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Interviews

Life in the backdrop of war

© Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Written by Deniz Dirim

“Could we try once more, just to be sure,” I plead with my colleagues. By now, I’ve tested seven video call recordings in preparation for my interview. You just don’t get a second shot to speak with Paula Bronstein – the female photojournalist behind the most comprehensive work on women in Afghanistan. I press call, quickly wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans, and pick up a pen.

Paula is in good spirits, visiting close friends in Connecticut, USA. Although most of the community she knows from her 14 years in the state “never left”, it’s high on Paula’s list as a place to launch her highly-anticipated book ‘Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear’; after all, it was here that Paula took her first job as a photographer at the New Haven Register in 1982.


Paula Bronstein hanging out on the beach as a 21-year-old beside a photo taken among the poppy fields of Afghanistan in 2011. In a recent conversation, Paula pointed out: "Even though I'm over 60, I can still wear a bikini."

Before moving to Bangkok in 1998, Paula worked as a staffer at several US newspapers. “Newspaper was my foundation of training because back in the day, when it really was the heyday of newspapers, you created picture stories where you would get a full page layout. And it could just be the simplest feature. You’ve got to be the idea person. You’ve got to come up with the stories. They’re not spoon feeding you. I had to come with good local stories with an international angle,” Paula explains.

Paula was raised in what she describes as “a typical, middle-class Jewish upbringing” in American suburbia, but her eye was always on the international horizon. During her tenure at the Hartford Courant for example, she already began taking leaves of absence for two to four months to test the waters abroad. “When I moved overseas, I already had a lot of experience. I wasn’t jumping into deep waters that I didn’t know. At that time it was all about being where it was happening and there was a lot going on in the South East Asia region. It’s totally changed. It’s like the Middle East now where it’s non-stop.”

The road less taken

From being honoured by the 2016 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award to winning a first prize award in World Press Photo’s 2017 Contest, Paula has received much recognition for her contribution to photojournalism all throughout Asia. But the women of Afghanistan – who she photographed over a 15-year period with the EOS 5D Mark II, EOS 5D Mark III and, most recently, the EOS 5DS R – hold a special place in her heart. ‘Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear’ is Paula’s first book and a monograph of her coverage of women in the beautiful, troubled country.

“Paula Bronstein is a courageous, passionate and empathetic photojournalist. This all comes through in her images. She is curious and patient. She respects her subjects and their stories above and beyond. Her book is a testament to all these things. She has put herself into the making of this book and dedicated so much of her time to documenting the country as well as the people of Afghanistan. She is our eyes into the Afghani culture and history.”
Lauren Steel, Director of Photography and Co-founder of Verbatim

Kabul, Afghanistan. August 27, 2007. Zaher, 14, smokes heroin alongside his heroin-addicted mother, Sabera, and his eleven-year-old sister, Gulparai, in their home. The children began using the drug after watching their widowed mother, a heroin addict for four years.

© Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Kabul, Afghanistan. August 22, 2007. Akbar, 38, a heroin addict for five years rests on the floor of an abandoned building. He begs during the day to get enough money to score some drugs. The average cost is around 3.00 US Dollars or 150 Afghani.

© Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Kabul, Afghanistan. March 1, 2002. Mahbooba stands against a bullet-ridden wall, waiting to be seen at a medical clinic. The seven-year-old girl suffers from leishmaniasis, a parasitical infection.

© Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

I ask Paula about her first visit to Afghanistan in 2001 while on assignment for Getty Images to report on ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ – Washington’s answer to 9/11 which became the longest war in US history. Paula explains: “When we went in, it was early December 2001. It was four to five weeks of waiting to get in from the south. Journalists that came down from the north were able to get in much earlier. But that was a different route. We were going to the south, to Kandahar where all the bombing was – totally different. So that was like going in for the first time, in convoy, not knowing what to expect. Everything had been carpet-bombed more or less. The reason why the Taliban could go so easily back and forth from Pakistan is because there was this really open border that’s hard to police and the distance was not far. Of course, the Taliban took their turbans off and disappeared but it was easy enough for them to rebuild and come back stronger. Which is why, today, they are very strong.”

