A Photographic Journal by David Guttenfelder
David Guttenfelder is an eight-time World Press Photo Award winner. For more than 20 years he has covered geo-politics, conservation and conflict in over 75 countries, including Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and North Korea. These are his photos. These are his stories.
Afghan people run away as an Afghan military helicopter crashes in the Panjshir Valley.
I’m thinking I should run, but I don’t know where to run, there’s no other real safe place, I don’t know what’s happening. I’m just standing there, my eyes are closed and it's crashing right in front of us.
I went to the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan. It was 2005 on September 10th, which was the anniversary of the assassination of the former rebel leader Massoud.
He was killed the day before the September 11 attacks. They were marking this in a ceremony with his loyal rebel fighters, and so all of these military people came and lots of guests but it was in a very remote place in a river valley in the Panjshir Valley. There were helicopters in the valley, and I'm standing in the grove of trees, and I'm watching these old Russian military helicopters start up and take off and there are all these children and local people standing around me also watching and excited about the helicopters. And the first helicopter is taking off, and then the second, and then...
I'm seeing that this helicopter is struggling and it's starting to shake and wobble in the sky and it’s turning around and as it’s coming down to land... I'm realizing that it’s crashing in front of me.
I can see the rotor of the helicopter striking the ground, there's earth flying and pieces of it the size of a canoe, flying over my head, landing in the back seat of a vehicle behind me.
Right after, it came to a stop and there's smoke everywhere and dust. It started to catch fire so I ran to the helicopter and the people came running to it and started helping people out and I photographed them as they ran away and then we all ran and it burst of flames and exploded.
This would have been a day out, a spectacle. I don't think the reaction for most people in the world as a helicopter is crashing at their feet would be to laugh, but surprisingly, I think that sometimes is. Fear and nervousness but also in the context of 30 years of war, when I see this picture and see someone sheltering his child and laughing as a helicopter is crashing, it makes sense to me somehow.
Afghan boys play soccer in an empty and war-damaged Soviet occupation-era swimming pool in Kabul.
United States Marines sleep in their fighting holes inside a compound where they stayed for the night, in the Nawa district of Afghanistan's Helmand province.
We just want to sleep, but we have to dig a hole to sleep in to be safe because at night we're being mortared and attacked.You’re exhausted and you’re standing in what looks like your own grave, and that’s where you will spend the night.
The public affairs of the marine corps called me in my house and I was sitting on my couch in my house in Tokyo with my wife and they said "There's something happening... It's big". I said "How big?" And they said "Let's call it the Super Bowl. We'd like you to come."
It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. We were inserted by helicopter in the middle of the night, and then on foot for many days. We had to carry everything we had on our backs. They dropped food and water every three days. We had to decide... “How much water do I really want to carry on my back?” It was blistering hot in the day and freezing cold at night... running, climbing, jumping walls, fighting...
Around this time in 2009, the American military really ramped up their operations, especially in the south of the country. The Americans didn't have a presence really in Helmand Province, and so this was a big military operation to retake a huge part of the southern part of Afghanistan. I think at the time, the marines said it was the biggest American military air assault in their history.
We were arriving in this compound, totally exhausted, we were losing marines in our group to the exhaustion, to broken legs, there were injuries and being evacuated by medical helicopter.
And we just want to sleep, but we have to dig a hole to sleep in to be safe because at night we're being mortared and attacked. You’re exhausted and you’re standing in what looks like your own grave, and that’s where you will spend the night.
The relatives of one of the young men sleeping in the hole... I spoke to her, and she said "We were so worried about him. You have no contact with your son or your husband, and he is out there in the field," and they saw this picture published, and she said "I knew it was him. Just the way he sleeps, the way he puts his socks, I knew it was him and then we knew he was ok. It was the only way of knowing that he was still going." I liked to know that because mostly I am making pictures to tell the news of the day. I'm speaking to a big general world out there, and to know that someone who cares about someone in this photograph got their news of their loved one in that way... it's a purpose that I really like.
A Japanese survivor of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami rides his bicycle through the leveled city of Minamisanriku, in northeastern Japan.
