INTERVIEW: ED GRAZDA
Austin Texas, 1990.
I was a second-year photojournalism student at The University of Texas.
Shopping for books, I found myself not in the textbook section of the store, but instead in the photography book section. All the usual suspects were there. The nature books, the celebrity books, travel books filled with stock, but then suddenly something caught my eye.
Shoving aside the enormous volumes, I found myself holding a book titled “Afghanistan 1980-1990,” by a photographer named Ed Grazda. Softbound, cover font in green, black and white lead photo, with the words “Der Alltag,” across the bottom.
Thumbing through the first few pages my heart began to race and I found my mind thousands of miles away, in the Hindu Kush and alongside the person who made the photos. I was hooked.
Afghanistan had been a subject of my fascination since the Soviet invasion, but I had never really found, or read, or discovered anything that took me to this foreign place. Until I found this book.
I purchased the book, took it to my tiny apartment and spent far too many hours pouring over the images. The book design was simple, black and white images accompanied by English text on one page, and the same text in German on the facing page. The book was exotic. The images, the foreign language, and most importantly, the idea that this man, who I knew by then was American, had gone to Afghanistan and lived amongst the war, the tragedy and the tribes to make these images. The pictures were not of war, which is what had really become associated with Afghanistan, but rather the images were about life. Daily life, tea houses, street scenes, and secret trips into the countryside with the mujahideen. Wide angle to normal lenses, black borders.
In some ways I found the book difficult to look at because for me it was evidence of what was possible, and of what I thought MY path would be. The book was a reminder, a haunting reminder that there were photographers out there doing it, devoting their lives to make pictures that were important to them.
Ed signing books in his New York apartment.
New York City, 2009
I need to find Ed Grazda.
Much time had passed since my days in Austin. I still own Grazda’s first book, and knew now there was a follow up book, “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” which chronicled the following ten-year time frame in the life of Afghanistan. And there was also a book regarding the Masjid in New York. Doing what we do today when we try to find something or someone, I Googled Ed, and low and behold there he was. An email address. I wrote to Ed, he wrote back, and a few short days later I was sitting in his apartment with a tentative list of questions and slightly sweaty hands. Yes, I was nervous, but perhaps not for the reason you think. Earlier in the day I had been on a panel at the Javits Center, in front of a crowd of people, and my heart never went a single beat above resting, but sitting with Ed, looking around his apartment, which was filled with small stories of his life, I came to a realization. Interviewing someone like Ed isn’t easy. It isn’t easy because Ed has done a lot of important work, and no matter how many questions I asked, I was probably only going to scratch the surface.
A rug portrait portraying Ahmad Shah Massoud.
I found myself quietly thinking, “Maybe I’m not really qualified to do this?” but the door was closed. I was inside and there was no turning back. I was able to spend about an hour with Ed, and the result is the following interview. He was also nice enough to allow me to make a few images, which I think help to set the scene.
When I read this interview I realize I have many, many more questions for Ed, and perhaps one day I will get a chance to ask them. Since the interview, I ran into a student of Ed’s who said to me, “Ed just does his thing.” I know what this person was talking about, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for this.
A street camera from Kandahar.
DRM: You’ve done a wide range of work over the years, but considering current events, I’d really like to focus on your work from Afghanistan. I know you have been traveling to Afghanistan for 25 years, but what was it that first prompted you to venture there? And, how difficult was it to even get in the country?
EG: I was travelling in Asia in early 1980. In a guest house in New Delhi I met some travelers who had been in Kabul when the Soviets invaded (this was only a few months after the invasion), also some young Afghan refugees – the first of millions. So I went to Pakistan – Peshawar. One could go up to the Afghan border and go to the tribal areas easily and relativelY safely. A great place to photograph. Still is. Only now you would not survive.
In 1982 I made my first trip with the mujahideen, they would take you across the border, most times in worked, but a few times I was caught.
Taliban at Jadi Maiwand, Kabul, Afghanistan 1997. Ed Grazda
“The Afghans are everywhere in Peshawar…they drive rickshaws, buses and trucks. They open restaurants. They also fight the Russians.” from Afghanistan 1980-1989
DRM: A few weeks ago I saw a quick video in regards to Kabul in the late 1970’s and people were wearing western clothing. It was surprising to see this, and reminded me of just how many transitions this country has been through in recent years. When you first arrived, what was happening in country?
ED: My first trips in the early 1980’s were with the mujahideen, but we were only in the country side and small villages, where life has been pretty much the same for generations.. I didn’t get to Kabul until 1992. In the 1970’s Kabul was the Paris of the East.
Mujahideen at Wageeza, Afghanistan 1983. Ed Grazda
“Almost any Afghan you meet on the street or in the bazaar will offer to take you to their “front” inside Afghanistan if you are a photographer or journalist. Or look like one.” From Afghanistan 1980-1990
DRM: Looking at your work from “Afghanistan 1980-1989” and also your second book “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” it’s clear you are not really focusing on working as a war photographer, but more as a documentary photographer, covering daily life and quiet moments more than front line action. Was this a conscious decision?
EG: yes, I was interested in the culture, landscape etc. not the war per se. I leave war photography to the professionals, with health insurance.
DRM: I’ve never been in a war zone, and when I see imagery from these places I find myself wondering not only about the images, but also about the logistics of how the images were made. What was your mode of operation, both getting in and getting out? How long would you spend in Afghanistan per trip?
