DISPATCHES FROM AFGHANISTAN: Special Convo with my combat photographer Jake Simkin
The tips and tricks of war photography and falling for Afghanistan with one of the best
“Good pictures. Tragedy and violence certainly make powerful images. It is what we get paid for. But there is a price extracted with every such frame: some of the emotion, the vulnerability, the empathy that makes us human, is lost every time the shutter is released.”
- Greg Marinovich
Editor’s Note: The audio track contains an in-depth conversation between Simpkin and Mckay. The recording is a mesmerizing 47-minute podcast.
SOME HIGHLIGHTS BELOW:
Today we are doing a special Substack audio with my photographer. It is Jake Simkin, my fellow Australian, who has been a combat reporter for a really long time. So, we are going to talk to him about some of his wild adventures say hello Jake. Because he is doing this “really” Aussie accent for you. So, Jake, tell me how you question of the day how everybody you know, everyone wants to be a combat photographer. How did you get involved?
It came really just out of faith, really, starting off in Indonesia after the tsunami, the day after Christmas. I guess Americans don't really have Boxing Day but about 300,000 people died in Indonesia. I wanted a change in life. I worked mainly as a commercial cinematographer. I made movies. But I wanted something more in life and I wanted to understand what it meant to live on this earth. What I didn't realize was that Indonesia had been in a civil war for over 70 years. So my first introduction to the day of going to this orphanage was these whole bunch of rebels come running and jumping over this gate. And then they're chased after by the Indonesian army who goes smashing through the gate, and they just started firing at the rebels that were running off into the jungle, as like, Holy fuck.
Now I've worked on a lot of documentaries, on many different subjects from gay rights to human rights to Aboriginal rights in Australia, but I really wanted to go overseas and really push the limit. So there was a documentary on women's rights around the world, which was called Finding Bibi. Unfortunately, the documentary never got finished. But I ended up in India and decided to sell my return ticket and I bought myself a motorcycle and I rode around India for over a year. And I also went to Pakistan, just working for different NGOs. I'd worked for Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and then rode my motorcycle all the way up to Manali. I photographed from acid burn victims, mainly women who denied getting married or these women basically they refuse something from their husband and maybe the mother of their husband threw acid in their face. And you know, for the rest of their life, they have to live with their husband and the family was fucking horrible. So I worked for this NGO called Smile Again Foundation, and photographed all of these women. I helped teach kids how to use cameras that lived in slum lands where the children are prostitutes. They live very hard lives. They will like sniffing glue. Yeah, and these were kids that just had nothing in India.
So what brought you to Afghanistan? Initially, what year was that?
I initially came to Afghanistan in 2005, actually 2006 where I was in Pakistan. Then I came to Afghanistan in early 2008 to work on a documentary called The Extreme Tourist. It was an original pilot show by Tolo television, which was probably the leading television station in Afghanistan. It was funded by the Americans. There was a lot of money put into it to teach the Afghan people how to make reality TV shows and travel shows and all of these different programs. So I did this show for six months, and I fell in love with Afghanistan.
You leave and you go and try and do some other stories and things over into another country. So you know, I worked in Somalia, worked in Libya, worked in Syria, but it's just like I miss Afghanistan, and maybe things are gonna be better. So it was this love hate relationship for six years, basically. And I did some amazing things. And then those things are just so so difficult to change.
We did this trip and, and Jake and I came in before the fall. So that was the beginning of August, and we thought we would be documenting kind of the withdrawal of the US and the government after, but it turned out the Taliban took it way quicker than we could have expected. And we've been here for several months since then. So how do you how do you feel about it now?
I always think of my life as in chapters, and there's this chapter of my life called Afghanistan and to me, I was hoping to find some closure. And this might be possibly the last trip I do. But I say this, and I'll probably be back in Afghanistan.
I feel like the Taliban, they've grown up with all of the media and they've grown up with all of this social interaction. I mean, they are social loving most of the young guys and stuff. And socially inept, because they just haven't hung out with women. You know, they're uneducated, and they need to be taught and they learning quite rapidly. They follow orders well, before they do follow orders really well. All of the leadership, have given them orders and they follow it to the tee. You know, like they've had fun. they've enjoyed, you know, going to the zoo and going on the amusement parks. But your leadership says, you can't go do this fun stuff while carrying guns. You know, you look like an idiot. People are making fun of you. And they stopped doing that.
What do you think the biggest misconception in the news about Afghanistan is?
It's just what people think of the Taliban. I think people think of the Taliban as these barbaric, cruel people. But yeah, this is generally a misconception about the Haqqanis, they're very smart. And very educated.
I want to hear about Bill Murray.
So I made a movie call worked on a film called Rock The Kasbah was directed by Barry Lieberson. The majority of the film was shot in Morocco. But Bill Murray, he turns up to Afghanistan because he wants to know about the role that he's playing and oh he just rocks up to Kabul airport. He wants to know about the Kabul nightlife scene and stuff and I've been told, please don't kill Bill Murray. Bill is sitting on the back of my motorcycle hugging me and stuff. And we are driving from bar the bar. Bill Murray just goes into the bar and just starts making drinks.
One thing you said I remember when we were coming in and we talked about whatever we were trying to get out of Afghanistan personally, not just professionally, and you said you wanted to find some closure or reconciliation or forgiveness. Do you think you've found that?
I really want to meet that Taleb leader devoted to try and fix the relationship between Afghans. They killed my friend, Karen Woo. She was a medical aid worker that I feel like responsible because I met her in London, and she asked me about Afghanistan. And I said, Yeah, it's a beautiful place, why waste your time doing a medical being a medical doctor in London, you know, when you could do something fulfilling and just help save a few Afghan lives and gave her hope. Her life was tragically ended in Badakhshan, with another person who I admired Tom Little. And it's really hard to accept.
Something that I grapple with, that I know you definitely grapple with, is sort of the moral injury that comes with being a reporter in constant conflict zones, and how that has sort of shaped your life. What would tell to other people that are wanting to go into this line of work?
Moral injury is an affliction really happens to NGO workers. It happens to the military. And photo journalists and journalists, people who cover conflict especially, or go to third world countries. When you feel like you're unable to make change, it's you might make a little tiny dent or you might make a change for one or two people's lives, but you might go home and you'll still see this like war. Still ravaging on or poverty or you know, all these problems and you feel helpless is like what can I do? I should go back and I should try to make people aware of things. I guess I was multi skilled by the end of my time before I decided I needed out because I was just finding myself in more traumatic experiences, day by day, so I learned to be more of a combat medic. And I learned to do triage. And decide people who were going to live and who people were going to die. The last few years of my life being a combat photographer, it was really difficult in Syria to get paid to do work, or to get your stories picked up because you were in an area where governments were putting a heavy hand on editors not to take our work. So I didn't know what to do. And I loved Syria. I loved Aleppo. So I just worked with the White Helmets, and I work with the doctors and stuff.
Do you see yourself doing this forever?
I think with moral injury, I think if somebody called me up and said I want to go to this country it is being fucked up I would probably just go say yes. , I still feel something for the common man that's suffering. And woman. Just, I feel like justice needs to be heard and said or seen. So I'll still keep on doing this. But I think I'll try and spend more of my time having a normal life and trying to live at home. I have gone back to things that I love doing like making movies and storytelling and I think through these years and experiences that I've lived, I can start working on writing stories and making films about things that I know about and feelings that I know about.
For those interested in learning more about the aftermath of war, please pick up a copy of my latest book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.”
Photos courtesy of my brilliant photographer @JakeSimkinPhotos. Please consider a paid subscription to allow us to continue this work.