The New York Times reported on October 30th 2016 that, according to UN data, the Taliban took more territory in Afghanistan in 2016 than at any time during the so-called War on Terror, making Paula’s work more relevant than ever. While the country has taken steps towards hope – opening elections to women, better infrastructure, education for young girls – Paula alludes that all is in vain without security.

“Go online and take five minutes to look at how much money was spent building roads there, and then ask me what roads I can travel on. This is today’s Afghanistan. You can’t drive down to Kandahar today from Kabul but they spent tens of millions of dollars building this road back in 2005 [during the elections]. At that time, we were able to drive down to Kandahar. It was a new road and a really big deal for us. Because the road used to be horrible, but you could drive it. Then this new road was created, well guess what, then it becomes a Taliban toll road. That’s it! That’s your new road. The Taliban are probably watching like, ‘Oh great, build us more roads and we’ll just take them over and have brand new roads to use to transport our weapons.’ It’s just a game. It’s an unfortunate game because the security is getting worse and worse.”

Various publications and agencies assert different guidelines on when and where they will allow their journalists to venture. Still, even if marked safe, security concerns in war-torn Afghanistan are unavoidable. “Security played into it all the time, every day. Every day. Even in the Hazara area which is safer, I would be warned if I went back to see another widow ‘people are watching you’ and they’d always warn me don’t come back too many times. Because there’s this belief that the Taliban are camouflaged and if someone makes a phone call to someone else you could be targeted.”

IMAGE: © Paula Bronstein / Getty Images IN CONTEXT: © Pedro Ugarte / Getty Images
Please use the above slider to view Paula Bronstein’s positioning when photographing an Afghan policeman. The policeman is threatening Paula Bronstein and Kevin Frayer with his weapon, preventing them from approaching the site of a bank where gunmen attacked on August 19, 2009.

In her book, Paula chooses to move away from showing the sheer brutality of war, preferring to expose the more nuanced daily life of Afghans. The book, as illustrated in a foreword written by The New York Times staff reporter Kim Barker and in an introduction written by The Sunday Times foreign affairs correspondent Christina Lamb OBE, exists to give a voice to the silenced women of Afghanistan: the 2.5 million widows, the victims of domestic abuse, the outcasted women who feel so hopeless that they turn to self-immolation.

Paula and I inevitably discuss women’s rights by the time we begin to discuss her book, but I still have to ask: why women? Her answer is so matter of fact I wonder whether it was ever a choice at all.

“It developed because I’m a female photojournalist and I was working in a country where there are lots of problems and disparity between how women are treated,” Paula says point blank. “It’s a man’s world; it’s their domain. You even see it, how it starts out with the kids. How a boy of 12 behaves in middle school and high school. These boys think they own the world. They think they can do whatever they want. Unless the teacher says absolutely not and they get slapped for it. But then in their homes, women are not treated fairly. Maybe in the capital city you can say it’s a bit different as there is a lot more modern families and beliefs but there’s too many villages that are way too far away from anything and behind those walls is the abuse that happens to women: honour killing, extreme poverty and lack of education.”

Intimate access

The question ringing in the ears of every person who has picked up the book is: how does a photojournalist gain access to such personal moments?

“I was the only female news staffer [for the Getty Images newswire], so in terms of Afghanistan coverage, I was the only female who would be doing these kinds of stories, getting intimate access with a female signature and a different angle to it. Because when you work in a country like Afghanistan it makes a real difference if you’re on self-immolation, childbirth or something really sensitive. You really need to be a female approaching a female because it’s a trust issue.”

“Paula is a remarkable photographer - small, feisty, funny - whose pictures seem to get right inside the lives of those she photographs. Her book on Afghanistan, a land we both love, shows the beauty beyond the violence and the hope and resilience of people keeping their families going while living through decades of war who are mostly women. The old man beaming in front of TV mountain and the girls in the school with no walls sum up the place for me much more than the usual bearded men with guns.”
Christina Lamb OBE, Foreign Affairs Correspondent at The Sunday Times

Kabul, Afghanistan. November 22, 2006. Girls raise their hands during an English class at Bibi Mahroo High School. The overcrowded school is housed in tents supplied by UNICEF.

© Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Kabul, Afghanistan. November 21, 2014. Kabul, Afghanistan. November 21, 2014. Eid Muhammad, 70, overlooking the hills of Kabul. Millions of Afghans, however, live in informal settlements without a formal deed.

© Paula Bronstein for The Wall Street Journal

Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. June 22, 2014. Noor Bibi stays at the bedside of her dying son, Ghulam Hazrat, whom she claims to be six months old. The premature infant weighs 2.3 kg (5 lb.) and is being treated for severe malnutrition at the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Boost Hospital. When the mother could no longer breast-feed, she fed her child cow’s milk, which caused severe diarrhea.

© Paula Bronstein

Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. June 23, 2014. Razima holds her two-year-old son, Malik, while waiting for medical attention at the Boost Hospital emergency room.


© Paula Bronstein

Surobi, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. February 7, 2009. An elderly man holds his granddaughter in their tent at a refugee camp after they were forced to flee their village, which US and NATO forces had bombed because, they claimed, it was a Taliban hideout.

© Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Another sensitive but palpable consideration for photojournalists is the thin line between right and wrong in terms of ‘compensation’ to subjects. “There’s always a lengthy Q&A at my book launch and someone was just like ‘How did you deal with Afghans who are needy? Don’t you just give money when they ask you for money?’ and I said, ‘No I can’t do that’. If you’re photographing heroin addicts and they ask you for money for cigarettes, guess what: they’re not buying cigarettes. So you’re responsible. If I’m photographing a widowed mother of five who is extremely poor and I’m going to visit that family, I’m not going to go empty handed because that’s not the Afghan culture. So how do you gain access? You gain access by coming to that really poor family with rice, beans, cooking oil, something they can use. But I did that because I understood the Afghan culture: the hand is out. The hand is out because for so many years they were taken care of by NGOs. Now those budgets are cut and they’re not getting that kind of aid they were getting previously in the height of the war and people are suffering because of this. They’ve [NGO’s] all cut back. The poor are still poor, or even more so, because unemployment has gone up.”

Gaining access played a major role in Paula’s work precisely because she portrays an intimate, untold story within Afghanistan of how people live in the backdrop of war. Perhaps ‘expensive’ isn’t a word that the public would associate with working in a war zone but Paula explains that high costs always called for establishing a clear direction from the outset. As such, Paula continuously proposed daily life stories such as drug addiction, elections, even sports to the Getty Images newswire before landing in Afghanistan.

“I think it’s because I’ve always been a self-starter that it’s easy for me to say: here is the story. At that time, the trip to Afghanistan was very expensive so you had to have a plan. In the early days, we were keeping translators and drivers on retainer, trying to have regular guides that we worked with. But conflict zones end up being very expensive to work in. So if you’re working for a newswire, you’ve got to know what’s the plan this time. It has to be approved and supervised; you don’t just jump in.”

A ray of hope

Paula’s coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan continues. She has even photographed Afghan refugees arriving in Lesbos, Greece; disheartened to see the fatal conditions the refugees endure. “They capsized right in front of me, the boat just flipped. But 40 percent of these people were Afghans so they were landing and I was talking to them and trying to comfort them. Just the fact that I knew where they were from and could speak some Dari with them was very interesting for me. Because they were really treated as second-class refugees.”

So where is the hope? Hope in a conflict zone can even be found in a symbol as trivial as a child flying a kite. “The last photo in my book is a boy flying a kite, because it is really meaningful... Can you imagine kids not being able to fly kites? And not be able to listen to music?” As for Paula, her wish for the country she cares so deeply for is simple to state and ostensibly impossible to achieve: “Peace. You can’t create more hope without peace. It’s the biggest number one.”

“Peace. You can’t create more hope without peace. It’s the biggest number one.”
Paula Bronstein
© Paula Bronstein / Getty Images