Dynamite and Prayers is the title of photographer Max Becherer’s stunning new book.
Although the subject is the emerald miners of Afghanistan, Max’s storytelling transports us to a sweeping landscape few of us can even imagine — and unveils the true cost of war.
I’ve had the privilege of working with many world-class photographers, but Max is one of only two I know personally who have chosen to focus on war. He’s captured some of the most famous images of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — his C.V. is full of names like Baghdad and Fallujah — and in the process he’s repeatedly risked his life.
A war photographer’s work is obviously taxing: While everyone around you is trying to either kill or survive, your job is to watch and record. Over time, it can take a toll on your humanity.
But in Max’s case, exposure to war has actually amplified his humanity. In the decade he’s spent living and working in the Middle East, he’s somehow managed to look beyond the endless conflict and see the human beings whose lives unfold far beneath the headlines. Perhaps by being at the very epicenter of war he’s come to understand its far-reaching ripple effects.
In Max’s own words,
Dynamite and Prayers is not about the people who wage war. It is a story about people who spend their lives living with war, and the pain that comes from watching one’s life be ruined by it even in the most beautiful place on earth.
It’s ironic, then, that I mistook the first image I saw from his new book for a man with a machine gun.
As Max explains in this video, it’s actually an apt comparison: With this drill, Ahmad Jawead is quite literally fighting for his life. But I won’t tell that story today (because I could never do Max’s work justice — and anyway, you should see it for yourself). So instead, today I’d like to pass on some of the stories and insights behind the book that Max has so graciously shared with me.
Let’s start at the beginning …
What drew you to become a war journalist? [The] value of photojournalism is something I understood from a young age. Growing up, my mother would read us stories of Max and Moritz — a German children’s tale — which would spark my mother’s memory, and she would tell us stories from her childhood in Germany during the 1940s. … On [one] occasion, she said, she was taking shelter from an Allied bombing raid in the darkness of the basement of her apartment building. They heard a thunderous crash during the raid and did not dare move until the bombing was over. When the raid had completed they went to investigate … and discovered that a bomb had fallen through all three stories of their apartment building and rolled to a stop at the bottom of the stairs of the basement they were taking shelter in. The men of the group gathered the bomb up in blankets and carried it to the railroad tracks where the army collected unexploded bombs. In this way “story time” was also “history time” with my mother, but it was not until I was old enough to read and check out my own library books about World War II that I could start to understand the depth of what my mother experienced. In particular I felt the photographs from World War II had done the best job of relating her experience. From that experience I sought out a vocation that allowed me to help bridge the understanding from war zone to home front.
One of the key tenets of journalism is objectivity — but war depends on a clear “us versus them.” As a war journalist, how do you stay objective and not take sides? Stories are the most impactful when they intimately relate a perspective of a conflict. Relating many different stories that take the perspective of each the individual side of a conflict is one way to present a complete view of any given conflict. I feel the best service I can provide to readers is to leave as little interpretation as possible between what a subject relates to me and what I present. It is inevitable that a particular story will be biased by the subject, but by being able to relate both sides I give the viewer or reader the opportunity to judge the situation for themselves without my interpretation. In the case of this project I felt that the perspective of violence between the Taliban and the Afghan or international army is adequately represented to most viewers.
What is the most important lesson you learned about your fellow human by observing him/her at war? I think the idea that all humans are remarkably the same goes without saying, so I will add this observation: Humans are predictable and can therefore be anticipated. The trick of photojournalism is to be such a keen observer of humans that you can anticipate when a particular event will take place, allowing you to capture it. Photographing in war zones makes this skill particularly valuable because it can help you predict human behavior that may take your life. In the micro scale of this skill I am able to predict that a neighborhood bread stall that is empty and in hard mid-day light will be beautiful and busy with people in the early morning when family members are gathering their breakfast bread. [Or I can predict] that roadside bombs are often hidden in trash or on the opposite side of an obstacle placed in a walkway — so avoiding walking through trash or stepping far over or to the side of an obstacle in a trail will give me a better chance of not stepping on a land mine. In the macro version of this lesson I realize people are skilled observers of American foreign policy. This means that organizations like the Taliban often anticipate the 180-degree change in American foreign policy every time there is a new U.S. President, with remarkable success.
