One of the highlights of Storyology in Sydney was Jennifer Byrne’s Q & A session with Gold Walkely winning photographer, Andrew Quilty and his cousin, Archibald Prize winning painter and activist, Ben Quilty who discussed their work on the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Andrew began by describing the weeklong journey he made into the bombed out Kunduz hospital building to take the now familiar and shocking photo that went on to win both the Gold Walkley award for Journalistic Excellence and the Nikon Walkely Photo of the Year award for 2016: The Man on the Operating Table. He described moving forensically through the building, which had since been overrun by the Taliban, while drenched in sweat with the sound of fighting mere blocks away ringing in his ears. He remembered opening the swing doors to the operating theatres to capture the image of Baynazar Mohammad Nazar lying dead on the operating table under a pile of rubble. When asked if he knew it was THE photo, Andrew said “I knew it was a symbolic scene” but he only realised its true significance later. Andrew later went on the capture husband and father of four’s family’s devastation in the aftermath of his death in a vivid and raw photo essay; a project that he believes was important to give context by chronicling the life of the victim.
As the official war artist for the Australian War Memorial, Ben Quilty captured another side of the war in Afghanistan – the trauma suffered by Australian veterans during and after the war. On his decision to keep painting the veterans when they had returned home from the war, despite resistance from the the Department of Defence, he described veterans having nervous breakdowns and attempting suicide on return and said: “You have to keep these people’s stories going.” On his well known campaign against the execution of Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia, he added that he wanted to give people a voice: “Without a voice, no one hears them.”
When asked how they view their work, Ben said: “Activisim – all artists are activists, it’s what we do… making something is activism.” referring to the power of Picasso’s Guernica as an example. Andrew believes the main thing the cousins have in common is anger and their tendency to take risks out of anger. It is something he sees as a common trait in their family that he attributes to a strong “social justice streak” in their upbringing. “We grew up in such privilege and you go out and see how others live…” he reflected.
Andrew believes that Afghanistan has been professionally good for him but living there and watching a country in decline is very difficult and tiring. He continues to cover the war in Afghanistan, unsure of when will be the right time to stop covering it. Ben spoke of his new project, a book about Syrian refugee children that he is working on with Booker Prize winning author, Richard Flanagan, due to be published in March 2018, stating: “There is universal truth in children’s drawings.”