A war has not been fought on U.S. soil in over one hundred years, but thousands of miles away soldiers and civilians die and suffer in the longest enduring conflict in national history.
Robert Nickelsberg, who spoke at Vassar on Tuesday Feb. 4 in Taylor Hall, is a photojournalist whose assignment it is to document these conflicts.
“[Nations and their politics and boundaries] are changed very often through conflict,” said Nickelsburg during his presentation. “I want to document these conflicts and how they are begun and resolved. I want to see what drives a man to hold a gun and to use it.”
Nickelsburg discussed his new book “Afghanistan: A Distant War,” published last fall. He has been a contracted photographer for TIME magazine for nearly 30 years. For much of that time, he was based out of New Delhi, India, where he covered many of the conflicts that erupted throughout the Middle East. He has photographed wars in, among many other nations, Iraq, India and Afghanistan.
His book is the product of the several years he spent in Afghanistan and Iraq documenting the American invasions of these countries in the early 2000s. The book contains many images he captured while in the Middle East along with captions telling the story behind the pictures.
At the talk, Nickelsburg presented a slideshow of some the most striking images from the book. “Civilians bear the brunt of any long-term conflict. And we have very little evidence of their struggles,” he remarked while displaying an image of an infant who died of pneumonia in a refugee camp because his family could not find shelter and medical aid.
His work documents the violence, racism and outright terrorism that has plagued the region for decades. He has been on the front lines reporting on the religious and political revolutions of the 1990s, particularly the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, as well as the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
He told a story of how, during the troubled weeks directly following the attacks on 9/11, he and a handful of other journalists were asked directly by members of the Taliban to come to one of their cities and document the effects of NATO bombings on the city and its inhabitants.
While in the city, not only were he and his fellow journalists surrounded by armed guards, but they were followed by even more armed Taliban on the rooftops. The Taliban feared what would happen to the journalists if the local people were let near them. He showed a photo of the surrounding mob, whose faces displayed emotions ranging from fear and discomfort, to blatant anger towards the Americans who they considered responsible for the attacks on their homes and lives.
As Professor of English Amitava Kumar said at the beginning of the talk, “These photographs can bring the immediacy of these distant and unfamiliar conflicts close to us.”
Nickelsberg shared what led towards photojournalism and to rely on pictures rather than words to tell the stories he comes upon. “I’m not a writer,” he said. “Sure, I can express myself through words. But I can capture emotions and images through pictures that enhance and go beyond the words.”
His family traveled frequently when he was young, allowing him to grow proficient at documenting the sights he saw with his camera: “It was a good record of where I’ve been,” he said.
Stories told to him by older members of his family about their friends and his relatives who fought in the two World Wars and other conflicts were what he claims first got him interested in conflicts. He was heavily influenced by the documentarians of the 1930s and ’40s, and the work of wartime photographers during World War II and the Vietnam conflict.
After several decades spent working in the Middle East, Nickelsburg has gained invaluable experience and it has changed the way he considers his relationship to the space. “I’m an informed visitor,” he said, emphasizing that he has become extremely familiar with the region and how conflicts unfold within it—knowledge that he gained through many long and dangerous hours on he front lines.
One of the most crucial elements to his survival and success as a journalist was the importance of a good driver who would not abandon and leave him stranded when events turned dangerous.
He also remarked, “If I have one regret it’s not learning the languages of the areas in which I have worked.” By learning the local languages, he would free himself to understand the people he meets without the hassle of a translator, who are very hard to find.
He continued explaining the necessity of a translator. He said, “A good translator is a very special person. They know how to convey the nuances of one language into the other. And that is extremely hard to be taught how to do.”
Nickelsberg is returning to Afghanistan within the year, where he will present a copy of his book to a local girls’ school.
Back home, he hopes that American readers of his book will return their attention to Afghanistan and the war. According to the UN, the conflict claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Afghani civilians in the last year alone.
He concluded, “If there’s one thing I hope the reader will take away from the book, it’s that America should remain engaged in Afghanistan.”