EG: in the 1980’s I would go to Peshawar, Pakistan and hook up with a mujahideen group and make arrangement with them to take me into Afghanistan – illegally – sneaking across the border. They would escort me in and out of the country and I would travel with them. A trip was usually 3 weeks to a month.
DRM: The bulk of your Afghan work was done before the days of digital, so what were the logistics of your actual photography? What equipment did you use and how much planning did it require to figure this out?
International press corps at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, early Dec. 2001. Ed Grazda
EG: I always use the same cameras leica M4 & M6, 400ASA film. Travel light, as you had to carry everything your self. If you trusted you gear to a pack animal you might be separated from it for days.
DRM: I can’t imagine being more isolated while working than being in Afghanistan during the war. Your first book also details a few close calls you experienced. Did you ever have illness or injury to deal with and how much a part of daily life was living in fear?
EG: When traveling with the mujahideen you didn’t really have time to worry or be scared, just keeping up with them took all your energy. There were the usual stomach problems and some minor infections, nothing major. I was lucky. If you got appendicitis or were wounded you were in trouble. I was once helped out by Medicines San Frontier people in Afghanistan. Great people.
“Now the problems started. Nobody spoke English. Nobody could read this document that the army sent concerning my case. And nobody wanted to go to the man in charge. Things only got worse. I was sick, my air ticket home was a few days from expiring, my exposed film from the trip was somewhere in Peshawar with some Afghans. My visa was about to expire. That night I slept in the barracks. The next morning I was still covered with huge bites and blisters. Still no one who spoke English: this was hell. The outhouse was two bricks-no hole. In the afternoon I started to yell and demanded to call the American consulate. They brought out the shackles and chains. I challenged them to put them on me. They did.” from Afghanistan 1980-1990
DRM: What was your goal with these images and did this goal change the more time you spent in Afghanistan?
EG: Basically to document the place during those unstable times. In the early 1980′s I really did not have a goal for the pictures. for me it was an interesting place to be and photograph.
I made some good friends who let me into their world and I got some good pictures. Peshawar was a very interesting place then, and safe and cheap. After a few trips my aim was to do a book.
DRM: When you put your first group of images together from Afghanistan what was the reaction to the work, and did the reaction and demand change the longer the war went on?
EG: The only time there was a “demand” (slight) was right after 9/11. Financially it was always a loss, but it was just something I wanted to do. if there had been”interest” from the general
public, perhaps america would not be in the place we are in now in Afghanistan.
DRM: How much of this work ended up in the editorial world? What other outlets did you find for these images?
EG: Many of my photos from the 1980’s were published in The Christian Science Monitor. A few in Time, Newsweek, Soldier of Fortune.etc. But no major assignments.
Jalaladinne Haqanni (white turban) heads to a bank in Peshawar with suitcase. 1986. Ed Grazda
DRM: When was the last time you were in Afghanistan and what impression where you left with as you departed?
EG: I was last there in 2004 for the first presidential election. At the time I thought things might work out. The country was relatively peaceful and safe. Most afghans were very pro American and the election process had seemed
DRM: Another photographer told me you have one of the few images ever made of Mullah Omar. True? And if so, what is the back story on how that image was made?
EG: I wrote a story for Vanity Fair about the Mullah Omar photo (Feb 2004.) it is on line at VF.com. (Here is the link: Vanity Fair)
DRM: Your second book, “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000” covers a time frame when the Taliban were first coming to power. We all know the Taliban views on photography, so how were you able to work?
EG: I went to Kabul in 1997, under Taliban rule, at the time photography was frowned upon, but not yet banned. One could work, but not easily. When I went back in 2000 it was almost impossible to photograph anything.
DRM: Looking at your books it is clear to me you developed a genuine friendship with the people you photographed. Have you been able to keep in touch with any of these people, and were they ever able to see the books?
EG: I always sent photos back to people I knew and later the books. I am still in touch with some of the people from the 1980’s. Afghanistan Diary was for sale in Kabul – and may still be. Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000 was for sale from about 2002 at the book shop in the Kabul Intercon hotel by the man who was written about in the dreadful “Bookseller of Kabul” Also, many friends from the 1980’s kept photo albums that still have my photos in them.
DRM: What is your feeling about what is happening in Afghanistan now? Do you see any hope?
EG: Basically the US government has done nothing to help the Afghan people, everything the Bush
goons did was wrong and self serving. They should be handed over to the Afghan people to be tried as war criminals. I have little hope for a good outcome.
DRM: It seems impossible to do your style of imagery in modern Afghanistan, just due to it being nearly impossible to get out and live with the population. What do you think of the photography coming out of this region today?
EG: I see a lot of dramatic war stuff from “imbeds” but after a while wars seen close up all seem to look the same. And don’t tell me much about the place. I don’t like the idea of working in a situation where I need a government I.D. Etc.
“No one really expected Jalalabad to fall, and the hands of the foreign powers – USA, USSR, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – were becoming more noticeable. There was not going to be a simple ending. As I spoke to people in Peshawar I realized that it was going to be a long time before things would be settled.” from Afghanistan 1980-1989
DRM: Do you have any plans to return to Afghanistan?
EG: Not at the present time.
If anyone who reads this post has comments or thoughts, please feel free to share them here or email me at milnorpictures at gmail.com
Also, if you are interested in Ed’s books you can find them here.