The driver saw it first …
Often in our job as photographers we are totally dependent on drivers. Back in 2004, I was on assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan for the first time and came to appreciate just how important a good driver can be, especially in a place like that where your life can depend on it.
When I first met him, this good, solid, bearded man with lively eyes, was fluent in Russian, Urdu, Hindi, Pashtun but no English whatsoever; as I had no idea of Russian, Urdu, Hindi and Pastun our conversations were limited and hilarious to anyone else listening, but somehow despite this, right from the very first moment, we understood each other.
On my first trip to Afghanistan when we stopped the car to take pictures Omar was always calm but alert in an almost imperceptible way. The stops would be very short, with minimum interaction with the locals and none of the usual hanging around or loitering photographers like to do in order to get pictures. In Afghanistan this is just not sensible. The opportunity for misunderstanding in such circumstances is considerable. They may never have seen a camera and will be curious, but they may mistrust it and you and be wondering what you and it are doing in their ‘hood’, whatever the motives crowds gather quickly so at the slightest sign of unwanted attention With one flash of Omar’s quick, electric eyes we would be out of there – quickly. All it took was a look.
We had long conversations in our imaginary language and I admired his skills as a driver; how he drove securely to suicide bombing sites without drama, got us past security barriers, dealt with foreign and Afghan forces, always very edgy particularly immediately after an attack; took unimaginable shortcuts and managed to coax all the power out of the vehicle when it was needed; drove through the Hindu Kush mountain range on the worst roads I had seen anywhere in the world, and all in a very calm and professional manner, without a hitch.
Omar was very used to driving text, pictures and TV journalists in his country and was always curious about what we did. Back at the office when his part was done, Omar would usually peer over our shoulders and watch when we were doing as we edited and transmitted our material.
One day in 2005 during the holy month of Ramadan we were driving in the hills surrounding Kabul and as we came round a corner, I noticed a slight decrease in the acceleration of the vehicle and saw him Omar look ahead, then at me, and then at my camera with a 70/200 mounted on it. There, in front of us was a nice picture of a man praying on the roof of a house on the side of a hill. Omar had not only spotted it but also knew which lens to use to shoot it. I looked at him and asked “good pickchaar ?” he said yes, “good pickchaar” so I told him, “you take the pickchaar”. He looked at me in confusion. I passed him the camera with its 70-200mm lens and he made the picture through his open window.
Later on we sat together in the office and sent his first picture to the Reuters wire. He was happy and proud, and so was I.
Omar had the quick eyes, the attitude and approach a photographer needs. While he lacked English and a knowledge of cameras and computer technology, he had the fundamental attributes and everything else could be learned. And so it has proved. Thanks in no small part to the guidance and tutelage of Reuters senior photographer in Afghanistan, Ahmad Masood, my friend Omar is now a Reuters photographer and a very good one indeed. He speaks a lot more English than just “pickchaar” these days, confidently uses computers and satellite communications and has done amazing top class work in one of the most difficult operating environments any photographer could work in – and he hasn’t forgotten how to drive !!