The Week That Changed Everything I Thought I Knew About Afghanistan


Photo: G. Ingersoll

People told me I was crazy for doing it.I hadn’t even opened the package containing my shiny new NYU Master’s in Journalism and I was already heading to Afghanistan. It had been a couple of years since I ended my service as a U.S. Marines combat correspondent, and I wanted to get back to the war.

travelling as a civilian, I paid my own way and had hardly any support, but I also had more freedom to travel than when I was in uniform.

Skip to the photos >

I took the following photos during the time between my arrival in Kabul and my official embed date (until which, no military unit will give you refuge, regardless of your citizenship). For these few days I played tourist; found a nice little guest house, contracted a driver and an interpreter, and headed on daily road trips around the area.

What I saw was a country hardened by decades of war and poverty — but also filled with sympathetic people whom you’ll rarely see in Western media. People who, in the midst of chaotic street life, insisted I take my shoes off and get comfortable, drink tea and eat candy prior to doing business. Kids living in squalor who still dreamed of becoming doctors and engineers — and were thrilled to pose for pictures and beat me in impromptu soccer matches.

I’ve already published an essay and put up photo spreads of the trip, but I saved these shots of Afghan life for last. Away from the war is where things get complicated. There is no moral and no ending, happy or otherwise. There are a lot of problems, and they’re only getting worse.

I arrived at the airport and right as bewilderment and confusion peaked, I found my interpreter and driver.

With few traffic cops in Kabul, the right of way goes to who's the most aggressive.

First we go to a mountain top overlooking Kabul, where kids fly kites and older folks gather to relax.

A few older gentlemen allow me to photograph them as they peel oranges and talk politics.

All around Afghanistan are signs of war, like the concertina wire wrapped around this fence.

At the top of the hill is an old, empty bombed out Russian Olympic pool, one that Afghans converted into an outpost.

It was getting dark, and it was my first day, so I figured it'd be good to head back, find out where I'm sleeping.

Rainy season in Afghanistan is a prelude to fighting season, I arrived in the middle of the transition.

One turn down an alleyway and somewhere inside me I hear a voice saying, 'yeah, you can trust these guys, don't worry.'

The guest house had a few security guards with AK-47s. They reminded me of a leaner, more well equipped version of mall cops in Jersey.

The garages were lined with cars of varying security. Being self funded, I opted for the least armoured vehicle — plus, the Taliban wasn't looking to bomb journalists.

Out at the Bazaar one can really get a good feel for the bustling, old school nature of Afghan consumerism.

I had to be careful about taking pictures of women, and was continually harassed by the local police force (which, consequently, didn't mind accepting bribes).

This group of businessmen sipping tea saw me with my camera and asked for a picture.

Just like NYC: 'Street-meat' vendors cook hard during mealtime hours and enthusiastically shout out to customers in the street below.

I made it a point to talk to as many kids as possible — this clever little guy described to me the political implications of a U.S. withdrawal (in short, 'not good').

I asked this next fellow, no more than eight years old, if he knew what a 'terrorist' was; his best guess: 'A type of American car?'

smouldering hot coals mark the end of a baker's busy hours.

Here he is counting sacks of money, in all Afghan bills, called Afghanis.

Because inflation is so bad here, about $200 equates to 7,000 Afghanis.

A fabric salesman tells me that Americans are good for weddings, his main business. 'If you leave, what will I do, there will be no more security, and no more weddings.'

Refrigeration is not widely available in bulk sizes out here, so businesses use cellars, dug deep into the ground, to preserve their perishables.

On the ground at times the foot traffic can become almost stifling ... especially if you're not Afghan.

Each day many businessmen find a good spot, drop a blanket filled with wares, and hope for the best.

Open-air meat markets sport giant sides of beef. Upon closer inspection I begin to understand why the U.S. has an FDA.

War aside, most kids here spend a few hours a day in school. This row of backpacks sports images of American cartoons that stopped being popular in the 80s.

Some things are pretty universal, regardless of culture. Women's bags and purses are big business here in the bazaar.

Also several kinds of knock-off American basketball shoes.

Most shop owners use beat up old calculators to keep track of sales. Computerized cash registers are not just expensive, they're impractical.

The bazaar is noisy, especially with so many shop owners shouting out their wares — and others, like this guy literally rapping on a tambourine.

This young lad stops so I can photograph him — he seems like he could break into a sprint without dropping the bread.

Sweets are big business here and across the Middle East.

One old man in the middle of the street makes a killing with just an old school hot water heater.

He's one of several in a row, meeting the demand of anyone who wants tea but lacks a water heater.

Looking down the street, one can see the tell-tale steam of hot water heaters feeding the Afghan thirst for tea.

Kabul seems infinitely curious about 'energy drinks,' of which several different kinds can be found.

On one of the bazaar's countless, winding side roads, you can see the sewage system is just a shallow trench.

I'm quickly surrounded by throngs of eager and curious street kids, who photo bomb the frame.

