I’m in awe of photojournalists.
Those people that put everything on the line to make pictures. The life of a photojournalist is rife with risk, and in many cases, there is little in return other than the actual images and the privilege of being a witness to history.
Tony O’Brien is a photojournalist and has been for several decades. Until recently I had never met Tony, but had heard about him, and seen his work for a long, long while. The mutual friend thing, you know how it is, “Hey, do you know so and so?” “No, but I keep hearing about him,” kinda thing.
Well, I finally got to meet him, and luckily for me, I was also able to attend a lecture he presented as well as a gallery opening featuring his work
This lecture and opening revolved around a recent project dealing with Afghanistan.
Now even mention Afghanistan and my palms begin to sweat, not just because this country is an active war zone, but also because I have had an interest in this region and land for quite some time. But, I’ve never been. Mostly because I’m a total chicken.
Not only has Tony been to Afghanistan, he has been going since 1986, which you history buffs will realize was during the time of the Soviet occupation.
Imagine disguising yourself as a freedom fighter and sneaking across the border into Afghanistan, hiking for miles and miles across some of the most foreboding landscape on Earth, trying to make pictures and praying to any and all gods that you are not spotted by a Soviet chopper or MIG fighter.
Now you know why my hands are sweating.
It takes a certain type of person to do this, flat out, and Tony is one of those people.
I think what carries someone during a mission like this is simply an inner quest they absolutely believe in. They need to see, to record, and nothing will stop them. You can cover different kinds of wars, ones that you can return to a hotel each night, but when you are exposed as this, working perhaps hundreds of miles behind the lines, without support and completely self-reliant, I believe your passion goes beyond being known as a photographer, or winning some prize.
Your there because there is no other place you could be.
Oh, and on a side note, things did not always go as planned for O’Brien. At some point in time, during his travels there, he “got on the wrong bus” as he put it and ended up getting arrested.
This was no simple detainment, and things went from bad to worse, with an eventual outcome of Tony spending six weeks in an Afghan prison. Now I don’t know about you, but the word prison conjures up some nasty visuals in my mind, and I’m talking the “nice” kind of prison with TV, three meals a day, and a nice orange jumpsuit.
I can’t even imagine what the Afghan’s consider prison. Really, I don’t know, don’t want to know, but the visuals I’m fabricating are not good.
I recently had a small brush with the “authorities” in Mexico, and thought for about one hellish minuted that I was going to see the inside of a cage, inside a van, and then a Mexican prison, and if I HAD seen these things I’m not sure how quickly I would have returned to old Mexico.
Not only did Tony return to Afghanistan, he returned again and again. Remember, internal quest, driven, passion, etc,
His recent lecture and gallery opening were regarding a recent project titled, “Afghan Dreams” which is, of all things, a children’s book. The book is a compilation of work that focuses on the children of Afghanistan and their dreams for today and tomorrow.
Imagine what many of these kids have been through, and what they continue to endure. The past saw caravans of Soviet troops and today these children see caravans of American and NATO troops. Many of them have never known a life void of war. When you consider this, the idea of dreams will perhaps take on a different angle.
Tony explained that many of the kids wished and dreamed for things like education and a house. The basics. There were no wishes for Xbox 360 or a Ferrari with a quadraphonic Blaupunkt. Life in Afghanistan is about survival, and these kids just want a chance at a normal life.
The lecture, held at the College of Santa Fe, was standing room only, packed, with several people who stood in the entrance of the building, unable to see the presentation, but still able to hear what he had to say.
Tony’s daughter read passages from the book, which she did with great enthusiasm, which was a nice way to present this material.
Oh, on another side note, Tony had not shot color in fifteen years, and had NEVER shot digital. So imagine going to Afghanistan, not sure what is going to happen, and trying to learn digital on the fly! I had to laugh at that one. Somehow he did it.
Several nights later, Verve Gallery of Photography, held an opening for Tony, which was part of a three artist exhibition.
If you get a chance, take a peak at this book.
So after this past week, I’m more than ever in awe of photographers like Tony who do things like this.
I think those of you who read this who are photographers will know what I’m talking about. An iron will is not easy to forge. There are so many reasons NOT to go, but to the benefit of all of us, he went. And if I had to guess, he will continue to go. Again and again.