Photojournalist Guy Smallman spoke to Concrete in order to provide us with an interesting and horrifying insight into just what it is like working for the media in a country of conflict, constantly under threat from your surroundings.
Photo: Guy Smallman
The experienced photographer has visited Afghanistan a total of 15 times now, as well as covering the 2006 Lebanon civil war and briefly working in Iraq in 2003. “My first job I did in Afghanistan, I wanted to investigate claims that a derelict building was being used by heroine addicts”, the photographer explained, talking about one of the scariest moments in his career. “I wandered into a room, slightly unprepared, and I think there were about 600 people in there all smoking. It was quite possibly the world’s biggest shooter gallery. I got spotted by some of the people who were on look out and they surrounded me. I thought I was going to get robbed, beaten up, abused or worse.” Luckily for Smallman, he was able to escape the terrifying situation unharmed thanks to a local who had seen him enter the building and came to his rescue; however, he hinted that danger in his line of work is fairly common.
Drawing upon his experiences as a photographer in Lebanon during the war in 2006, Smallman recounted another terrifying incident: “I nearly trod on an unexploded cluster bomb which would have blown my foot off. I was lucky not to have done so. It was literally a couple of inches away from my foot when I spotted it”. He further claimed these were not one-off incidents: “You can have frightening and scary experiences when you do my kind of job.”
Smallman was also eager to talk about the “issues that really affect the Afghan people” highlighting that he believes that “in the media on the whole there are only three stories reported: the fighting between the Taliban and NATO, the issue of womens’ rights and the drug show” and the important issues such as lack of health care, housing, unemployment and infrastructure were being ignored. “For every child who is killed as a result of the fighting [in Afghanistan], 50 to 60 die needlessly of easily treatable diseases or malnourishment” – the journalist’s 2010 documentary, ‘15 million Afghans’, recently shown at UEA, emphasised this point and gave substance to the statistics, indicating just how poor the conditions in Afghanistan truly are.
Razz Mohammed, an Afghan citizen who acts as a spokesperson for his local community, spoke about their living conditions in the refugee camp in which he lives: “People’s lives here are worse than animals… the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer… people remain hungry for weeks on end”.
Another Afghan citizen, who lives in Kabul, “a city at economic breaking point”, can be seen in the documentary to live in what can only be compared to that of a 1920s American Hooverville. Hundreds living in tents made from the poorest material, sleeping on rags and sharing the small, claustrophobic living space with at least 6 others. Angry at the conditions which he, his wife and 6 children must live in, Salam spoke out against the poor housing conditions that many civilians are forced to live in. “We ask our government to provide us with proper housing. How much longer will we have to live in these conditions?”
Guy Smallman supported the man’s claim and explained that there are “literally 1 million unemployed” in the country of war. “People are angry,” he said. “People feel like they are being ruled by a corrupt government, sponsored by the west”. The journalist criticised NATO’s support with the current Afghan government to the point that he likened the situation to if “NATO were invading Italy and putting the fucking Mafia in charge”.
When you look at the shocking statistics provided by the United Nations, it becomes clear that the following really are problems for those within Afghanistan: officially, the unemployment rate in Afghanistan lies at 35%. However, this does not take into account the rampant underemployment which, when included, pushes the figure up to nearly 50% unemployed – a figure that continues to rise. Further, 15 million out of Afghanistan’s 25 million-strong population are said to be in poverty with official stats indicating that the average life expectancy of both men and women in Afghanistan is 49 years old, thirty years less than the life expectancy of someone living in the UK. Infant mortality rates are also appalling, with over 1/10 dying at birth and 1/5 dying before the age of 5. These points are exactly what Smallman tried to publicise with his film; ordinary problems of the citizens of Afghanistan are ignored by the mass media because they are “more mundane than the other stories”.
With 2014 due to signal the end of all foreign deployment in the country, next year will be, in Smallman’s opinion, the most interesting year in Afghanistan’s recent history. Without the war on terror, will any of the mainstream Western media continue to report on Afghanistan and pick up on these issues which have barely been touched upon? – or will the country be forgotten about? If so, millions of people will unaware of the much deeper, underlying issues that exist in the country and millions of Afghan citizens continue to suffer in silence while the Western world goes about its daily business.