Traveler of October: Jim Huylebroek

Documenting the Afghan National Forces while fighting the Taliban, flying on Military Helicopters over Kabul, or travelling to Timbuktu while nobody else did. Jim has done it all. He is not only a very talented and accomplished photographer but also a great friend I admire.


Jim and I have spent some time travelling Afghanistan. We crossed the world famous Salang Pass together, dinned with the Ministers while smoking cigars, and we spent the most heartbreaking Valentines Day in Kabul at the Safi Landmark Hotel. Great memories...


"the daily routine of a frontline photographer..."


I'm happy to kick off this new "Traveler of the month" series with such a great adventurer like him and to give you a little insight about what the daily routine of a "frontline" photographer looks like.

jim huylebroek afghanistan

Jim, a little more than 7 months in Afghanistan are slowly coming to an end. Are you happy to finally head home or are there things you're going to miss?

Actually, I am not going home just yet. A colleague and I will be working on a story about opium production in Afghanistan and the smuggle routes towards Western Europe.


We will travel through Iran, Turkey, the Balkans into Western Europe, but after those two months I’ll be heading back towards Afghanistan. I’ve been here over seven months straight now, but when I return I’ll be traveling back and forth to my home and other countries more often.

You took some incredible photos in Afghanistan which have been published on big websites around the world. But let's talk about the few moments you haven't captured. What was the most memorable moment in the last couple of months?

So many great memories, it’s hard to choose one in particular. What will definitely stay with me forever is the Afghan hospitality.  The way in which people make a guest feel at home around here is simply incredible.

"Young guys risking their lives for the country..."


Other than that, as I often work with Afghan Security Forces, I get to talk to soldiers a lot. Young guys risking their lives for the country. Most of them have grown up as refugees in places like Pakistan and Iran, and have now returned to defend their homeland. The stories I hear from them affect me a lot.

After all the time spent at the Hindu Kush, what is your impression of the country and it's future? Is there hope for a better and safe Afghanistan?

The situation in this country is very volatile. After years of relative calm and prosperity the aid money is leaving along with the foreign troop drawdown. A much weaker economy and increased insecurity make for a situation where people have lost hope again. They either smuggle themselves to the West or turn to extremism.

"I don't see a bright future for Afghanistan..."


Then there is the problem of corruption which is deeply endemic to the system. If these things don’t change I don’t see a bright future for Afghanistan any time soon. Of course I hope somebody will stand up and tackle these issues because after 35 years of war the people have already suffered way too long. 

I know you are incredibly cool and my readers probably share the same impression of you, but have there been moments when you were shit scared doing the things you do?

The only time I felt stressed out was when I was on the plane from Dubai, getting ready to enter Afghanistan for the first time. The moment I met my host (I met him through CouchSurfing) fear turned into excitement and everything went relatively smooth from there.


"I have been close to suicide bombings..."


In the seven months I’ve been here I’ve been close to suicide bombings, been shot at on the frontline and a lot of bumpy helicopter rides. Of course it is scary sometimes but I think the way you deal with it is more important then the fear itself.

Photos can be incredibly powerful and sometimes even change the world. What was your first thought when you saw the photo of the young kurdish refugee that drowned in the Aegean sea which went viral?

My thought was: is this what it all has come down to? Does the world really have to see these terrible scenes before they realize something has gone very wrong?


Unfortunately many people in Europe still see the influx of refugees as a threat to their own businesses instead of trying to understand what they are going through.

You also travelled Mali for quite some time in 2014, what was this trip all about?

I went to Mali to cover the (post)conflict situation as part of my graduation project for photography school. This was my first experience working in an active war-zone and it took me some time to figure out the practical side of things.

"Mali is such a beautiful country..."

I had literally no budget but still got the story I was after. Mali is such a beautiful country, a crossroad of cultures. Hopefully the situation gets better soon and tourism picks up again. The people rely on it, it is their main income so the war has definitely affected them a lot. 

A couple of months in Africa, a few in the Middle East - which one left a bigger impression on your soul?

Very hard to say. In a way the two are similar, affected by war, terrorism and poverty. I loved the feeling of being isolated in the desert in Mali, but the situation in Afghanistan is so complex that I want to spend more time. All world powers have an interest here, and the Afghan people continue to bear the brunt.

We all have big dreams or goals we want to accomplish one day, what is yours? What kind of photos can we expect from you in the near future?

We plan to travel the Balkan Route, which is the traditional smuggling route to Western Europe and crosses Iran, Turkey and the Balkans. The main focus of the project will be the impact drug production and trafficking has on the people along this route.


Of course we know there is a certain risk as people involved in this illicit business don't want to be exposed but i'm sure we will come up with something interesting. Stay tuned for the final result!

"Follow the the journey #TheHeroinTrail"

The obvious starting point is in Helmand, Southern Afghanistan. Roughly 80% of the world's opium comes from this province, which is the size of Wales.


We try to gather as much information as we can from government agencies, the United Nations and the different factions involved.

What is your advice to all talented photographers out there who can't seem to turn their passion into a job?

Work hard, go out there, learn from experienced colleagues. When you get to the right places, you meet interesting people who will help you in every way they can.

Combine the network you build along the way with the stories you produce and work will come. It is a full-time job, you have to make big sacrifices but if you are prepared to do that it will start paying off.

Josh Cahill and Jim Huylebroek in Afghanistan
Jim and myself near Mazar-E-Sharif in the northern part of Afghanistan.

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