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Sustainability in Afghanistan - Photography and Interview with Teru Kuwayama

Teru Kuwayama is a photojournalist and social media advocate covering social justice and the human terrain in conflict zones. He is Photo Community Liaison at Facebook. Photos below by Teru Kuwayama.


Centerpoint Now, the biennial publication of World Council of Peoples for the United Nations, invited photojournalist and founder of Basetrack, Teru Kuwayama, to describe his vision of “sustainability” in the context of his experience documenting both US military activity and the local civilian population in Afghanistan.

Where have you encountered the term”sustainability and what does it mean to you?

“Sustainability” is sometimes a meaningful concept and often a buzzword, or a term that becomes perforated in its usage. I constantly hear the idea of sustainability being raised when I try to get information out about a situation or try to deliver assistance to the people I’m photographing who live in dire conditions. When approaching a donor, they frequently say, “that’s important, but how is it sustainable?” There’s an implicit expectation that doing something important should somehow generate a long-term solution, so as to not require external support in the future. I understand the parable about “giving people fish” versus “teaching them how to fish,” but I also think we have a convoluted way of looking at these issues. For example, a decade-long war in Afghanistan doesn’t have sustainability benchmarks, but the most crucial things on earth, like feeding hungry children, or informing and educating the public through journalism, are expected to be “sustainable,” and have viable business models attached to them. I think that’s perverse. Certain things have to be done, regardless of whether or not they can be self-sustaining. It’s unsustainable to keep demanding arbitrary sustainability requirements for actions that are vital. It’s unsustainable to allow poverty, ignorance and conflict to proliferate in the world. To say we’re only going to support initiates that alleviate problems when they meet donor benchmarks as described on administrative forms is the wrong approach.

Could you provide a specific example?

I’ve been to Afghanistan twice in the past two months.The first time, I went to do a broad survey of what had happened since I left. I spent part of my time embedded with the military, which is focused on launching the Afghan security forces. I actually saw that they made progress, but I didn’t see how it could be considered “sustainable.” We’re building a force of over 350,000 armed police and soldiers, but here doesn’t seem to be a viable plan to support that force over the long term. I was embedded with marines who had just completed an 82 million dollar infrastructure project to build a base complex for the Afghan army right next to the massive US Military base complex that they were dismantling, and there was already consensus that the new one was unsustainable, because the Afghans won’t have the ability to provide it with fuel and water, and it’s situated in the middle of the desert. Then, in Kabul, I witnessed glass, steel and concrete everywhere with massive high-rise buildings, shopping centers, and wedding halls, paid for, in no small part, but the spill off from hundreds of billions of dollars of US military spending in Afghanistan through politically connected local contractors. What will happen in a year from now when external support evaporates? In the middle of all this expansion you see refugee and IDP camps which are being called “informal settlements” because the UN doesn’t want to recognize the dwellers as refugees or internally displaced people. There are 50 to 80 shantytowns surrounded by these new construction sites and inhabited by people living in absolute squalor with no access to drinking water, and children freezing to death in the winter. Yet, when you ask where the support is for these people the typical response is: “If we give them food or water they’ll never leave; it’s unsustainable.” I understand the concern but I can’t comprehend how certain critical matters are faced with the restrictions of being “sustainable,” while for many projects that received blank checks it’s questionable whether we should be doing them in the first place.

With journalism it’s the same situation. Organizations are now trying to figure out the path forward for journalism, and the “sustainability” requirement is one that constantly comes up as the journalism industry tries to wrap its head around the question of how to survive financially. I think the question has to be reframed. if we look at the war in Iraq, trillions of dollars were spent and catastrophic amounts of blood were spilled in large part because of a poorly informed and engaged public. There’s a huge cost to not having a good information flow, but the journalism industry persists on questioning the value of journalism if it can’t be viable commercially. By that same logic, we should give up on public education and even on parenting. Should I ask my daughter to explain to me how she is a sustainable venture? By any practical standard, she’s not, but there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s nothing more important than providing her with everything I can. The flip side would be to reconcile that if I didn’t care for my child, she would have problems that are far more costly to myself and to society than the responsibility of taking care of her in the first place.

How is your practice of making your photography available to the public for non-commercial use viewed by your colleagues?