And by observing your fellow humans at war, what’s the most important lesson you learned about yourself? I think the most powerful realization was that making a list of small steps that I believe will lead me to accomplishing what I want will actually lead me to what I want. Knocking on a door, sending that email, reaching out for help is always the first step in going and doing the things I want to do.
How long did it take you to compile the images in your book? And how did you gain the Afghan miners’ trust and acceptance? The images for the book were created over the course of a two-week trip to the Panjshir mountains. However, the … intimacy of the images came because I had built a relationship over time with a member of the family of the miners. I had meet him in Kabul and worked with him as a translator and a guide. We had taken several dangerous trips together and we had grown to know each other very well. That made all the difference when I arrived in the valley to do the story because I was received as a guest of the village, and not as an outsider.
I was housed in the home of a prominent family. But even more, I suffered the climb up the mountain with the miners and I spent several nights sleeping in the cold mountainside huts, eating their food, and listening to their stories. The miners were unguarded and we suffered together.
A surprising postscript to the project came from the emerald miner’s reaction to the book and the story I wrote. My host had suffered from the cold and the climbing so he’d stopped translating all of the miners’ stories. I think they figured that half of what they were telling me was being lost. But I was very diligent in making audio recordings of all their conversations, even the ones between each other. When I got back to Kabul and was rested I had all of their interviews transcribed and was in that way able to relate the richest and most meaningful stories. The were very grateful that I had recorded their stories so faithfully.
Your images of the Buzkashi tournament were breathtaking. How did you get these shots? These Buzkashi photographs have stood the test of time and are captivating every time I look at them. There are two images that stand out in particular from this series. The first image is the panorama of the horse riders chasing the leader with the “goat” on page 46. (I say “goat” because that is what is traditionally used even though in this case a calf was used.) This image was made as I was low to the ground, shooting up toward the riders, with a 200 mm lens on my camera that compressed the distance between the riders and the golden leaves of fall behind the riders.
On page 52 is an image that shows a rider in the heart of the scrum of horsemen as they fight each other for the “goat.” I made this image when the horsemen came barreling toward me and I found refuge on a large rock that was at the side of the field of play. The spectators around me had retreated up the hill. I stood fast on the boulder and used a 20mm lens to snap this image. This is one of those moments where I had to steady myself to keep shooting and was rewarded with a beautiful shot.
In the video on your blog, you said you hoped this book would help raise awareness of the plight of the thousands of would-be refugees who are seeking a better life. What can the average American or European citizen do to help? I think internalizing that the people fleeing these places, for the most part, are desperate to go back to their home. As you can see from this book, many of them come from some of the most breathtaking places on earth. When you encounter these people in their community it is important to remember that if you were in their community they would offer you a seat inside their home and some tea and act as your host while you are in their community. This is a custom that is often only afforded to close family in our culture but it is a custom afforded to any traveler or stranger in their culture. This can translate into a simple act of helping refugees navigate your city or as elaborate as helping refugees navigate government services.
Are there any stories behind any of the photos you’d especially like to share? The climb up the mountain takes the miners about four hours. They start off from the valley floor at first light with their supplies piled onto donkeys and make their mountain camps by noon. I was slow to start, so there were no more donkeys at the market to help me carry my week’s worth of supplies up the mountain. I was offered porters to carry my bags for me. I started up the mountain and the porters quickly left me in the dust. After four hours I was less than halfway up the mountain and the porters met me on their way down, my bags already safely delivered. They collected their pay from me and were on their way. I reached the camp that day just as the sun set.
• See Max’s work at PhotoNOLA, December 10-13, Second Story Gallery, 2372 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, Louisiana
• Purchase Max’s book and select prints on Etsy
• See more of Max’s work at www.maxbecherer.com
• Follow Max on Twitter @mlbecherer
• Subscribe to Max’s WordPress blog