It is often said that the act of observing sometimes changes the observation itself. Does the presence of prying photographers change things? Photographers covering conflicts or illegal activities face this dilemma. During a massacre in Dacca, Bangladesh, many photographers mused whether it would not have happened if they were not there, and whether they were invited to a ‘photo-op’. On the other hand, a recent Vice documentary is criticized for following a group of Kyrgyz men on their way to kidnap a bride without intervening.
This dilemma was posed to the French photographer Alain Mingam in Afghanistan covering Mujahedeen rebels. Largely because he was sympathetic to the Mujahedeen’s cause fighting against the Russian invaders, Mingam when he was specifically brought to a place to witness an execution. He recalled, “For someone like me who didn’t cover the Vietnam war, the mujaheddin’s battle against the biggest army in the world was David versus Goliath: those bearded, turbaned men fascinated me.”
It was July 1980, just six months after the Soviet Union had invaded its southern neighbor to forestall the collapse of a pro-Soviet government in Kabul. Condemned by an Islamic war tribunal for denouncing nine families to the Russians, the man in the photo is escorted 20 km outside Kabul for execution. “If I had not been there, the man would not have been shot and then ritually beheaded,” Mingam later reflected. For months, he admits, he could not sleep because he felt like an accomplice.
Alain Mingam had a Zelig-like presence in many defining events of last half century. In 1968, he was a student at the University of Nanterre where the events of 1968 began when ‘Dany the Red’ was disciplined. He covered the “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal, the end of the colonels’ dictatorship in Greece, the French paratrooping intervention in Kolweizi, Zaire, and the massacres of refugees in Sabra and Shatila. In 1980, he arrived in Afghanistan posing as a tour agency operator to cover the war for Gamma.
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