Photographer Profile - Erin Trieb: "I wanted people to experience what I had seen"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday December 20, 2016

The young Afghan man in the video calmly explains why he wants to come to the United States. His name is Wahdat, and he is a former interpreter for the United States military.

“Terrorists in Afghanistan have a strong belief that interpreters were the eyes and ears for the US military,” he says, adding that the first person a Taliban fighter wanted to kill in an ambush on US soldiers was their interpreter. “I would always have nightmares of ambush,” he says, “and I would always cry, when in my sleep.” 

The video is part of a remarkable photo story published online and in the November issue of Smithsonian  magazine that examines the predicament of former Afghan interpreters like Wahdat. Writer T.A. Frail points out that a Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqi interpreters, closed to applicants since 2014, has delivered about 17,300 visas. But, he notes, Congress has been unwilling this year to renew or expand the Afghan program.

The pictures for the article and the video of Wahdat were shot by freelance photojournalist Erin Trieb, who has been traveling to Afghanistan since 2009. It was Trieb who brought the story of the interpreters to the magazine.

“Because I’d embedded with the US military so many times, I’d known several interpreters, but it was only last year that I became aware of this issue — that there are not only interpreters that hadn’t been able to immigrate yet, but also that Congress was planning to end the visa program for them,” she says.

With the withdrawal of American troops from the country, the interpreters face the constant threat of retaliation from their own countrymen. “They’re stuck,” Trieb says, “and their families’ lives are in danger.”

Trieb, who is based in Istanbul, wanted to tell their story and began looking for a publication that might be interested. “I didn’t want it to be a one-page piece or a short newspaper article,” she says. Smithsonian photo editor Jeff Campagna liked the idea of creating an extended picture essay, and the magazine sent Trieb to Afghanistan to work on the piece late in May. She spent a month locating and photographing 10 interpreters and their families.

“Afghanistan is a country where connections are easy to make,” she says. “Every Afghan has someone to connect you with. It wasn’t hard meeting the interpreters.”

A bigger hurdle was the interpreters’ reluctance about being photographed. “They were afraid of being identified, so I had to figure out a way to photograph them in which they couldn’t be,” Trieb says.

Stories with Twists and Turns

She ended up shooting their portraits in a dark room of a guest house in Kabul that she turned in to a mini-studio. “I used a Canon 5D Mark II and a strobe using diffusion and modifiers,” she says. “I couldn’t have too much light in the photos, so I was continuously finding ways to dim the light without compromising my aperture.  It was a bit of trial and error. Also, I needed to use the same lights to shoot video, so my lighting kit had to be malleable. I brought a lot of equipment with me but I ended up using some cheap strobes that I bought from a camera store in Kabul.”

Protecting the identity of the interpreters also meant that Trieb had to disguise herself when she went to their homes to photograph their families (below).

“Afghanistan is a place where everyone knows each other’s business — it’s a tribal culture — and there was a fear that if I walked into someone’s house and the neighbors or nearby relatives saw me, they would know that the family was hosting or collaborating with a foreigner,” she says. 

“When I visited the first two families I shot, I wasn’t wearing traditional Afghan clothing," Trieb says. "I had a shawl covering my head, which is something you do there as a women, but I didn’t wear the niqab, which covers you from head to toe. Those early families were very on edge, but as soon as I started wearing the niqab, people were much more comfortable.”

As it turned out, taking pictures was just the beginning of a long process in which Trieb and the magazine’s editors found themselves sifting through stacks of US State Department paperwork to verify the stories told by the interpreters. The work is an example of how the job of the photojournalist has evolved.

“Every interpreter’s story was so complicated — some began working for the military 10 years ago, so we’re talking about a decade of attempts to immigrate and pages and pages of forms that they had to submit to the US embassy in Afghanistan,” Trieb says. “What I thought was going to be a straightforward photo essay became a complicated, layered story, and while that meant more work for me and the writer of the piece, I think it also created a more interesting story with twists and turns and character development. It was the part of the work that I didn’t expect to enjoy, but I did.”

Like a Reporter in the Field

Working so closely with editors on research was a new experience, says Trieb.

“Today with all the editorial budget cuts and limited space available in publications, every story seems to get cut short, and this was the opposite of that,” she says.

“Erin was well versed in the area and the subject, and once she got going on it she wouldn’t give up. She was like a reporter in the field,” says Smithsonian magazine’s Jeff Campagna.

What led her to the field, she says, was curiosity.

Trieb, who grew up in Texas and started her photo career in 2005 as a stringer for the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle, shot her first story in Iraq in 2009. “I started thinking about a US-led war, about my country occupying another country, and I just wanted to see it,” she says.

Since then she’s worked on a number of projects in Iraq and Afghanistan for Rolling Stone, Time, Stern and other magazines. One focused on the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces; another on a US Army trauma center in Afghanistan. She embedded with the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division in eastern Afghanistan and traveled with the female Kurdish fighters of the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Unit, which formed in 2012 to battle the troops of Syrian President Bashar el-Assad as well as ISIS fighters.

Her curiosity has pushed her in a particular direction: Many of the stories Trieb has worked on, including her feature on Afghan interpreters, look at the aftermath of conflict. “I’ve always felt as a photographer that if 50 photographers are running in one direction to shoot some story, I should go in the opposite direction,” she says.

One of her series, called “The War at Home,” looks at US military veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after their deployments ended. That work also led Trieb to start the Homecoming Project, which featured her own photographs along with an outreach campaign to inform people about the problems veterans face after war.

“I wanted people to experience what I had seen,” she says. “The fact that 22 US veterans die every day due to suicide is unbelievable.”

At one time, Trieb says, she imagined that she would be an editorial photographer shooting well-lit portraits of famous people for magazines. It wasn’t for her. “I’ve always thought in terms of stories that have importance to me,” she says. “When I was a kid the first school report I ever did was about the holocaust. Everyone else chose topics like why recess should be longer.”


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