Conflict photographer Balazs Gardi says that there is more to conflict than just action

Balazs Gardi, award-winning conflict photographer, remembers watching exploding packages of bottled water, as an embedded photo-journalist in Afghanistan, and thinking “how crazy is this?” US Marines were being evacuated and extra supplies meant extra weight. The water couldn’t be left behind lest it fall in the hands of the insurgents, so the decision was made to destroy it.

He had been travelling on foot for several days with the troops as they were looking for clues about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden.

War and water remain an integral part of the tapestry of Balazs Gardi’s life.

The forgotten war

And, “it quickly lost interest in Afghanistan and turned attention to the developing war in Iraq. Years later the same news outlets branded the situation in Afghanistan as the 'forgotten war' although calling it the 'ignored war' would have been more inaccurate."Balazs was a speaker at the INK Talks series.

He was part of One-Eight Basetrack, an experimental media project, which tracked the first battalion of the Eighth Marines (1/8th) through the duration of its deployment in Afghanistan. Working as an embedded journalist he saw war up close. Danger was a constant companion, “as much as the soldiers were exposed to it. Not more than that,” he says.

“Basetrack was our way of telling the everyday stories from both sides of the frontline bypassing traditional media outlets using social media to distribute our content.” The photographers on the project took turns covering the life of the unit, some stayed for weeks others for months at a time. Basetrack, he says, connected Marines and Corpsmen to their families, and also connected the broader, general public to the war.

For Balazs photography came rather late, when he was in high school, and because his grandmother suggested he take it up as a hobby. He then went on to study journalism and photography in Budapest. While working as a stringer for Reuters from Hungary, and as a staff photographer with a local daily, he realised very soon that “as a hired gun I was shooting what the editorial demanded. I wanted to raise my own questions.” He therefore quit.

No romance

He gravitated towards conflict photography because being drawn to war “came naturally. We are attracted to conflict.” And that led him to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has seen action very close and for that reason Balazs does not romanticise conflict-photography. The death and destruction of war holds no romance.

He says “People dying or getting injured, to me, are not collateral damage – they are wounded or dead civilians. But soon I realised that war was just the tip of the iceberg. All wars start somewhere, most of the time we just don't pay attention to the underlying currents, the smaller conflicts that escalate to full blown wars."

Reporting conflict made him wonder about ‘fixing the problem’ rather than just reporting it or/and waiting for conflict to happen. The sight of those exploding bottles of water in Afghanistan was one of the things that steered him towards water, which he refers to as another “form of conflict reporting.” He does a break up of the resources spent on one carton of water that was destroyed.

“For the bottled water to reach Afghanistan (in trucks from Pakistan), it would have been shipped to Pakistan from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where the water was packaged after desalination." The resources spent on producing and packaging that water made him wonder about “how little we know about our water. Once we understand what the issues are, some of us would eventually start to fix the problems.” Through his online magazine, ‘Azdarya’, Balazs documents how global water crisis clashes with the daily lives of individuals.

“More people die from waterborne diseases than from war each year. Through my travels I have seen countless examples of how water has affected the lives of people in profound ways.” He has seen the spectrum of the water crisis in India too – floods, drought and farmer suicides, the Ganga. He is driven by the belief that making the true nature of the water crisis known might ‘fix’ the problem in some way.