I had ten minutes with my children and my wife, saw that they were safe and secure, and then I said I have to go. We drove through the night. And in the morning, the sun rose. I saw a landscape of destruction.
It was my base, it was my launching point, my resting spot. The place where I was based was never the place that I really took photographs. But I wasn’t in Tokyo when it happened. I heard about it when I arrived on a flight in Beijing. I looked at my phone, I had hundreds of emails, and there was a list of colleagues of mine, other photographers. I think there were a dozen who were on their way to Tokyo. I didn't even know what had happened, I just thought “If there are 12 other AP photographers on the way to my home country... it must be something bad, it can’t be good.”
My family and I had gotten used to earthquakes. They were even kind of fun. Then I heard what had happened.
It was the largest earthquake they had recorded in Japan in modern times. There was a tsunami the largest of anyone’s lifetime. I tried to call my family, I couldn’t find them, didn't know where they were. Some of the world watched it live, they saw some of these incredible live videos of this massive wave hitting the coast of Japan. I didn't see any of it because I was doing nothing but trying to get on another flight to go back.
When I landed in Japan, the normal one-hour train ride to my home took the entire day. I went to the office,e gathered our gear, drove to my house. I had ten minutes with my children and my wife, saw that they were safe and secure, and then I said “I have to go”. And in the morning, the sun rose. I saw a landscape of destruction.
I'm climbing to the top of this hill, so I can get a view of the devastation to show the scale and the magnitude of this disaster. And every so often a fire truck or some kind of vehicle would pass by. I'm trying to imagine what was here before. This is a neighborhood of a developed city. There would have been multi-story, steel-frame buildings. And now it’s just rubble and they've made a dirt path to make their way through the debris. And I'm looking at the sea and trying to imagine what kind of wave could have come from the sea to do this kind of destruction.
And I'm watching this man ride by on his bicycle, and he's so small and he’s so slow and deliberate, I felt that the contrast of how tiny he was in this landscape of this wasteland really spoke to the level of the disaster and the difficulties that the people who live there were going to face.
An evacuee eats dinner in her cardboard-box home at a Fukushima convention center.
The disaster was actually a triple disaster. There was this massive earthquake, then this tsunami, larger than anyone had ever seen, and then the nuclear reactor exploded.
The people who survived the wave were homeless, but they could already begin to think about how they would rebuild. Strangely, the people who didn't lose their homes but were around the nuclear reactor, were living in this even stranger uncertainty. They were homeless without any idea of what they could do next, because their towns had been turned into abandoned ghost towns that were poisoned by radiation.
I'm in a convention centre in Fukushima, near the site of the nuclear reactor explosion and there are thousands of people, each given a tiny little space on the floor to live as they try to figure out what they’ll do next. And I’d lived in Japan for a while, and one of the wonderful things about the Japanese is they share a very small space and they look after one another and they look after each other's privacy and each person made their own tiny little cardboard apartment on the floor.
They decorated them, they would put a welcome mat in front of the opening of the cardboard house, they would always take off their shoes, and leave their shoes lined up, in a very organized line in front of the threshold. I'm walking through this maze of cardboard homes, and I'm embarrassed. It's hard to photograph people in their intimate space, especially when they are struggling. But she's made a window in her cardboard box, and she's looking at me and I'm looking at her, and she's having her lunch, and there are no words spoken between us.
I've photographed disasters all over the world, and in many ways, it’s my only understanding of that culture. I'm experiencing a culture through how they react to adversity and many people who came to Japan, as aid workers or photographers to respond to the Japanese tsunami, were surprised how orderly, how respectful people were, how there was no crime and there was no looting, everyone was working together, and I wasn't surprised at all. And that's the thing I love most and remember most about that experience was how everyone took care of one another and made life the best that they could.
In southern Laos, near where the Don Sahong dam will soon rise, a fisherman's son snoozes above his father's weir, waiting for fish migrating upstream to tire and wash back into the trap.
So to get here, I walked across these precarious logs, like a tightrope over the rapids.
