Andrew Quilty chuckles at the word. “It’s not really on anyone’s mind these days.”

A world away in the streets of Kabul, Quilty is one of the few Australians who chose to remain in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.  

With his camera and Instagram account the freelancer is capturing the country’s transition of power and the impact felt by civilians on the ground. Speaking to UTS students in a Zoom from the Afghan capital he shares his experience of living under the recently acquired new rule of the Taliban.

An an Afghan man sits on an armchair in the street against a backdrop of rubble and old buildings. There are used goods around him.

The transition of power has exacerbated existing economic issues. Source Instagram @andrewquilty

Two months have passed since the Taliban took hold of Afghanistan. In this time the regime has imposed restrictions on civilian activity and cracked down on political dissenters.

Quilty says the heavy Talib presence has reduced the risk of low-level crime and  ‘somewhat’ opened up the city’s streets for him.

“The threat of petty crime on the streets of Kabul has decreased dramatically because of the fear of being caught by the Taliban,” he says.

But the restrictions, he adds, are “tightening up day by day”.  

“To talk to any officials or to travel outside of Kabul you need to get the permission of the authorities in that area,” says Quilty. 

The media sector is also the target of tightened restrictions. The newly appointed director for the Government Media and Information Centre introduced 11 rules to further regulate the industry which has sparked fears press freedom will be undermined.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has criticised the measures and described them as ‘draconian’. They express concerns the rules if arbitrarily applied will limit the content journalists can report and share.

Notably, rule 7 prohibits the publishing of content that is not officially approved by the authorities and rule 8 restricts content that may be perceived as damaging to public opinion.

If they see you, they will stop you.

“Any aspect of life in Afghanistan that the Taliban would prefer the international community did not see, because it portrays them in a bad light, the Taliban are going to efforts to prevent you from being able to depict it,” says Quilty. 

“If they see you, they will stop you.”

Last month images of two Afghan journalists who were detained and beaten for covering a protest promoting women’s rights went viral. At the same protest Talib authorities warned foreign journalists that reporting events of a similar nature was illegal.

These policies have made it difficult for local journalists to share views which diverge from the regime’s ideology. Since the Taliban took power in August at least 32 journalists have been detained. And the fear of punishment for contravening a rule has led to the closure of 153 local media organisations. 

Quilty mentions he has met local journalists who were targeted by authorities while covering the protest.

‘They were beaten unconscious, I don’t mean they were made unconscious by beatings to the head – they were made unconscious because of the pain,” he says.

As a freelancer Quilty is largely responsible for his own safety and says there are ‘no guarantees’. 

However, he says being a foreign journalist from the West gives him some level of immunity. 

Quilty attributes this to the regime’s desire for legitimacy within global diplomatic relations, which he adds, “they’re trying so desperately hard to achieve”.

“It’s definitely not going to do the Taliban any favours to be seen harming a foreigner of any kind,” he says. 

“We do have some level of immunity in comparison to what local journalists face.”

Hundreds of Afghan journalists have fled to Europe and other countries in the region for their safety, most of Quilty’s friends and colleagues among them.  

I found it very hard to point my camera in any direction that didn’t incorporate years of history and modern politics and the very compelling notions of life and death.

But despite the turbulence Quilty is reluctant to leave.  

“It’s my home,” he says.

He mentions he has achieved the ‘perfect balance’ between work and life in Afghanistan. Adding, that it was in Afghanistan that he realised the power of photojournalism and his passion for it.

“Unlike anywhere else I had been before, I found it very hard to point my camera in any direction that didn’t incorporate years of history and modern politics and the very compelling notions of life and death,” he says.

“For the first time I really found meaning in my work.”

Quilty has captured the complex social and political landscape of the country since 2013. In 2016 he earned himself a Gold Walkley for his photograph ‘The Man on the Operating Table’ which was taken following the 2015 US airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz.

More recently his work in The Monthly and The Intercept led to several accolades including the Humanitarian Story Telling Walkley Award.

A patient lies dead on the operating table of Operating Theatre 3, inside the Operating Theatre wing of the main outpatient department building of the MSF Kunduz Trauma Center, following the October 3 attack by an American AC-130 gunship on the hospital in which, as of October 25, 30 individuals had been confirmed killed, including staff, patients and others (possibly patient carers).

‘Man on the Operating Table’ by Andrew Quilty.

While Quilty remains in the thick of the unraveling situation, he’s worried he may grow weary if the situation continues to decline.

“Afghanistan is such an incredibly spectacular and photogenic place,” he tells the group. 

“That has certainly given me professional reason to be here. I don’t think that will ever really dissipate going forward in the future, what may is my tolerance for watching a country go down hill.” 

Quilty is currently working on a book about the fall of Kabul. 

Main image screenshot from video.