The young Kiwi photographer who went to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran

by Clare de Lore / 25 March, 2017
ArticleGalleryModule - Joe Dowling war photography

Armed with a camera, cash and board games, Joe Dowling spent a month in Afghanistan. And he wants to go back, just as the US calls for more troops to train Afghan soldiers against a resurgent Taliban. 

A backgammon board seems an unlikely travel ­essential, but 29-year-old Joe ­Dowling says it made all the ­difference during his year-long travels in the Middle East.

The Aucklander was just 26 when he decided in 2014 to head to the hotspots of Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. His planned career as a ­professional snowboarder had fallen through after he “aggressively injured” his knees. ­Eventually, after completing a ­commerce degree at the University of Otago, Dowling took up freelance commercial photography in Auckland, but he found the work unfulfilling.

When he booked a one-way ticket to Kabul, his lawyer friend Nick Latty also threw in his job, and the pair set off. They agreed to take as little as possible, but the backgammon board was non-negotiable.

Educated at Avondale College and Wanaka’s Mount Aspiring College, ­Dowling now works as a copywriter for a design agency, though photography remains his first love and he recently exhibited in Auckland. But he keeps up his Middle East contacts and plans to return to the region that has captured his attention and creative instincts.

What drew you to that part of the world?

I’ve always followed the news, so it’s an area that has long been in my ­consciousness. It was a topical choice, as Afghanistan was on the cusp of its first elections since the American invasion. But really, I hadn’t seriously imagined going there until the flight was booked.

Were you warned off it by friends and family?

Everyone tried to talk us out of it. They said I was being stupid and would die. On my return, I was able to say, “I told you so.”

You set off with little except your passport, cash, camera and board games. What’s the link between photography and backgammon?

I studied photography at school and university and I’ve always been interested in journalism. I love writing, but I am not a trained literary journalist. Photography is more my avenue for exploring conflict zones and documenting them.

I also really love backgammon. It was created in the Middle East, and I thought it would be a way to explore something I was passionate about in terms of photojournalism. I’d go and play backgammon with a whole lot of people in a country where it’s been played ever since it was invented thousands of years ago.

Everyone there knows how to play it, so I just carried my board around and would sit down and play backgammon with random strangers. It was a great icebreaker, a fantastic way to begin an interaction and endear yourself to people. Quite often I’d sit down and have a ­furious game of backgammon and then I’d ask if I could take their portrait, or a photo of them and their family. It was really interesting to see people change from being animated and excited while playing backgammon to being intense and staring while their photo was taken.

You make it sound like an impulsive decision to head to the Middle East, but I assume you can’t just head to places such as Afghanistan without doing your homework?

We did quite a lot of research, even if it was a bit haphazardly. We made contacts, and spoke to former MP Chris Carter, who was working there for the United Nations ­Development Programme at the time. He was incredibly helpful and if it hadn’t been for him, we would have been in an even tighter spot than we were. He sent a driver in an armoured truck to pick us up at Kabul Airport, because it’s not a good idea to be unescorted in a taxi to your hotel. He gave us a lot of good advice. When we arrived, it was two weeks before the first election in 2014, after the American invasion, and the Taliban were trying to disrupt things. There were sieges, bombs going off, and it was difficult to get around, and ill-advised.

How did you get around?

I had met an Afghan refugee in Auckland who put me in touch with his cousin. I phoned him when we got there and he came around. He picked us up and took us to meet his young friends, forward-­thinking, progressive Afghans, who hosted us while we were there. It was amazing to meet this group of young men who had a lot of the same views as us. We would sit around late at night discussing politics. It is definitely the most ­memorable time of my life.

Were you scared?

We were unsafe, there is no doubt about it, but I was at peace with that. I couldn’t change the situation, so decided to make the most of it by trying to understand what was going on.

Doesn’t walking around with a camera make you a target?

You can’t even walk around. The week before we arrived, a Dutch journalist was shot in the street, so our friends urged us not to leave the hotel without them. They said they would take us places where we could take photos. Each morning, they called to tell us where the danger spots were. We trusted them implicitly and they looked after us. There is a lot of beauty in Afghanistan, and mostly that is in the people. Everyone was kind, humble and welcoming during our month in Afghanistan.

Even when you were in real hotspots in the region?

We were on the border between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. A few mortars landed as we arrived, but the Peshmerga soldiers kept going about their day-to-day things. But after half an hour, they told us that although they enjoyed our company, it was too dangerous for us to stay and we needed to get out. As we were hurrying to our car, one of them ran out and said, “Sorry, guys, you do need to leave, but you must first have lunch.” So we sat in their barracks eating chicken soup and rice for the next 20 minutes before evacuating. It was very cool.

Why was your exhibition called A Window That Isn’t There?

I like to think of it as being a different perspective into a world we see a lot of. We are bombarded with photos of war, carnage and depravity, but I am trying to create a window with a different view. It is also a lyric from a song, The Sing, by a guy I really like, Bill Callahan.

What were your other survival essentials, apart from the backgammon board?

I tried to travel light, because we wanted to be able to move quickly if we had to. We had tents, but we didn’t end up using them. We also had a chessboard, but the backgammon board and the camera were essentials, as well as a passport. My ­backgammon board doubled as a library; it was filled with books. When you opened it, you took out all the books, then played backgammon.

What books did you take?

I love Albert Camus, and took quite a few of his books, including The Plague, and The Fall. And a few books by Aldous Huxley. We also had a big book by Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation. Nick and I were actively consuming Fisk while we were over there. He is one of the most incredible writers on that area. The body and volume of his work on that area are mind-blowing. His book was inspiring.

Did your trip and the exhibition inspire you to explore other hotspots?

I want to go back. To continue to do work like this [exhibition] is my end goal. I keep in touch with the friends we made, mostly on Facebook. They are pessimistic about the situation there.

What’s the hardest part of the work?

It’s mostly financial. The photography is not too difficult. Once you understand your camera, and how to use it, it is a matter of composition and keeping your cool. It is expensive, though – in Kabul, we were paying so much money just for security. If you are doing it off your own bat – and we were – it’s about $200-$250 a day just to go out, and then you have to pay for your hotel. Staying alive is expensive.

This article was first published in the March 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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