Afghanistan Dispatch

Looking Back To Move Forward: 13 Years Of Photographing Afghanistan

Editor's note: On his most recent trip to Afghanistan, NPR staff photographer David Gilkey shot this personal iPhone photo essay in his downtime. You can find some of his reportage photography here, here and here.

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    With no running water on most combat outposts, portable toilets dot every corner of the landscape. Most soldiers, when asked what they miss most about home, will say, "flushing the toilet."
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    A soldier walks toward the departures lounge at Kandahar Air Field before making the long journey home back to the United States. Soldiers and Marines leaving Afghanistan this year probably won't be going back.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    A soldier peeks into a meeting between Army officials and local Afghans at the Kandahar District Government Compound; a photo of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is propped against the wall.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    Razor wire tops almost every wall separating the bases from the local Afghan population.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    Camouflage netting is a defense against the temperatures that can rise to 120 degrees in Panjwai district of southern Afghanistan.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    A communications satellite outside the living quarters for the soldiers based in the horn of Panjwai. The men have access to the Internet and can make regular telephone calls home, which can be both painful and helpful.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    The Hesco barrier is ubiquitous on any base in Afghanistan; it comes in all shapes and sizes. Simply unfold and fill with dirt and rocks and you instantly have a new, almost impenetrable wall.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    A soldier walks by Afghanistan's national flag at an outpost in the Arghandab River Valley outside Kandahar. All of the bases will be turned over to the control of the Afghan army in the coming year.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    A guard tower is moved back to the inner perimeter of a small base outside Kandahar. If the bases are not being closed permanently they are being scaled back to accommodate fewer soldiers when the Afghans take over.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    Oceangoing shipping containers have been modified as living quarters for soldiers and Marines. Known as "cans," the containers can fit up to 12 men and all of their gear.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    A soldier runs through a series of blastproof T-barrier walls in southern Afghanistan. In the event of a mortar or rocket attack, the walls help deflect or limit the area of collateral damage from the impact zone.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    Boxes come and go from the bases at a furious pace, with the retrograde in full swing. The containers are usually turned into furniture by the troops when they are not needed for return shipping.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    A ladder rests against a T-barrier wall on the inner perimeter of a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan.
    David Gilkey/NPR
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    Dust rises behind a convoy traveling down a dusty road near Kandahar. Soldiers refer to their backside as "their six" — as in 6 o'clock: or, when facing ahead at 12, the area that's behind.
    David Gilkey/NPR

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Retrograde. It seems an unfitting term for America's longest war, but it's the word of the moment for the U.S. military when it talks about Afghanistan. In plain terms, it means something like moving backward as other things move forward — or just opposite the normal flow.

For almost 13 years I have been in the normal flow of journalists — and later the military — to Afghanistan, covering the war that followed Sept. 11. When I first arrived in the fall of 2001, there was no such thing as being "embedded." Journalists depended entirely on local Afghan drivers, fixers and translators.

The official military embed program really began in 2003 with the start of the Iraq War. And from that point on — for better or for worse — that was what you did if you wanted to cover combat operations involving U.S. forces. Cumulatively, at this point, I've spent nearly four years living with soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And on an embed, you really do live with them. Every aspect of your daily life is the same as it is for the troops you are covering. They dig a hole in the dirt to sleep in: You get in, too. They eat a two-year-old MRE (Meal Ready to Eat): bon appetit. Maybe the only difference is that as a journalist, you don't carry a weapon.

So we journalists, too, became a part of the bigger bureaucratic system, coming and going from the intimacy of the smallest mud-walled outposts to the anonymity of beehive bases like Bagram and Kandahar Air Field.

Year after year, I've watched the bases change just like the men and women occupying them. The pace at which they have been built — and then expanded before even being finished — has been astonishing.

A double exposure and self-portrait at a combat outpost in southern Afghanistan.

A double exposure and self-portrait at a combat outpost in southern Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

But my most recent visit was different. The bases are shrinking, retrograded for their next occupants: Afghans who have almost none of the resources that their predecessors have. Many bases will be abandoned entirely. Some will be razed and returned to the desert or farmland without a trace. This retrograde includes weapons, vehicles, people, everything.

I suddenly realized: I will have to retrograde as well. I will retrograde my 13 years of work in Afghanistan. Retrograde my memories. Retrograde my life. But by definition it means moving backward as other things move forward. It seems illogical, but these photos are for me a start: I'm keeping a little piece of the past so as to better move forward.

I photographed the little things I had stopped seeing. All the things that made life so miserable. I want to remember that. Not for journalistic or historical purposes, but because these places have become so personal.

Hot water and hot rocks — key ingredients for survival in the desert.

Hot water and hot rocks — key ingredients for survival in the desert. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Life in a rock pile. The view of nothing. Hot water, not for showering, but for drinking. Dirt walls, cement walls, mud walls. Never flushing a toilet. The blue sky over a gray world below. Coming and going. The simplicity of it all can actually be charming.

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