The story behind Andrew Quilty's POYi winning photograph

Australian photojournalist Andrew Quilty was this week awarded first place in the feature category of the prestigious POYi photography contest. His winning photograph is a portrait of a malnourished boy named Gul Ahmad, who is receiving treatment in a therapeutic feeding centre in the Medecins Sans Frontieres run 'Boost Hospital' in Lashkar Gah, southern Afghanistan. Quilty, a former Fairfax photographer and member of the Oculi collective, has been based in Afghanistan for two years. His photograph was taken in the context of a story focusing on the chronic issue of malnutrition in children, which is often due to lack of access to education for mothers.

Clique spoke to Quilty about the day he captured the image.

Winning photograph of the features category of Pictures of the Year International photo contest, titled 'Acute ...
Winning photograph of the features category of Pictures of the Year International photo contest, titled 'Acute Malnutrition crisis, Afghanistan.' Photo: Andrew Quilty / Oculi

What led to you encountering Gul Ahmad and his mother?

A writer friend of mine was travelling to Helmand on a reporting trip. I didn't have an assignment but piggy-backed on his trip to take advantage of the paid hotel room, a driver and fixer that my friend Sune had arranged. I'll often do this with Sune, and the publications he writes for, although they rarely like to commit to assigning photography upfront, will often buy some pictures after the fact.

Tell us about the atmosphere in the MSF Boost Hospital?

Boost Hospital (it's actually meant to be Bost but the sign writer added an "o", Bost was the name of the city before it was Lashkar Gah) is an old hospital with chipped and fading paint and floors yellowed from years of use. There's always a crowd of people at the front gate and then inside, squatting in the shade of a few eucalypts, women in one bunch, men in another. Inside it's invariably busy, often two to a bed. While it's the provincial hospital, it's administered by MSF, whose staff I'm eternally impressed by.


What was the nature of your interaction with Gul and his mother?

Sune and I were in the Therapeutic Feeding Centre – where malnourished children are treated inside the hospital. You can spend a day in a hospital and not see a thing to photograph, so I was mostly just standing by, trying to be patient, waiting for something to present itself. In the malnutrition ward, it can be doubly tricky because the children are there with their mothers, most of whom don't want to be photographed.

I saw Gul's mother cover him with an orange scarf, I suppose to calm him and keep flies away. I moved toward them and went to take a picture and immediately his mother took the scarf away. This often happens here: Afghans assume you want them to pose for you, so his mother was probably presenting him the way she thought I'd want to photograph him. I moved away and gestured that I didn't want to interfere. Soon she placed the scarf back. I moved back toward them, indicating that she needn't do anything for my benefit. It was then that I took a series of pictures, from which this one came. Explain a bit about the turning point that your career took when you first worked in Afghanistan. Why do you continue to work there?

I always thought I had an incredible job – working as a photographer in Australia and the region, and then for a year and a bit out of New York, but it wasn't until I worked in Afghanistan that I really found meaning in my work. For the first time I felt as though my pictures could illustrate stories rather than simply be pleasing arrangements of people and objects in places that meant nothing. In Afghanistan I've discovered what photojournalism is, whereas, previously, the term had never made sense to me – I was a photographer, not a photojournalist.

I'm still fascinated by this place. It's an incredible country in which to work as a photojournalist. The stories are compelling, the work is extremely challenging, the history with which everything is laced is always palpable, and of course it's an incredibly spectacular country, especially for one carrying a camera.