Photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg Captures ‘Afghanistan’s Heritage’

Nickelsberg has documented decades of violent war and its devastating effects in Afghanistan. Now, he talks to Fortune about a project that records attempts to preserve the country's history.
December 23, 2018 4:00 PM UTC
The Citadel towers over Herat's bazaar. Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

For most people, Afghanistan is a place we hear a lot about on the news but will never get to personally experience. But photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg serves as the public’s eyes, as he has spent more than 30 years photographing the country.

Nickelsberg has documented decades of violent war and its devastating effects in an up close and personal way. But his most recent project on the country shows the resilient spirit of Afghans and how their heritage weaves throughout daily life.

In 2016, Nickelsberg worked with the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Program to create Afghanistan’s Heritage: Restored Spirit and Stone, a photographical and governmental record of preservation projects the U.S. has funded. Since 2002, the U.S. has contributed more than $47 million to more than 50 preservation projects like archaeological excavations, restoration of monuments, and restoring museum collections that were once smuggled.

The Sher Surkh Mausoleum, found inside the historic Shohada ye Saleheen cemetery of Kabul, is a resting place for recent Muslim martyrs, historical figures and several pre-Islamic archaeological sites.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

“This was a chance to break out from 30 some odd years pounding the turf and finding weekly stories of violence and destruction in Afghanistan,” Nickelsberg tells Fortune. “It wasn’t to avoid that but instead to concentrate on a positive light, through the Afghan’s eye of what they celebrate and appreciate.”

One of Nickelsberg’s favorite images is the cover photo as it very directly shows the country’s past and present. He captured a view of tradition as kids peer out the front of the car while a woman sits in the back. The Citadel, which had its restoration funded by the U.S., stands proud and strong in the background giving the historical dimension of the Persian Empire. Yet, those in the market passing by pay little attention and go on with their lives.

The Citadel towers over Herat’s bazaar.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

“There’s a timelessness in the image that combines a lot of great aspects of the country and its culture. But the question is, can that be maintained for the future?”

One of the projects the department funded, for nearly $14 million, went toward restoring the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul to educate the next generation on their past. Though 70% of its artifacts were destroyed or stolen during the Afghan Civil War and the Taliban era, many have slowly made their way back home.

School children are guided past a statue of a sitting Buddha from the 3-4th century AD at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan. The statue was repaired after it was smashed by the Taliban.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

Each artifact in the museum is meant to reunite Afghans with their own forgotten history. Many think Afghanistan as only Islamic, but it was Buddhist for nearly 700 years. Recently, several Buddhist statues were returned from Japan and the U.K. forming a new restored collection that’s expected to be completed by next year.

(Left:) Early photographs show a few of the roughly 600 sculptural heads delivered from Hadda, Nangarhar. (Right:) Conservator Ghufran Hanifi stabilizes the coloring on a clay sculpture excavated in Baghlan.Photographs by Robert Nickelsberg
Photographs by Robert Nickelsberg

The oldest mosque from the Eighth Century, Noh Gunbad in Balkh may be the most important and striking facility featured in Nickelsberg’s project. It is the most prized pilgrimage destination but because of the war and the risks, most Afghans—including Nickelsberg’s translator—have never been there. Considered a mini mecca in Hinduism and Islam, the “nine domes” have been undergoing groundbreaking preservation work for almost 10 years.

“Even as it’s being restored, it still remains a holy location. You can see and feel the devotion,” Nickelsberg says.

The pillars of Noh Gunbad in Balkh are stabilized by conservation experts.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Noh Gunbad in Balkh remains a popular pilgrimage destination and is Afghanistan’s earliest known Islamic structure dating back to the Eighth century.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

The photographer describes his project as an opportunity to design a record from scratch, having lateral freedom to show what he thought was most important and prioritizing visuals before text.

“Sometimes as a journalist, you just drive by [sites] saying I wish we had time to stop there. But this was just the opposite. We are stopping!”

One of those sites included an earthen wall that still stands guarding the “mother of all cities” in Balkh. Protecting roughly 2,300 acres of small farms and orchards, unregulated growth from the city is threatening its preservation.

The ancient wall surrounding Balkh encircles 2,300 acres and once guarded the “Mother of All Cities.”Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

Though there are physical walls and boundaries in Afghan cities, Nickelsberg describes a part of the culture that breaks down other confines. When he visited The Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul, he was greeted with beautiful sounds echoing throughout the halls coming from students using both traditional and modern instruments. In the generally male-dominated and gun-dominated society, he observed a safe haven of ideas, self-improvement, and enlightenment.

“I heard piano being played so I walked around the hallways following the sound. Inside a room, there was a young lady practicing on a Yamaha piano sitting with perfect posture doing her drills. There was a very adult-like person there, yet she was 12. There was a very different atmosphere in that room.”

A young pianist poses before resuming practice at the Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

Yet when students leave, they’re faced with the same survival risks as before.

“It’s certainly not too much of a stretch to say it’s risky out there. People are more anxious and tense today than in 2016 when I photographed this project. Attacks are more frequent and patience is running out.”

Two National Police security guards open the metal gates to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

But what Nickelsberg finds admirable about Afghans is that they have grown with that risk and despite their circumstances, they keep enduring and persisting.

“I had to grasp the concept that they worry about survival rather than historical legacy. There is so much insecurity, and they have an amazing tolerance for that. Children are the ones that are benefiting from the institutional support and families benefit from shrines and museums. Attendance of museums is up, music school attendance is up, and restoration is continuing,” he says. “Society will endure.”

Pedestrians make way as a bus navigates through the old city market below the Citadel in Herat.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Schoolgirls are among the tens of thousands who visit Baghe Babur, a famous example of Mughal garden design.Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg
Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg

Afghanistan’s Heritage: Restoring Spirit and Stone was published by The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in collaboration with the United States Department of State. Robert Nickelsberg is an award winning photojournalist. Follow him on Instagram.