From Afghanistan to a Gold Walkley, how war ignited a new passion

You wouldn't expect a Gold Walkley winner to feel like a second-class citizen in the media world, however for Andrew Quilty it was a feeling all too familiar. Mumbrella spoke to the winner about the war-torn country that re-ignited his passion for photography.

For many the thought of moving to a war-torn country riddled with devastation and harsh landscapes would instil more fear than inspiration, but for a photographer like Andrew Quilty the fear was nothing compared to the creativity it spawned.

Andrew Quilty

Quilty: “I can’t say the appetite for still images is decreasing anytime soon”.

Quilty’s first step in finding fulfilment and validation in his art, and towards his Gold Walkley, was on this turf that for many is synonymous with terror, war and death.

Quilty's Gold Walkley image.

Quilty’s Gold Walkley winning image: Baynazar Mohammad Nazar, a husband and father of four, lies dead on the operating table of the MSF Kunduz Trauma Centre a week after a US war plane destroyed the facility killing 43 staff and patients.

Despite the harrowing environment, the stories were infinite, hidden within the lives of the civilians. Through the devastation Quilty found his feet and in doing so had an opportunity to do more than solely capture an image – he found a way to tell a story.

“Here in Australia, for me, I was very focused on aesthetics of photography, and style, whereas over there the scale has drifted more towards the subject and further away from the aesthetic,” he said.


Captured in Kabul, Afghanistan: A wedding car parked by the war-ravaged Darulaman Palace on the outskirts of Kabul.

“I love the act of composing elements in a viewfinder and waiting till the decisive moment and clicking the button, but I think the fact I found so much fulfilment in a place like Afghanistan would suggest the subject is probably more important than the process.”

It’s a truth Quilty captured when taking his photo ‘The Man on the Operating Table’, a photograph that saw Quilty’s world turn upside down as he found himself back in civilisation, Brisbane to be exact, earlier this month, accepting the Gold Walkley Award.

As Quilty humbly took to the stage to accept the award reiterating his disbelief to the audience, he reminded the room of a time when he felt like a second-class citizen in the media industry.


Captured in Nangarhar, Afghanistan: An Afghan man aboard a truck returning from Pakistan after he and his family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Afghan refugees who sought refuge in Pakistan over the past four decades, were deported throughout 2016.

Speaking with the heavy weight of the sights he’d seen first-hand that many can’t even handle to examine in a photograph, Quilty said: “I’ve felt that inadequacy and I wanted to breach the gap, it’s so much more rewarding to have an understanding of what you’re working on rather than just pointing a camera and taking a picture that means nothing to you.

“Photographers were kind of subordinate to the writers and the reporters, we never really contributed to the stories other than to fulfil a brief.

“Half the time I wouldn’t have any idea what the story was about,” he said.

“I do notice the photojournalists who I look up to are those who are really engaged with what they’re shooting and understand it, and read voraciously on the topic rather than the ones who just turn up and shoot.”

Captured in Afghanistan:  Afghan army officers rest during a clearing operation after the Taliban overran the city of Kunduz in late 2015

Captured in Afghanistan: Afghan army officers rest during a clearing operation after the Taliban overran the city of Kunduz in late 2015.

Sitting half way across the world in a Sydney cafe the award-winning photo-journalist reflected on how it was much more than just a photo that delivered him his Gold Walkley.

“Without context it’s not nearly the image it is without the story behind it, it’s kind of poorly lit and there’s no colour in the image, but with knowing the context and knowing a bit about the man himself, and his family- that he had a family- I think it lifts the image well beyond what is constrained in those four sides,” he reflected.

Quilty penned the article which accompanied his photo, pulling in the context that makes the image itself so powerful.

“I am not a big believer in the a picture tells a thousand words thing – without context, it’s really hard to understand it,” he said.

“It’s a great example of how valuable going the extra step and finding out everything you can, beyond just the immediate immediacy of the picture, how valuable that is to the overall presentation.”

Andrew Quilty

Captured in Kabul, Afghanistan: Family members mourn the deaths of seven chidlren killed after playing with an unspent artillery shell which exploded near their Kabul homes.

Reflecting on his decision to move to a country like Afghanistan, Quilty recognised the minimal pay and other similar challenges facing local photographers as a key driver.

With payments plateauing, he was quick to share his disappointment with how the format of photojournalism has changed, lowering the standard of photography.

“I can’t imagine if I went to [The Sydney Morning Herald] now, as an intern, I would get anywhere near the inspiration that was available 10 years ago,” he said.

“If you’re working for Getty, it’s indirectly for The Sydney Morning Herald, you’re not going to have the pride and masthead you wanted to, or the camaraderie with people in the newsroom, nor the quality control a photographic department can have on who’s actually shooting for them.

“Getty’s really a bit of a sausage factory now, the other thing is it’s just driving the rates down as well.”


Captured in Helmand, Afghanistan: Afghan soldiers fire at Taliban fighters from an abandoned school in Helman Province in early 2016.

Addressing the hardships small agencies and independent photographers have encountered he said: “It’s hard for other small agencies to compete with them because they charge so little for the work and therefore the photographers themselves get less.”

Looking to to his future, potentially in the Middle East, Quilty shifted his attention to a potential threat looming over photo-journalists: citizen journalism.

“If they’re not doing it everyday, if they’re not investing the time, practise into it, they’re not going to get good enough to be able to compete with those who are,” he said without concern.

“A good photo will always be a good photo.”


The scorched remains of a victim of the MSF Kunduz Trauma Centre attack lies in the ruins a week after a US war plane destroyed it based on false intelligence in October 2015.


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