Magnum photographer Larry Towell planned to embed with the Taliban in 2011 when the Afghan contact he was using was forced to flee the country. The contact left the name of someone who led Towell to a local journalist willing to go in for him. (Towell did not release the journalist’s name to protect his identity.)
While Towell still wanted to embed, it was too dangerous for several reasons. First, Western journalists are often seen as propagandists for the U.S. military. Also, the Taliban self-funds their war, and kidnapping for ransom has become more common, he said.
Many of Towell’s friends and colleagues, along with local journalists, encouraged him to find a well-tied local to take his place. The journalist he used “talks to both sides,” providing rapport with the insurgents.
Towell, a self-described humanist photographer, documented Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011. His work will be published by Aperture in 2013. The addition of the Taliban rounded out his coverage, he said.
The images are “just portraits of insurgents, just to give a glimpse of the other side,” he said. “We aren’t covering that side at all, and these added a level to the book.” The images give the rebels a “voice and a place.”
Taliban members usually have covered faces. This set of photos is unique because of the confidence shown by these men, Towell said.
“They’re not ominous; they’re not all wrapped up looking sinister,” he said. “(Some) just look like kids.” This glimpse into their camp humanizes the insurgents when the “media dehumanizes (the) enemy during war.”
As Towell spent time “driving through history” on his visits to Afghanistan, he wished for a glimpse into the past when locals might easily welcome him into their homes.
“I wish I knew Afghanistan before the wars,” he said, “when you could go anywhere. … There was a time. I wish I was there.”
- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN