After years of covering conflict in Afghanistan, Jonathan Saruk came across the smoke-filled movie theaters of Kabul, where the harsh realities of daily life can be forgotten for a few hours. Seduced by the beauty of the rundown buildings, many of which had been damaged during the civil war, the photographer started documenting what goes on in the darkness of Afghan theaters. Three years later, he’s raising funds to publish his first book, “The Forbidden Reel: A Journey Through the Cinemas of Kabul.”
Roads & Kingdoms: When did you live in Afghanistan?
Jonathan Saruk: I moved there in October 2008 and stayed through June the next year. At the time, Afghanistan was the big story of the day, and so like many photographers fresh out of school, I wanted to get right in there, so I had set up several embeds with the military during the first few months I was there. Since then, I have returned over a half a dozen times, usually for a month or so.
R&K: You were attracted to the country because you wanted to cover conflict?
JS: Yes, initially. Since college I have always wanted to cover hard news and be in the thick of it. But after being embedded for several months, my attention began to be pulled towards the more daily life types of stories. While that transition had been building in my head for a while, the trigger so to speak was actually when I shifted to a different photo agency and it became a lot more difficult for me to apply for an embed. It ended up being fortuitous as I rather quickly began stumbling upon interesting stories in and around Kabul that I found equally satisfying and important to cover. Being embedded in a sense is quite easy, especially as a freelancer. The story is always right in front of you, you sleep there, they feed you, you move around with them, and it doesn’t cost anything. Obviously it was dangerous at times and hard work physically, but if you get up every morning and push yourself, you usually get something interesting to file. Back in Kabul, I had a lot more freedom. I would meet with my fixer and we would go out and find stories. It was great to be able to just walk around, interact with Afghans without body armor on and just take my time and find some inspiration. At the same time, it was also much more stressful and there was a lot of competition.
R&K: I can imagine. Who did you embed with?
JS: The US and the French. The Americans had the least amount of restrictions in terms of engaging the public and the enemy. The French were much more careful and wary of doing something risky.
The situations were often stressful when the military was around.
R&K: And what was your relationship with the soldiers like?
JS: Unfortunately I only took French for two semesters in college, so it was much easier to communicate and get along with the American soldiers. I also spent a lot more time with the Americans—I only did one embed with the French and I was thrown out after only a week.
R&K: You were thrown out?
JS: Kind of a long story, but in short, while at a forward operating base in Kapisa called Tagab, there was a massive fire. It destroyed a dozen vehicles, killed an Afghan employee, but it made for amazing pictures, obviously. So I took a few shots and filed them. I didn’t break any rules according to my contract, but the pictures made their way to the desk of Paris Match and to put it mildly, the Colonel on the base was not happy.
R&K: Wow. So even though embedding brings some facility, it also has a lot of constraints…
JS: Absolutely. The biggest restraint is when photographing the dead and wounded. Technically you are supposed to have written permission, which is of course hard to get after the fact. So unless you get everyone to sign a waiver at the beginning, you are technically not allowed to photograph them if something happens.