'Wheelbarrow men' line up looking for work — whether it's a woman with too many groceries, or a shopkeep who needs to ship something locally.

A couple Afghans secure a load to a larger wheelbarrow — someone's got his work cut out for him here.

Lack of proper sanitation is one of the most noticeable characteristics of Afghanistan.

Women shop for cloth, among other things, for ceremonial purposes.

I've been in the bazaar now for a few hours, and am starting to get some attention.

In an attempt to get a shot of the weird 'jumbo-tron' in the centre square of the bazaar, it occurs to me that this 'attention' might not be the best kind.

We get something to eat and head out for a night shoot.

Darkness is when the signature coloured globes begin to shine — a habit of Afghan businesses in night-time hours.

Fires burn, either for warmth or to cook food. I know it's risky to be out right now, but I want to get the right shots.

Then I see this nice place on the side of the road, so we pull over.

The man at the shop instantly pushes me to buy one of his fried pastries.

I'm a little iffy about eating anything fried. God knows where the oil came from.

Lighting his whole operation is this single, super bright light bulb.

He seems to be a popular guy — during our short stay, several Afghans call him by name and stop by to shoot the breeze.

So far, my fixer has been great at predicting threats, but right now he's encouraging me to shoot as much as possible.

THUMP! Heavy as hell, a piece of crushed up concrete nails me in the back as I set up this shot. An unseen assailant is throwing things. I get the heck out of the there.

Back in the car: I'm significantly larger (and more well trained) than the average Afghan, but I'm also quite outnumbered. I take the hint.

The next day we drive for about two hours out to a local fishing village. I don't see a single coalition patrol on the way.

The village is like nothing I've ever seen: the fishermen live mostly in these huts by the river during the warmer months.

This little guy takes time out of his busy day to 'mean mug' the American photographer.

Several young boys find their work after school hours with the fishermen.

The boys scoop fish directly out of the water with their bare hands.

Eventually other local boys join in — hoping at the very least to get a free meal.

Practiced hands open up the fish and pull out the inedible parts.

Eventually when the pile is high enough, they'll carry a basket over to the cook.

The cook will further clean and prepare the fish.

Then into the oil they go, fried for hungry customers.

He was a nice guy, sure, but if I had to give some advice, it would be to not eat the fish.

No telling where the oil came from, possibly a motor bike, and once finished, these gents will simply dump it over the side of their huts, straight into the river.

Car washing businesses line the river as well, hoping to catch a few customers once they've finished lunch.

After a few hours, yet again, I've gathered a small gaggle of children who misbehave and show off for the camera.

Horsemen are common in Afghanistan. They offer rides and pictures to tourists for a fee.

On the way back it's hard not to notice an abundance of unfinished buildings, pock-marked with signs of war.

My fixer, 'Mubine,' an enthusiastic young Muslim man who good-naturedly encouraged me to take a gander at the Koran, insisted we stop at this graveyard, where I found kids playing among the stones.

The different billboards and advertisements in Afghanistan would certainly grab anyone's attention. Mubine tells me the obvious; that this poster advertises the benefits of enlisting in the police.

We head up into the mountain slums, the poorest areas of Kabul.

I understand 'slum' is a derogatory term, but there is no other way to describe these areas. Taking the edge off the word won't take the edge off the reality.

A couple of bricklayers work diligently on someone's new home. Undoubtedly these gentlemen are only visiting for work.

Here comes the gaggle of children. As usual, I ask them questions, feed them what little bubble gum I have. They tell me their hero is 'John Cena,' the American wrestler.

The shuttered and unused ice cream shack seems from a forgotten time, possibly when things were a little better for Kabul.

It's in the afternoon by this point, and most children only go to school in the morning.

This little guy is curious, but not nearly as forward as his older compadres (one of whom literally plucked a few hundred Afghanis right out of my pocket).

Motorcycles are the preferred means of travel on narrow roads through the mountain slums. In a car, one false move can send one tumbling to certain death.

Sewers here are open, and I notice adults pissing and throwing indiscriminate refuse in these trenches. Then, the poorer among them, kids mostly, surf through the trash looking for anything edible.

I'd had enough. So we headed back down into the heart of Kabul.

I notice several, what seem to be out of place, advertisements on billboards around the city.

It's just seems strange to me to advertise Pepsi in a huge billboard above an open-air market.

Don't forget to drink coke.

Right in a city square, in the shadow of a sign screaming the advantages of prepaid cell phones, a group of kids play cricket.

They're also in the shadow of a low-on-business construction company.

It seems like all of Afghanistan is still in the shadow of the housing crisis. Unfinished buildings dot the landscape.

This sign about cable smiles down on a group of kids playing soccer.

Inside what should have been the basement for a gigantic residential building.

I set the camera down, try not to be too troubled, and throw down a short game with the kids. They go crazy, and all the adults watching laugh as the kids run circles around me.

It will be a lasting memory. And it wasn't until the end that I felt thankful the military wouldn't take me early.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.