I’m with a fisherman’s son, and he’s resting, and singing, in a hammock where the fishermen spend the night, waiting for fish to wash up underneath him. It's quite pleasant, you're out in the middle of the river, there's mist and no mosquitoes out there, and it's cool.
During the dry season when the river is low, the fishermen build these giant wooden traps, and when the rainy season comes and the river starts to flow again, they place them in waterfalls. It's the part of the river where the fish, as they migrate, struggle the most. They're tryingto make their way through these tense raging rapids or waterfalls, and as they pass the traps, they lose steam and the young fishermen sit at the top or rest in hammocks, and wait for fish to wash up into their laps. The whole thing is shaking and the power of the rapids... and the water is rushing beneath you.
And yet this is this young boy's life and he's used to it, and so it’s this tranquil scene for him, resting. He's singing a song which I can barely hear over the roar of the rapids underneath us.
There are six South-east Asian countries that share the Mekong river, and they rely on it for food, transportation, cultural, spiritual life. It's absolutely crucial to the lives of some 60 million people who live around it. This place is the actual site where the Laos government plan and have already started constructing a massive hydroelectric dam, and when they do, all of these little islands, in the river will be gone, completely inundated, and this traditional way of life and living on the river will also be gone.
To be transported to essentially a little boy's bedroom, over raging rapids, really helps people understand this place and their life and what's at stake here, and it's magical just to spend one night the way this boy spends all of his nights during the fishing season
Unbalanced by abundance, a tractor in the Mekong Delta threatens to dump its load of rice. The warm, humid delta, fertilized by river sediment, has allowed Vietnam to become a major rice exporter.
In the moment when the whole thing tips over, you really feel for the way they spend their lives and the way they spend their days.
Damming the Mekong river not only stops fish migration but it also affects rice production in the delta, because it’s not carrying important nutrients in the soil. I spent weeks all over the Mekong delta in Vietnam, to show the impact it would have on rice farming. And Vietnam is one of the most important places for rice production in the world.
In the days that I was in Vietnam, I really needed to show the process of rice from field to table essentially, and that's in many ways repetitive labor and daily life, and as a photographer, it has to be more than that. You have to show something interesting, a twist, otherwise we can't understand or feel what life is really like for people. So a whole day spent in the field, men loading one bag after another onto a wagon, but they put too many onto the wagon, because they just wanted the day to be over.
They had been doing this for 12 hours and they wanted to ride back too and not have to walk. So I'm in a field and I'm working with these men, and they are struggling to get rice bags loaded, taken through the mud, across the field, to the edge of the river, so they could be loaded onto the boat.
The moment when the whole thing tips over, you really feel for the way they spend their lives and the way they spend their days.
There's literally tank treads instead of wheels that helps them get through the rows and ruts of the field, and through the mud, because they live most of their life not in the water, but knee deep in the river. In photography, there's a language in pictures you see from Vietnam, because of the Vietnam War, and I've not seen these old-style tractors and it kind of takes you to a place. You know when you see this photo that you're somewhere you've never been, seeing the way of life and equipment that you're not familiar with.
Israeli soldiers cover their ears as an artillery unit fires shells towards southern Lebanon from a position near Kiryat Shmona.
The people on the other side of the line across the horizon are, for that moment, you feel they’re the enemy.
So I’m in the middle, and the artillery is incredibly loud, and I have no earplugs so I'm picking up filters from used cigarettes and putting them into my ears and standing very close to these guys and in the moment of the outgoing explosion they turn, and I can see even the sweat coming of his face from the concussion of the explosion. And so even though this artillery shell is landing dozens of miles away, I can transport people into the middle of something, to feel the energy, and to feel the violence of it.
Working in Israel and the Palestinian territories is unlike any other place. Because of the size of the country and the understanding there, that the media are neutral observers, you can cross the line typically from one place to the next, even on the same day.
But when you're there and you're next to them, you're with them. You feel threatened by the other side, you're taking the same risks, you've come to know them, come to care about them. So you feel that the people on the other side of the line or across the horizon are, for that moment, you feel they’re the enemy.
