When the World Trade Center towers were attacked in September, Lawrence photographer Gary Smith was in Amsterdam at an arts festival, doing what he does best: taking pictures of the local street scene. When he heard the first reports of the plane crashes, he ducked into a coffee shop surrounded by fellow Americans and a hodge-podge of nationals from all over the world. Smith knew instantly that he would soon be on his way to Afghanistan.
"It took about seven minutes for me to decide," Smith recalls. "I was watching the TV in one of those legal hash shops, and it was a pretty international crowd around me. The consensus was that this was going to change the world."
A week later, making his way back to the United States, Smith found himself in the Paris metro system, where the growing terrorist war was front page news on every magazine and paper. Scenes of the planes demolishing the buildings and of victims jumping to their deaths from burning skyscrapers were all anyone had to talk or read about. So going to Afghanistan, a nation racked by 20 years of warfare, unrest, excruciating poverty and controlled by Islamic extremists and terrorists, became the must-have ticket for Smith.
"Believe it or not, right now everyone wants to go there," he says. "It's the story of the year. It's the only story going on on the planet, so the hard part was really competing with all the other people; the bureaucrats, journalists and the military, who also wanted to get over there."
Smith holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Kansas University, and he originally started his career as a foreign correspondent with full press credentials, even winning a prestigious Hearst nomination for his photographs covering the early 1980s civil strife in El Salvador and Nicaragua. But Smith was developing a mode of operation different from other journalists. He became more interested in the human condition, concerning himself with how civilians were affected by major turmoil. He found himself aiming the camera more at the overlooked culture that usually doesn't make news coverage, which is typically saturated with casualty counts and the aftermaths of bombings.
To get his shots, Smith eschews using press credentials and often works without the assistance of regional guides. He books himself into a country under a tourist guise, and then wanders the streets, trying to blend in so he can point his 200 mm camera anywhere he wants, without attracting too much attention. That separates him from other foreign correspondents or combat photojournalists.
Smith considers himself an artist, and not a journalist.
"In Pakistan, I'd go out for hours, whereas the other guys only went out when they had to, and then always with a guide," he says.
Smith's travels have taken him to scores of exotic locales. He's seen the face of human tragedy during earthquakes in El Salvador.
He shot award-winning photos of a massive volcanic eruption on the West Indian island of Montserrat, which ended up in his book "Molten Memories," and he has seen his share of shoot-em-ups and artillery barrages in Central America. All of that was a primer for the machine gun-toting guides, clandestine border crossings into Afghanistan in robed-disguise and the screaming F-18 fighter jets Smith would encounter during his journey to the Middle East.
Smith has a tie-in with literally every hot spot connected to the New York City attacks. He had to send his passport away in order to get a visa into Pakistan, where he would base his operations, and his documents spent a week lying in the Brentwood, N.J., post office, the same week it was being checked for anthrax. (The Brentwood facility was the point of origin for the anthrax-laced letters that made their way to the office of Sen. Tom Daschle.) Smith literally had his paperwork in a zip-lock bag right before undertaking his trip.
"They never checked it for anthrax," he says nonchalantly.
Next, Smith made two visits to Ground Zero in Manhattan, where he shot photos of the twisted rubble and weary rescue workers. It put him in a different frame of mind for his upcoming overseas excursion.
"I was taken off-guard by this, like everyone else. I'm kind of a 'to-the-nose pacifist.' I won't fight until you hit me on the nose. That's the way I felt," he says. "I didn't feel like I was rising above all this as a social commentator."
After flying halfway around the world, Smith found himself in Pakistan. He spent time on the streets in Islamabad, where things were a bit more ordinary than most people realize.
"Pakistan is a civilized country. It has bowling alleys. It was during Ramadan, so for a non-Muslim, cigarette smoker like myself, I had to be careful not to do anything to offend anyone. It was kind of boring," he says.
That changed during the middle of December, when Smith moved on to the border town of Peshawar. Located in Pakistan's northwest province, it's a city seething with strife and turmoil. The porous border nearby has allowed for a non-stop flow of human traffic refugees, exiles, fleeing Taliban soldiers and (possible) al-Qaida terrorists all seeking asylum from Afghanistan in the overburdened Pakistan region.
Smith knew that many of the men he was watching were also watching him.
"Some of them were Taliban. They fled before the al-Qaida terrorists did. Pakistan isn't too worried about the Taliban. They've always supported them, but they did get their troops up there in time to prevent al-Qaida members from getting across the border. At least that's what they hoped for, anyway," Smith says. "But there were some men who would quickly turn away, or cover their faces when I pointed my camera at them. You could tell from the look in their eyes that they were hiding something. One guy wanted me to give him the picture I took. But I didn't want to, only because I didn't think it was a very good shot."
Smith wandered through the city and its bazaar, while staying in a hotel for $8 per night. His accommodations were about the only thing cheap on his journey. He soon discovered that there was a growing trade in the "fixer" market. Fixers are the guides familiar with the terrain, who will escort journalists and the military into Afghanistan. While trying to make arrangements to get into the restricted war zones, Smith connected with political-types and journalists on expense accounts, fellow travelers who helped cover costs.
He ended up making three crossings into Afghanistan, accompanied by guides carrying machine guns. The going rate was one guide for every two journalists, at a whopping $300 per day. Before the conflict, when the only stories were the neglected civil war and the Taliban's brutal atrocities, the cost was $3 a day.
Smith soon discovered that stereotypes reported on by many networks were quickly being shattered by the people he met. Most of the Muslims in Peshawar were, to say the least, extremely surprised to find a lone American walking their dusty streets. Smith says they accepted him with equal degrees of curiosity and friendliness, and that he felt free of danger most of the time.
