Photographer Profile - Paula Bronstein: "The world would rather forget Afghanistan"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday July 19, 2016

The roads in Afghanistan have changed during the years photojournalist Paula Bronstein  has been working there. In a way, those changes tell the story of America’s longest war.

“Roads I could drive down in 2005 aren’t safe now,” she says. “I’m talking about major roads, like the one from Kandahar to Kabul. Those were dirt roads way back when, and the US came in and spent tens of millions of dollars on them, and all that money goes nowhere. Security is bad there now.”

In April, Bronstein was in Kabul, working on a story for the Wall Street Journal about war wounded Afghans, and the roads were an issue.

“We were going to go up to Kunduz to do a story about the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital there, but the Journal reporter I was working with was, like, ‘No, we’re not going to go by road,’ and I absolutely agreed. If the United Nations could have flown us up there, we would have done that. But that’s the state of affairs there now.”

Bronstein first went to Afghanistan in December of 2001, when the US launched a war to drive the Taliban from power following the 9/11 attacks in New York. While most journalists entered the country with military in the north, a smaller number, including Bronstein, came in from Pakistan in the south, where the landscape of conflict was shaped by American shock-and-awe bombing.

“Going into the south was like going into a complete wasteland,” she says. “They gave the appearance that the Taliban was destroyed, which was far from true. That was the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, which as it turned out didn’t provide much enduring freedom.”

Bronstein covered the war for six months on that first trip. At the time, she was a Getty Images staff photographer, following the news. “When you’re working for a wire service you’re feeding the machine,” she says. As the years stretched on and casualties and costs mounted, she kept returning to Afghanistan, both as a Getty staffer and, since 2013, as a freelancer, to work on stories that examined the war’s effects on the people of the country.

                         ©Paula Bronstein/Getty Image

Now, 15 years after the war began, she has collected her work in a book from the University of Texas Press called Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear. As the title suggests, her visual history veers between tranquil moments of everyday life and shocking views of the dead and injured, the stricken and the desperate.

The book comes as America continues its withdrawal of troops from the country, though the Afghan government has had difficulty maintaining security. Last year, noted Time  recently, more than 11,000 Afghan civilians were killed and wounded, the deadliest on record for civilians in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion. So far, more than 3,400 soldiers from coalition nations have been killed in the conflict, most of them American.The United States has spent nearly $800 billion fighting a war that for many has come to seem a difficult memory.

“The world would rather forget Afghanistan,” says Bronstein. Her pictures don’t allow that. The freedom promised by Operation Enduring Freedom might not have been enduring, but her work will be.

Lasting Impact

“It’s a good time for the book to come out,” Bronstein says. “It could have come out a couple of years ago. That actually might have been a better time. But I don’t think there’s bad time for it, because this is a subject that will be constantly revisited.”

In the book’s introduction, journalist Kim Barker makes much the same point. Barker, author of The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the book that inspired the Tina Fey film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, writes that making sense of the war in Afghanistan will take “a generation or two.”

Photographs will be an important part of the process. Barker, who spent five years covering the war for the Chicago Tribune, got to know Bronstein there — they worked together on a story about Afghans who had become addicted to the country’s heroin — and she saw firsthand how the photographer’s images uniquely captured the place.

                         ©Paula Bronstein/Getty Image

                         ©Paula Bronstein/Getty Image

                         ©Paula Bronstein/Getty Image

“Afghanistan worked its magic on her, just as it does on many journalists,” Barker writes. “The country got under her skin. Harsh mountains, a wide sky, craggy faces, turbans and burqas — the country is so different from what we know, so foreign, that words can do it little justice. Photographs are almost the only way to prove the reality of life there.”

Bronstein found that reality not at the front lines of the war, but by looking elsewhere — focusing on those killed and maimed in the fighting and the unseen casualties as well, the children and widows left in poverty. There are some 50,000 to 70,000 war widows in Kabul alone, she noted last December in National Geographic, many struggling on small government stipends.

“I’ve done lot of coverage of women there, which you would expect because it’s coming from me — as a female photojournalist, I can get access to stories that men can't do,” she says. Some of her most powerful images feature Afghan women who have mutilated and killed themselves through self-immolation. One of her pictures from that series is on the cover of her new book.

Focusing On the Powerless

“She was just standing outside the burn unit at the Herat hospital,” Bronstein says. “There were so many self-immolation victims in that part of the country, near the Iran border, that’s where the story needed to be photographed.” The acts of self-destruction, she says, reflect the powerless of women in the country.

“The cycle of poverty, child marriage, the physical and mental abuse that happens inside these homes behind the tall walls that no one ever sees, it’s about all that,” she says. “In many of these cases, the women reach a limit.”

For the woman on the book cover, self-immolation was a form of self-defense. “For her, burning herself meant that no other men would ever be touching her again, and that was her decision,” Bronstein says.

                &n bsp;                      ©Paula Bronstein

Now based in Bangkok, Thailand, Bronstein is in some respects the quintessential international news correspondent. She studied photojournalism at the Rochester Institute of Technology and started her career working at newspapers — the Providence Bulletin in Rhode Island and later the Chicago Tribune and the Register-Guard in Oregon. Then she moved overseas. “I felt that I had reached a plateau in newspapers, and I could also see the writing on the wall about the future of the newspaper business,” she says.

In other respects, notes Kim Barker, Bronstein is different from many others in her profession. The heroin story they worked on together featured a mother and her two children who were addicted to the drug. Bronstein found the family and she photographed them smoking the heroin, but she took the story further, and more personally.

“Showing how heroin was infecting the country was not easy, but it was important,” Barker writes. “Yet Bronstein is not some impassive journalist — after finding the family, she helped get them into rehab. Bronstein was continually adopting Afghans she met while on the job, always trying to help in some small way.”
At top: ©Paula Bronstein/Getty Image