What It’s Like to Be a Conflict Photographer in the World’s Most Challenging Places

From Afghanistan to Sierra Leone, photographer Maria de la Guardia finds beauty and purpose in the most misunderstood corners of the world. Here, she shares the complicated realities of documenting stories during war.

What It’s Like to Be a Conflict Photographer in the World’s Most Challenging Places

A boy rides a horse at Lake Qargha, a recreational area near Kabul in Afghanistan.

Photo by Maria de la Guardia

“I document human stories in some of the world’s most remote and misunderstood locations and cultures. I have lived abroad for nearly 17 years and called a dozen countries home. Now I’m back in Afghanistan.

When nonprofit organizations contract me to document the work they do, some give me insurance, medical coverage, and kidnapping protection. When I’m not with them, I take care of all that myself and know that if I get kidnapped, I’m on my own. It’s more difficult, but I have a lot of freedom. I can travel where I want and choose where I live without meeting the security standards imposed by NGOs. I need that flexibility to tell the best stories.

The last time I was in Kabul, I had my own bungalow in a predominantly Afghani neighborhood. Most foreigners hire a chowkidor. Chowki in Dari means chair and dor is door, so it literally means a guy who sits in a chair and watches your door. He’s not armed, but he opens and closes the gate and looks to see who is on the street. I didn’t have one. I didn’t have barbed wire around the top of my fence. What I did have was good neighbors.

The key is listening and showing absolute respect to whomever you’re talking to.

It took time to build those relationships. When I first moved in, it was a harsh winter. I had a tiny generator that would power two lights and a laptop. I made relationships by loaning the generator to my neighbors. Little things like waving or kicking a football to their kids also helped.

When you’re on the ground in conflict zones, you can separate yourself from the war stories. You see the simplicity of everyday lives and how much we all have in common. The key is listening and showing absolute respect to whomever you’re talking to. If they can see that you’re not coming in to enforce your own ideas or beliefs, they’ll start to trust you. You’re not just there taking a picture because it looks beautiful; you’re there because you’re interested in their life. That’s when the real stories start to come out.

Only a small circle of foreigners remains in Afghanistan today. We share a passion for the country and its people. I am most devoted to reporting on women’s issues. I want to help women feel stronger by listening to them.

My brother is in the U.S. military. At one point, we overlapped in Afghanistan. At first, my family didn’t want to hear any news that wasn’t absolutely pro-America. But over the years, my photographs broke down those ideas. My mom accepts what I do now—dare I say, she is proud of me. I watched her become more tolerant in front of my eyes, wanting to know more about countries, cultures, and religions she would have dismissed before. I love that my pictures can inspire change in someone.

I’ve had friends killed here. Sometimes I wonder, why them and not me? Any of us could have gone to that restaurant the night it was ambushed. But I never rethink my decision to be here. There are stories that need to be told. I can do that.” —As told to Ashlea Halpern

Scroll through 25 images from Maria’s life on the ground


To see more of Maria de le Guardia’s work, visit her website.

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Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.