Many of the inhabitants seemed fascinated by Smith and his camera. Children said hello to him again and again, repeating the only English they knew. Beggars approached him for money, and merchants wanted their picture taken with him. A small percentage of the population gave him what he calls Klachnikov-looks, meaning they were probably Taliban fighters wary over his presence. (Klachnikovs are Russian-made automatic rifles favored by Afghan soldiers.)
"I tried to keep moving so I wouldn't wear out my welcome," Smith says. "That helped. I also tried to not show fear, except when I was by myself in my hotel room. I think the timing of when I was there also helped. It was right after the bombers had really put them on the run. The people were seeing the Taliban as losers and the U.S. as winners. So to them I was a B-52. I was a daisy-cutter bomb in their midst. I was a winner. If I had been there the next week, or week after, then who knows what might have happened."
Not everyone thought the terrorists and their Taliban allies were losers. At night, as he tried to sleep, Smith heard the constant roar of B-52s on night bombing sorties. By day, though, he heard the street vendors outside his hotel, hawking T-shirts with photos of burning skyscrapers and Osama bin Laden's mug. The terrorist leader has quite a following, and many disgruntled natives still view the man as a jihad hero in the sacred battles against Western infidels.
"This is really a civilian's war, and I tried to approach it from that angle. And more and more it will be civilians dying in the fighting. I mean it's civilians selling the T-shirts. It was civilians who wrestled that guy down on that latest hijacked flight. (American Airlines hijacker Richard Reid tried to blow up his flight with C-4 explosives hidden in his shoes. It is believed he has connections with al-Qaida.) I mean, if he'd got that fuse to light, he'd have taken another plane down. And it was really a civilian, Rudy Giuliani, who was Time's '(Person) of the Year.' So I'm really looking at it as a civilian's war."
Since he's usually pointing his camera at civilians, and not directly into battle zones, Smith often feels reasonably safe. He claims he was in less danger than the combat photographers also on the scene, but since this was a terrorist fight, Smith felt himself looking over his shoulder a lot, which distracted from his camerawork.
"I spent about half my time shooting, and the other half of the time I was watching people who were watching me," he says. "My last day there I got some whispers that it was time to move on (from Peshawar), so I did."
The battle zone
Smith was not always successful at getting where he wanted to go. He was supposed to be on a United Nations flight into Kandahar, but he got bumped at the last minute. He was unable to get back on, even with the assistance of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. It probably came down to money or lack of it. The United Nations claimed it was going to cost $2,400 to fly Smith into the war-ravaged city. So Smith took some other routes.
His first stop was at the Afghan refugee camp on the border, with modest estimates numbering over 100,000 inhabitants. As far as he knows, Smith was the first photographer to get in. He was the first American many refugees had ever seen, and surprisingly, he was asked to address, through a translator, a group of 350 Afghan men. His speech was briefly interrupted by the U.S. military.
"As I'm talking about human rights, of all things, these F-18s come screaming overhead; one of the pilots doing a barrel roll to celebrate his run. It was so loud I had to stop talking," he says.
Afterward, the entire group insisted upon meeting him personally.
"I shook the hand of every one of the 350 men that were there," Smith says in amazement.
Smith then undertook a drive into Afghanistan, on his way to the city of Jalalabad. He was stopped at a checkpoint, held for over an hour, and then sent back to Pakistan. It was at the checkpoint that he felt most threatened.
"B-52s were overhead. F-18s were using the zone to (regroup) to go back in for more attacks. I was probably at greater risk from the U.S. Air Force than from anyone else. Even though we were pretty far from their targets, we were still underneath them, so you never knew how safe it was," he says.
On his next excursion, Smith traveled over dusty, barely-there roads to get near the notorious Tora Bora complex of caves, while it was under air attack. Smith was about 12 miles from the zone, and thankfully, the bombing was taking place on the other end of the cave network, about 50 miles away.
"That was as close as we could get, and that was close enough," he says.
His last foray was over the historic Khyber Pass, a strategic location where armies, including British and Russian, have fought and died throughout the years. Smith ventured in accompanied by guides and journalists. And he claims that he found some sense of peace under the vicious artillery explosions going on nearby.
"It wasn't much of a pass. But that's where everything was happening. And I'd rather be there than watching it on CNN. That's how I justify what I do, and how I make sense of things," Smith says. "I didn't think my trip was going to finish up there, but it really did. I was able to just sit there, underneath the air theater, and watch it all take place. My trip kind of ended there, and I wasn't expecting it to."
Smith had to fly out of Islamabad on Pakistan's only international carrier. The trip home took more than 27 hours to complete, and, after all his Mideast war zone experiences, Smith claims he was most frightened by what occurred on the flight while they cruised over German air space.
He was on the 747's upper deck, in the first class section. ("I never fly first class, but they bumped me up, " he says.) Smith started conversing with the flight attendant about the crew, who were visible from his seat. To his alarm, the attendant invited him up to visit the cabin even though he had no security clearance.
"It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up," Smith says. "After everything we've been through, and they let me up to visit the crew. I was able to go get my camera and come back and take some pictures. I was able to come and go into the cabin. It didn't even have a door on it. That tells me if the terrorists want to use that airliner to crash into the Eiffel Tower, then they can. They don't mind if they take a few hundred fellow Muslims with them."
Back safely in Kansas, Smith went to work on using the photos for a book he is currently writing, though he admits that its publication date is in the far-off future. Right now he's waiting to see how all this violent commotion turns out.
"This isn't over. It's only the beginning," Smith says. "I think people want to fool themselves into thinking that it's almost done. But this isn't over, not by a long shot."