Robert Nickelsberg: looking back on Afghanistan

By Phyl Newbeck

Photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg has lived a good portion of his life in very dangerous places, but every summer he gets a bit of a break to spend time at his family’s house in Charlotte. This summer, Nickelsberg has also spent time promoting his book “Afghanistan: A Distant War” which was published last fall. When the U.S. troop withdrawal was announced, Nickelsberg thought it would be a good time to “pull back and reflect” on a country he has photographed since 1988.

Nickelsberg began his photojournalism career because of his curiosity about American foreign policy. That curiosity brought him to El Salvador where he spent four years working for Time Magazine and watching the effects of the Cold War on Latin American countries. From there he went to Brazil followed by stints in Southeast Asia before landing in India in 1987. In addition to Time Magazine, Nickelsberg’s work has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian (England), Paris Match, Stern (Germany), CNN and NBC. In addition, his photographs have been exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography and the New America Foundation in New York.

Nickelsberg admits there is a good deal of risk in what he does so he has to maintain total awareness of his surroundings. He has often feared for his life but that fear wasn’t necessarily based on the violent nature of the countries he visited. “I fear equally not just front lines but car accidents and plane wrecks,” he said. “Everything is held together by a wing and a prayer. In many of these places the roads aren’t safe and there is more danger of getting hurt in a car wreck than from violence.” Nickelsberg added that as a foreigner with a camera he is often looked at with suspicion, but he tries his best to put his subjects at ease.

One of the most memorable places Nickelsberg has visited is the Siachen Glacier between India and Pakistan which is 20,000 feet high. “That’s pretty breathtaking,” he said “in more ways than one. It’s kind of amazing that two countries would try to battle it out over hash lines of a border on the frontier. The altitude and scale and how physically difficult it is, no matter what kind of shape you’re in, is impressive.”

Although they aren’t as dramatic as the Himalayan Mountains he has visited, Nickelsberg enjoys his view of the Adirondacks (and Lake Champlain) from the summer house in Charlotte his father purchased in 1975. Nickelsberg’s official home is in New York City and visiting Vermont provides a change of pace. “It helps me decompress and get out of an urban environment,” he said. “It lets me slow down and appreciate the soil I walk on and talk to neighbors and try to become a little more in tune with my environment.”

His book is complete, but Nickelsberg is not finished with his travels to Afghanistan. When the volume is translated into Farsi, he’ll return to bring a copy to Kabul University.