest photography in Afghanistan: the work of John Burke.

Roger Fenton was probably the first to photograph a major conflict — the Crimean War in 1855. And it's quite possible that photographers like William Baker, who trained John Burke, had already photographed in Afghanistan. But these are some of the earliest photographs from Afghanistan that I've seen.

Sarah McDonald, curator at Hulton Archive, wrote for B&W Magazine that John Burke was "an Irish Catholic from the lower ranks of the British Army, with a love of horse-racing and cricket, a free and easy manner that endeared him to soldiers and tribesman alike, and a reputation as a womanizer who left at least two illegitimate children in his wake."

He traveled from India to Afghanistan to document the Second Afghan War: the second, obviously, in a series of regional British skirmishes. This war, also called "The Great Game" was fought to ward off territorial threats from Imperial Russia. Burke's photos of the war, unlike today's action stills and on-the-go snapshots, are carefully composed portraits and scenes — of camps, officers, locals or landscapes.

"His grand landscapes," McDonald writes, "peppered by isolated fortresses, colossal mud brick walls, sun-baked in summer and snow-capped in winter and the native soldiers with their mix of tunic, bandoleers, tumbling turbans, puttees and whiskers, are almost abstract in their barrenness and isolation." This is what 19th-century Afghanistan looked like — at least from a British perspective.

Burke described himself a "photo artist," rather than just a photographer because for him, photography was business. Although only a small number of artisans could really call themselves photographers at the time, it was growing in popularity, especially with the introduction of dry plates and ready-prepared paper. Photojournalism as we know it today didn't really take shape until WWI — and especially during WWII, when photographers like Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson were in the field with small, portable cameras. In Burke's era, it was a commercial industry.

"As the art of war became more and more mechanical, so did the artillery of the illustrator," Omar Khan writes in this book. Still, although technology prompted changes in war photography, there are certain notable parallels between Burke's photography and that of today. Butson noted that, more than 100 years after Burke, Afghanistan is still at war. "It's a history repeating itself scenario," he said on the phone.

It's somewhat unfortunate that the Hulton Archive can illustrate more than a century of war in Afghanistan. But it's also an interesting visual timeline. I asked Butson if he has seen any early photographs taken by Afghans. The best he could offer was that one portrait of John Burke might have been taken by an Afghan. I can't help but wonder what other perspectives might be out there.

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