It could be hours later, you're on the other side, facing the other direction, and now you're feeling the same about these people. And it is a very strange and very immediate way of understanding how an enemy exists in your mind, and it shows the nimbleness of the way photojournalists work, and the humanism of how we work, because we’re photographing the impact of people, no matter who they are, in conflict.
An Afghan anti-Taliban fighter pops up from his tank to spot a U.S. warplane bombing the al-Qaeda fighters in the White Mountains of Tora Bora.
We’re in the middle of a battle. He’s fighting against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the far ridge.
I was traveling with a group of Afghan Northern Alliance militia members just weeks after the September 11th attacks in the United States. We’re in the middle of a battle. He’s fighting against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the far ridge. They're exchanging tank shells and Al Qaeda's firing mortars back at us, but then everything stopped.And he popped up out of the hole in the tank to look up above to see the American planes. The Americans are his allies, coming in to bomb the front line, to help them so they can move forward.
In the distance you see a small explosion, and that was the bomb dropped by the Americans and now the bombers are circling overhead and turning back towards the front line.
The place was called Tora Bora and it was the first place that I entered after crossing over the Pakistani border. But what I didn't know was that Tora Bora would become a very well known place and a very important place in American history because this is the place where everyone now claims Osama bin Laden was living during the initial months of the invasion.
We would have to wait in the rear very often as American planes came in and bombed an entire ridge line, and then everyone would move, we’d pick up and literally run down the mountains and move, taking ground and fighting the Taliban.
I think your instinct is always to be a critical journalist, and so you don't turn away from things, or stop yourself from portraying certain things, but there is no doubt that you see the war or see the world through the eyes of the people you are with. The war in Afghanistan after 2001, being an American, fighting the soldiers surrounding Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan after September 11th, I think that for most people they knew very clearly what side they were on, whether they were a journalist or a civilian. And just like the fighters and the civilians that were on that side, my fate was tied up with theirs.
A war is fought with planes and bombs and bullets and guns and things, but those are not that interesting to me. What’s interesting to me and what I want to show people is the impact of all of that on the lives of people, and so whether they’re civilians and fighters or whoever, I'm always pointing my camera at the people who are around me and how they react, and what is happening to them as a result of the war.
Anti-Taliban fighters walk through the mountains north of Jalalabad, Afghanistan during battles against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
It’s just a brief encounter: three Afghan fighters in the mountains of Tora Bora coming back from the front line and I'm walking towards it.
And he lifts his eyes and he’s looking at me and I’m looking at him, and then we pass by.
It was the very beginning of my work covering the fighting in the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan after September 11th. I was a bit unsure and uncertain about where I was going, and I think he was a bit unsure and uncertain about who I was and what I was doing.
Afghanistan has been at war for generations, and this photograph, it seems, could have been taken during the Soviet Union era, or really any time in my lifetime, and the photograph which already asks more questions than it answers, somehow seemed more powerful in black and white, because you have to stop and wonder "When was this taken? Where did this come from? What era are we looking at in Afghanistan?"
Typically you spend long periods of time with people, you come to know one another, come to trust one another. Sometimes, something fleeting just passing by, can make for a more candid, a more honest, a more raw photograph.
This was first contact with people, I was on my way to discovering the story, so in a way it's your sketchbook as a photographer. You're working your way towards where you need to be, and photographing and exploring the place as you go.
Nepalese men struggle to pull a large temple chariot by ropes during a traditional tug of war between the eastern and western sides of Bhaktapur.
There’s a voice in your head when you go to a new place: “You may never get the chance to come back”, and Nepal is one of the most spectacular, beautiful places in the world.
They carry this huge wooden chariot into the main square and on either side of it are these giant log ropes, hundreds of men, reaching up, grabbing the ropes, pulling this chariot back and forth across the square. The crowd is surging back and forth and arms reaching trying to pull, reach for these ropes and cling to the sides of this chariot.
It's very common for me to photograph something like a festival, or even just daily life. I find that people don't care or even look at the pictures of people struggling, unless they can see the possibilities and the hope for people.
While I'm not covering something dangerous, there are skills that you learn as a news photographer, that allow you to get down and into the middle and into the mix of things, that pushes you forward.
