Unexpected Photo Opportunities: Four Months in Afghanistan

by Tim Grams | July 1, 2006

© Tim GramsThe ancient face of the earth from 20,000 feet—that’s the view I was afforded from the air over Afghanistan during a four-month tour with the US Air Force. From mid January to mid May of 2006, I had the opportunity to occasionally fly over the varied landscapes of Afghanistan. There I was astonished by scenic photo opportunities that unfolded on most flights. The imposing landscape has changed a little over the centuries and is as challenging today as it was in the times of Ghengis Khan, Marco Polo and Alexander the Great.

The Country

Long considered an exotic travel destination by Westerners, Afghanistan is a large (647,500 sq km, slightly smaller than Texas or about 2.5 times larger than the United Kingdom) ethnically and geographically diverse country. The geographic location has resulted in a large number of invading armies marching across its plains and struggling to cross the imposing mountains. Over the centuries, those invading armies and other movements of people have left a blend of ethnic groups within the borders drawn by the British in the late 1800’s.

Of course, flying meant that I could see large parts of the country with really no effort on my part. But flying also meant I was deprived of any interactions with the local people. Considering the ongoing political challenges, that was not necessarily always a drawback – especially in the contentious southern parts of the country. Although looking down on the geometrically terraced valleys with intricate patterns and textures left me longing to see things from the ground and meet some of the hardworking people who make their living there.

Mountain range and sky © Tim Grams

Every portion of the country has its own unique beauty, although very little would be considered wilderness due to the extensive activities of man. Camels, goats and sheep are raised in various parts of the country depending on the quality of the pasture. In other areas, orchards and farms are the norm. From the air, one can see an altered landscape, providing a much-needed sense of scale as well as stark reminders that man, even with very simple tools and sweat equity, has changed the topography.

The western portion of the country is flat, arid land sliced by a few large rivers that provide the water for intricate irrigation channels. The northern edge of the country consists of rolling hills and plains favorable to nomadic herds and fields without irrigations. I consider this the most beautiful portion of the country since it is so green and lush relative to other parts. The rolling hills, with nomadic Pashtuns living in tents, interspersed with fields on steep hills, provide unforgettable scenes. In some areas, the steep hillsides are tilled by donkeys pulling a plow. Forget industrial agriculture, mechanization, and crop subsidies – most parts of the country are strictly subsistence agriculture. If the crops fail, the family faces a very long winter.

There are certainly some cash crops, such as grains, fruit- bearing trees, vegetables, and the most notorious—poppies for opium. The poppies grow naturally and apparently quite prolifically in some areas, even without the assistance of man.

The majority of the country, especially the central region, is dominated by the Hindu-Kush mountain range with many of the peaks in the 18-20,000 foot range. The small villages typically in the valleys are close to a water source. Access trails or roads – and use of that term is probably very generous for what exists – are not for the faint of heart in many areas. The general rule of thumb seems to be: if it is remotely flat, it is used to raise a crop.

Unexpected Opportunities

My time on the ground was spent at Bagram Air Field, in the east central portion of the county near Kabul. Military security measures severely limited photo opportunities, but some unexpected situations presented themselves.

In early April, there were a significant number of birds migrating from Pakistan and India into central Asia. One of the migrating species, the Black Kite, was attracted to the burn pit – a veritable fast food joint in an otherwise Spartan landscape.

Landscape © Tim Grams

In the course of a few days, several thousand were in the immediate vicinity of the burn pit, which was located perilously close to the active runway due to the extensive mine fields, which had not yet been cleared.

Bird in flight © Tim Grams

Pre-visualizing your ideal shot and what it would take to capture it can be critical. But I had NEVER pre-visualized myself standing in the middle of a dump with the smoke and odor of burnt rubbish billowing around me while surrounded by concertina wire and minefields. It made photographing bald eagles on the Homer Spit look like an idyllic setting.

Bird and sign © Tim Grams

As more birds migrated into the area, I searched other areas that might hold new species. Unfortunately, the most suitable habitat for most species had barbed wire and distinctive signs around it. Sitting patiently in a vehicle on the edge of one of the minefields provided my better images on the ground. Late one afternoon I spotted a pair of wolves, which were immediately wary of my presence—they soon disappeared into the tall grasses. I spotted one on another occasion, and suspect that they might have denned in the area. Considered a threatened or possibly endangered species in the country due to habitat loss, the wolves were on a small piece of land in the middle of a very busy military base that had been rendered unusable for man, a fact that I found delightfully ironic.

Wildlife © Tim Grams

The equipment I used for these images: Canon 1D Mark II, Sigma 28-70/2.8, Canon 70-200/2.8, Canon 400/5.6. The overwhelming majority of my images were taken in-flight using the 70-200 since it allowed the greatest control to tightly frame an image. I had initially used the 28-70 quite extensively, but the range of contrast was too great and I had a high deletion rate. By framing the images to minimize the range of contrast, I had more latitude in Photoshop to eliminate the seemingly ever-present haze or dust in the air. Mammal and bird photography was somewhat limited by the shorter lenses.

Traveling to Afghanistan with a purpose apart from photography, I had few photo expectations beyond hoping to get a few good images. However, from the air and from other unexpected places, I soon discovered amazing opportunities to show the beauty of an ancient country.

About the Author

Tim Grams works for the Alaska Air National Guard (part of the US Air Force) in Anchorage, Alaska. Besides photography, his interests include multi-day sea kayaking trips with his wife, Dana, hiking, camping and cross-country skiing.

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