The Mountains of Enduring Freedom

PhotographerEdmund Clark
PrizeHonorable Mention
Entry Description

Bagram Airbase is the biggest base of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan and home to 40,000 military personnel, the vast majority of whom never leave the base and never engage the enemy. These photographs represent their experience of Afghanistan – the dystopian relationship between the constant looming presence of the mountains around the base and the man-made landscape within the walls. At Bagram the Taliban still send rudimentary rockets into the world’s busiest military airfield. Like the mountains in which they hide they are ever present; waiting beyond the walls for the end of Enduring Freedom.

Story

There is a small blue-domed whitewashed mosque in the heart of the U.S. airbase at Bagram. It is set back from the main road at an angle to the grids of plywood huts, tents and endless metal containers typifying the architecture of America’s largest enclave in Afghanistan. The front of the building is a modern extension but the rear has the uneven surface and beam-ends of an older Afghan building. Perhaps it was there when the first runway was built in the 1950s, predating even the Soviet occupation? Mid-October afternoon clouds of arid dust raised by machines of construction and destruction cloak this occidental oasis of high-grade technology and low-grade living from what lies beyond the T Walls and razor wire. Immediately underfoot are prairies of rough gravel and concrete, served by tarmac tributaries. A panoply of hardware is accommodated here: Hercules, Thunderbolt, Apache, Stealth, Liberty, Blackhawk, Chinook, Predator, Reaper come and go around the clock. The variety of noise is compelling. The busiest military airfield in the world has power plants, state of the art sewage treatment, waste disposal and landfill, tented suburbs and downtown shopping. Infrastructure and facility management for 40,000 personnel is outsourced to big contractors and staffed by cohorts of multi-national civilians making good money servicing Operation Enduring Freedom. For that is the name given to the war in Afghanistan. The vast majority of these men and women never leave the base and never engage the enemy. They are confined to their oasis for the duration of their six postings. Their experience of Afghanistan can be distilled from two views: what they see of the country over the walls, and what they see of representations within. At Bagram, the view is dominated by the Hindu Kush and the meeting of the Ghorband and Panjshir valleys. The enclave of sand, gravel and concrete is two thirds encircled by the constant looming presence of these mountains. On occasions indiscernible, at other times sharpened by light and snow. There is a dystopian mismatch between the view around the base and the man-made landscape within. My stay coincided with Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, and a period of enhanced activity by local insurgents. Most nights were punctuated by two to a dozen distant impacts (no one seemed to know how many rockets were fired). These attacks added to a sense of an unidentified and untrammelled presence. Wars of resistance are characterised by technologically-advanced powers in fortified enclaves fighting far less sophisticated but fluid insurgencies hidden in the landscape. Like the mountains in which they hide they are ever present. Watching, beyond the walls, across a technological gulf and an abyss of mutual incomprehension and ignorance. Waiting for the end of Enduring Freedom. These photographs illustrate this endgame to the war in Afghanistan. At the end of 2014, after 13 years of conflict, the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan will cease combat operations.

About Photographer

Edmund Clark is an award-winning artist interested in linking history, politics and representation. His work traces ideas of shared humanity, otherness and unseen experience through landscape, architecture and the documents, possessions and environments of subjects of political tension. Recent works ‘Guantanamo: If The Light Goes Out’ and ‘Control Order House’ engage with state censorship to explore the hidden experiences and spaces of control and incarceration in the ‘Global War on Terror’. Clark’s work has been acquired for national and international collections including, in Britain, The National Portrait Gallery, The Imperial War Museum and The National Media Museum. He was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Hood Medal for outstanding photography for public service in 2011 and shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Pictet for 2012 for the theme of Power.