Your instinct is to get in and find a photograph that makes you feel like you're inside the event. The willingness or the instinct to dive into a surging crowd of people from a place or culture you don’t know, to stay on your feet, is the same whether you're covering conflict or covering life around you.
United States Marines battle Taliban fighters inside a mud-walled compound near Now Zad in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
It’s the closest combat I’ve seen, they’re literally throwing hand grenades at people a few meters away.
The marines had been battling the Taliban in this part of Helmand Province all day. After the Americans had bombed and rocketed and mortared this compound, they were asked to go in on foot, and make sure that everything was over. The sun was setting, it was getting dark, we were walking through a narrow hallway, and suddenly, they begin shooting at us.
“Somebody you care about is going to be hurt, but I'm going to be taking photos”
We’re trying to quickly take shelter behind a wall. One man peers around and returns fire and the others running towards me.
Everything is exploding, people are shouting, Men are injured, everyone's running.
“..But when its happening, I’m gonna do my job.” Because it's late, I'm photographing the scene at a slow shutter speed, because there's so little light left, only the fire and what's left of the day. So everything is moving, chaos. It may not be the clearest, most easy to understand picture of war, but it's the one which when I look at it, I remember what it felt like, when I was there.
You can't expect anyone to take care of you. But that said, they do. You develop a bond with people. And even in the middle of it, many times, marines and soldiers would look to me to make sure I was in the right spot, or to help me, and I tried to do the same for them.
They want people to know what it's really like. It's hard, it's difficult, it's dangerous. They want people to know, they want their picture taken.
A Laotian fisherman, holding his lunch and dry clothing in a plastic bag in his teeth, crosses the rapids of the Mekong River by hanging on to a rope tied between two fishing weirs.
It’s just treacherous, raging, churning water, and what I love about it is this man is commuting to work.
These traditional Laos fisherman put these giant fish traps in the biggest waterfalls on the Mekong river in Asia.
This is how he gets to the office in the morning, leaping into this churning water on a very precarious rope to cross from one trap to another, with all of his belongings in a plastic bag to protect them, carrying it in his mouth. He's making his way to the trap where he'll work for the day.
Even the noise of the water rushing through, churning is so loud that we would have to shout to one another to be heard.
The trap where I'm standing is shaking, you feel it could break apart. I was working with a translator but he was unwilling to go to this place - he thought it was too dangerous and discouraged me from going too, so I went with the fishermen. I had to get to work, the same way they did, and then they just left me there for the day, hanging out on the fishing traps.
This is an incredibly dramatic, epic, little piece of the world and they didn't seem to even realize just how astonishing it was. It really felt like to them it was a normal day at the office.
Washing in the floating village of Chnok Tru on Tonle Sap Lake.
I’m turning a corner, paddling quietly, floating past this little girl’s floating house.
There are entire floating towns in the middle of this lake called Tonlé Sap in Cambodia. When the Mekong river is flowing at full strength in the rainy season, this lake expands, and the towns spread out. In the dry season, when the river reverses current, and the lake empties, these floating little tin and wooden homes, are tied together into these narrow streets.
For many of the children, it would be very rare for them to step foot on dry land. The lake and the river is their whole life. They go to school, paddling in small canoes. I even saw children sitting in what looked like a kitchen pot, paddling on their way to school.
When I arrived on the lake, I travelled there by large boat, and I lived with aid workers on a floating hospital. But then I realized, how am I going to get around?
So I had to leave and come back, this time with my own portable kayak that I carried in a backpack, and so all of the photographs that I took on Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia were from the seat of my kayak, paddling down the little narrow streets, so to speak, past people's houses. And so this picture is very candid. I'm turning a corner, paddling quietly, floating past, this little girl's floating house, as she washes her face in the morning, before she goes to school.
Children react to photographers differently. They come to it without all of the preconceptions and the baggage of what it means to have your photo taken. And the moment after I took the photo and the water streamed off of her face, she looked up at this strange, foreign man in a bright red rubber-skinned kayak gliding by, and laughed and smiled, and I laughed and smiled back.