Among many of my colleagues it’s controversial to allow one’s work to be published free of charge. Many people think I’m a heretic by letting people download my pictures for free. Selling to the highest bidder may be logical if one photographs celebrities. But when you are photographing children in refugee camps, dealing with difficult subjects that people don’t instinctively want to grapple with, to not let anyone see the work unless they pay enough is counterproductive to our stated goal of making the world a better place. I believe people see that inherent contradiction and that’s one of the reasons why the journalism industry is in crisis.

One of your previous initiatives, Basetrack, was eventually shut down on the bounds of security concerns. Is censorship and issue?

When reporting on wars and military operations, there will always be elements that will try to control, spin, or block information, but self censorship is what’s most detrimental. The big issue of the day is privacy and surveillance, with the government harvesting communication, but the New York Times had that story for a least a year before they reported it. So there are two parts: Governments try to hide uncomfortable information and news organizations have been complicit in accommodating them.

Does the practice of being embedded with the Marines impact your perspective?

When embedded, you have to be cognizant. The artificial approach is to imagine that one can avoid being influenced by the people in one’s surroundings. I find the attitude of people who criticize embedded reporting, claiming that it’s an inherently flawed system, to be strange and slightly disingenuous. What kind of reporting is not flawed in the same way? The only difference when I’m with the military is the use of the word “embedded.” While living with any community, be it the military or Tibetan monks, I’m influenced by them and grow to appreciate them. Why do people think that in some contexts their activity is pristine and untainted, while in others it wouldn’t be? When I’m embedded with US marines, they do have an effect on me. The same happens when I’m with refugees in Kabul. That’s not fundamentally a problem at all: that connection and compassion are the basis of good work.

What is your current focus? I’m working to bring relief to one of the settlements in Kabul, which, as I mentioned before, isn’t being classified as a refugee or IDP camp by UNHCR. I’m trying to figure out ways to bring water, and in a few months, when the winter conditions set in, blankets and heat as well. I’ve been talking to a handful of local NGOs, as well as to an American NGO that may become a fiscal sponsor, and to a small network of photojournalists who are interested in doing more reporting from the camp. A philanthropist from the TED network has offered frequent flyer miles to enable travel. There are many pieces and players up in the air, so I will soon be heading back to Afghanistan to develop the project further. My goal is both to deliver relief and to raise the question of why, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars, in many cases on projects that are unproductive and unsustainable, we are not attending to the most obvious humanitarian needs.

Teru Kuwayama

Teru Kuwayama is an American photojournalist based in New York with an interest in covering international crises. He was a 2013 Hoover Institution William and Barbara Edwards Media Fellow, and was selected as a TED Senior Fellow in 2012 and a TEDGlobal Fellow in 2010. He was also a 2010 Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Columbia University, and a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 2009. He won the Knight News Challenge Award in 2010. Teru Kuwayama is one of the minds behind Basetrack, a social-media experiment launched in 2010 that connected soldiers stationed in Afghanistan with their families back in the States until it was put on hold in 2011. Website TED


One-Eight is an experimental media project, funded by a 2010 Stanford University Newschallenge Grant to Teru Kuwayama, to use an online journal –, to chronicle the events of a military battalion by connecting the personnel, their families and other stakeholders and share information through their online social network.

A small team of mobile media operators, organized by photojournalist Teru Kuwayama, embedded with the battalion, transmitted their reports and reflections from Helmand province as they traveled across the battalion’s area of operations between August and January 2011. They broadcast to the United States and beyond “using social media, with the hope that it can bring the war back to the American public in the way that television did during the Vietnam years….  I am personally of the opinion that the American public should be much more aware of what its military is doing and be more engaged with the military and should be listening to the military.”  …Teru Kuwayama

Basetrack’s team was supported by a network of technologists, analysts, artists, and journalists, working around the clock, from around the world, to connect over a thousand Marines and Corpsmen to their families, and to connect a broader public to the longest war in US history.

Basetrack ‎@Sadika quoted Brigadier Ed Davis, “If we are going to succeed in Afghanistan, we need to focus on the cause of the insurgency – which is the intimidated, vulnerable, disenfranchised people – and not the symptom, which is the insurgent fighter.”

Basetrack is a non-profit initiative, operated by November Eleven, a US-based, 501(c)3 public charity. Basetrack takes an open-source approach to journalism, making its original content freely available for non-commercial use under Creative Commons licensing protocols, and employing open, ubiquitous social media platforms to distribute its reporting, and to engage public participation in the reporting process. A free, downloadable, WordPress-based “Basetrack system” will be made available to the public for use in future media projects.


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