Photographers' Blog

Those left behind: The legacy of Arlington’s Section 60

Larry Downing is a Reuters senior staff photographer assigned to the White House. He shares that duty with three other staff photographers. He has lived in Washington since 1977 and has been assigned to cover the White House, since 1978. President Barack Obama is the sixth president Larry has photographed.

“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”  George Orwell

Veteran’s Day is a time to remember “All gave some….Some gave all.”

Before reaching the new gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery’s ‘Section 60’ it’s easy to recognize why a simple, quilted, patch of green grass and white stones buried alongside the quiet banks of the Potomac River troubles the heart.

Names etched into fresh marble tell the sad tale of early death …Travis L. Youngblood…. Justin Ray Davis….Andy D. Anderson….Thomas J. Barbieri Jr….. Kenneth E. Zeigler II….James R. McIlvaine …. America’s varsity players benched early in the game.

‘Section 60’ is America’s promise to honor its warriors for first serving, and then dying, in the strange dusts on foreign soil.

A 23 hour day with Obama

Sleep is overrated.

On Wednesday, I was up at 5:30am so I could start my White House shift. U.S. President Barack Obama had 5 press events on his schedule for the day, so I ended up staying until 7pm. I had just sat down to dinner at 8.30pm, when I heard my cell phone ringing, it was Washington Editor-In-Charge Jim Bourg calling about breaking coverage for an Obama event but it was being kept very quiet. The President was planning to fly to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and take part in the dignified transfer and return of 18 U.S. personnel who died Monday in Afghanistan, so I had to be back at the White House by 10pm. The event would be covered the White House travel pool, a very small group of photographers and reporters who always travel with the President, but what we would be allowed to cover was unclear..

The pool left the White House at 10:45pm for a short drive to Fort McNair military base to board 2 U.S. Marines’ helicopters for the 40 minute flight to Dover. The president would depart separately from the South Lawn on Marine One and we would meet at the Air Base in Dover. The details of Obama’s trip would not be released until the official pool report is released in an email as he departs on the helicopter..

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We arrive a couple of minutes before Obama and we are told that we can only photograph the President’s arrival on Marine One, but is was unclear whether we were going to see any of the soldiers return. We were taken to a holding room and given a military briefing on how the event would take place. Even though 18 soldiers and DEA agents were returning to the U.S., the press would only cover the dignified transfer of U.S. Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Indiana, as per family member’s wishes, and witnessed by Obama. Obama would be meeting with the family members and taking part in the return of the other 17 personnel over the next 3 hours. There is no press coverage..

Warrior Ink

Reuters photographer Tim Wimborne documents the tattoos of members of the U.S. military serving in Afghanistan in the audio slideshow above.

View full coverage of the War in Afghanistan here.

Women’s refuge in Afghanistan

Patooni Muhanna, who works at a women’s shelter in Kabul, speaks about women’s rights since the fall of the Taliban. Patooni says that despite some positive changes, domestic violence and self-immolation are still concerns.

Follow news from the Afghan election here.

On the Afghan election trail

Soviet helicopters, pick-up truck racing, Kalashnikov-carrying security guards, banquet lunches.  Photographing Afghan presidential candidates as they traverse the country before the election on August 20, is campaign travel at its quirkiest.

Flying with Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah to a campaign rally in Samangan province.  Photo: Tyler Hicks

In Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan one week before the vote, the traveling press piled into the back of pick-up trucks following Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s main rival, from the airport to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali.

Recurring images of Afghan women

Sometimes we Afghan photographers joke that an Afghanistan without burqas, would mean no more good images.
I was with Yannis Behrakis when he shot his version (top). It was the day after the Northern Alliance took over Kabul and the Taliban fled the city. Yannis wanted to shoot some images which could show a change after the fall of the Taliban. We came across a number of women who were waiting to receive some alms from a rich local businessman. Yannis stopped to take some pictures.

For my version (below), I went to cover President Hamid Karzai’s election rally in the south of the country on August 4. There were thousands of men but some females who were mostly covered in burqas, as usual. I wanted to show the women’s participation in this mainly male-run country.

One could draw the conclusion that years after the fall of the Taliban, women are still under burqas and pictures look the same. This is because the situation of women may have changed in the cities but not across the country. The reason is not that international communities failed to help women liberate but it is because that is how they live. The life style in most parts of Afghanistan is a unique one, it is an Afghan one. It is clear from the start that men work outside and women work inside the house, that is how centuries past by. This is how they choose to live, one can not just take their burqas off, put them in jeans or short skirts, tell them to go out and work and then say your situation has improved. With all due respect to the Western media, they are painting the wrong picture on the situation of women here. Let’s leave the Taliban era out of this, this is now eight years of “Operation Enduring Freedom”.

Showing the Taliban

Masum Ghar, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

Operation in Sanjaray

Embedded with the Canadian Army in Kandahar.

On May 16th I reached the forward operating base (FOB) after traveling in an convoy of armoured vehicles that left from Kandahar Airfield.

We set out from the FOB in a different armoured convoy traveling for a “secret cleaning operation” in Sanjaray village. I was told that the only condition for me to go was to not send pictures until the end of the operation.

We followed the tracks left by the tanks in the burning desert sand, surrounded by orange-colored mountains, until we reached an improvised base belonging to the Afghan National Police (ANA). This base offers a view of Sanjaray and the entire valley.

An elusive war – December and January in Afghanistan

In the history of embeds, this one has been pretty unremarkable so far. I kicked things off in Dubai with an impulse purchase of a Canon 5D Mark II. Stills and video ! ASA 6400 ! 20 MB files ! It seemed like a great idea until I dropped it in the mud on a patrol. So much for the resale value.

After getting to Bagram Air Base, it took a while until I was able to test out the new gear. We had a four-day wait due to rain, which delayed or cancelled flights and gave me plenty of time to indulge in the ice cream bar at the dining hall.  On day five I got a late-night flight to Jalalabad, where I received a briefing about my embed area and made plans to get further north.  Finally, a week after my embed had officially begun, I took a 20 minute ride on a Chinook helicopter and arrived to Foward Operating Base Bostick, located in Kunar Province about 10 miles from the Pakistan border.

The view from the base is stunning. Snow capped mountains to the east mark the border with Pakistan, the Kunar River runs through the valley, and at night the stars in the Milky Way seem close enough to touch.  This being Christmas, there was a candle-lit church service in the chapel on the 24th, followed on Christmas Day by caroling and hot chocolate. The war seemed pretty far away.

Editing Under Fire in Afghanistan

I’ve spent the past month embedded with the German armed forces Bundeswehr – operating as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in northern Afghanistan – accompanying troops during missions from their bases in Masar-e-Sharif, Feyzabad and Kunduz. This is the first time the German army have allowed news agency photographers to be embedded with operational units, in the way the U.S. have allowed journalists similar access for many years. To be close to the units operating on the ground is the only way to report on their day-to-day work.

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Tuesday, September 30th was a special day. It was the first day after the month’s new moon and Muslims all over the world were celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. It is a joyful day for Afghans too. Families prepare delicious food and celebrate together with friends and relatives.

I was attached to a unit of German and Belgian soldiers driving to the town of Taloqan, about 75 kilometres east of Kunduz. There was tension in the air. Some roads were closed to military vehicles because suicide attacks or roadside bombs were expected during the holiday period. Just a week before, a suicide bomber driving a car had got close to a German army convoy, causing damage to armoured vehicles. German military personnel travelling inside had a lucky escape.

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.

The driver in question was Omar Sobhani, one of the Reuters drivers in our Afghanistan operation.

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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.

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