Double Take

In 2001 a photographer was on assignment in Afghanistan. Now a mistake from that excursion reveals something new during a different kind of war.
Photographer Lucian Perkins's view from a jeep in the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan in 2001. “Before I arrived in Afghanistan,” Perkins says, “I was in Moscow, where a friend, who served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan during their occupation in the 1980s, warned me how foolish America was to go to war with Afghanistan, where the mountainous regions ... like the Panjshir Valley and the fighting skills of the Afghans have befuddled invaders since Alexander the Great.”
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Nothing is as it seems. That’s what I realized with growing apprehension as the beautiful, sunny day turned suddenly into a nightmarish blizzard. We were on horseback 14,000 feet up in the mountains of Afghanistan, and I quickly tucked my camera away to protect it. I was now too cold to take pictures and balance myself on my horse, where one slip could have easily plunged me thousands of feet below. Along with two other journalists, I was on my way to cover a war that was about to engulf the region, stemming from the attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon six weeks earlier. Our lives were at the mercy of fate and in the hands of Afghan guides we had met the night before. They were our only option to get us through this dangerous mountain pass and to our destination. We paid them $60 per horse.

I was a staff photographer for The Washington Post, and this assignment was the first time I had ever worked with digital cameras. At that point, they produced mediocre images as far as I was concerned, but with a computer and a sat phone that transmitted at 14.4k baud rate, it was the only way to get photos back to my paper from this faraway place. I did bring a film camera, too, and had already shot a couple of rolls. But they would be my last: As the danger of my assignment increased, every photo counted, and I no longer had the luxury to shoot film.

Months later, after I returned to Washington, I excitedly processed the two rolls of film, only to discover, to my great disappointment, that one roll was ruined. During my trip, I had accidentally pulled out of my pocket one of those rolls of film after I had shot it, then put it back into my camera and reused it, creating double exposures. In today’s digital world, you can achieve the same effect in Photoshop by blending two images together. If you do it skillfully enough, you could even call it “art.” In my case there was no skill in combining these images. What I had done was the equivalent of an artist throwing paint against the wall — blindfolded. The double images were there purely by happenstance. I sleeved the roll of film, stuck it in a folder, and forgot about it.

Almost 20 years later, I came across that sleeve of photo negatives while quarantined during the pandemic. Today, though, as I re-examine this roll of film, I find the mistake intriguing. The accidental chaos of the images on top of each other reveals a different version of the complex story I had witnessed: the Afghan people being confronted by a dangerous war that came from well beyond their borders and guided by leaders they did not know. Now I saw these images in a new light brought on by the dangers all around us with the coronavirus — coming from well beyond our borders.

The element of chance in these images reminded me of my journey through Afghanistan, where any encounter could determine whether you lived or died. You took precautions, but you never knew what was around the corner. Maybe it was an encounter that could enrich your life, or snatch it away. You had to hope your guides were steering you on the right path. The Afghan people have been faced with similar choices since 2001, in a conflict that has resulted in more than 150,000 deaths. Back then, that war was supposed to be over within a year. Now we are hoping the same for the coronavirus pandemic. But we really don’t know if what’s around the corner will infect us or save us. We don’t know where our guides will lead us.

These accidental double exposed negatives were taken during out trip through the Panjshir Valley from Nowabad and then to the Anjuman Pass where we stayed in a mud hut because of a snow storm that blocked cars from crossing for two weeks. We continued on horseback through the pass and then on by car to Jabal-os-Sarāj, which was the launching point of the Northern Alliance's assault on Taliban controlled Kabul. Image: Image 1: Here near Nowabad, Afghanistan, a Northern Alliance solder finishes a long day of standing watch near a refugee camp. Image 2: In the background a jeep follows us as we make our way high up in the mountains of the Panshir Valley. SLUG: FO/afghan28 DATE: Oct 28 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Nowabad, Afghanistan CAPTION: Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. (Lucian Perkins)
Children in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations, before the war in Afghanistan started in fall 2001, one-quarter of the population was on the verge of starvation.
These accidental double exposed negatives were taken during out trip through the Panjshir Valley from Nowabad and then to the Anjuman Pass where we stayed in a mud hut because of a snow storm that blocked cars from crossing for two weeks. We continued on horseback through the pass and then on by car to Jabal-os-Sarāj, which was the launching point of the Northern Alliance's assault on Taliban controlled Kabul. Image: Image 1: Here near Nowabad, Afghanistan, a Northern Alliance solder finishes a long day of standing watch near a refugee camp. Image 2: In the background a jeep follows us as we make our way high up in the mountains of the Panshir Valley. SLUG: FO/afghan28 DATE: Oct 28 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Nowabad, Afghanistan CAPTION: Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. (Lucian Perkins)
Mahmoud Habibi, a 25-year-old Afghan gem trader. Habibi was among nearly 30 travelers stranded in a mud hut near the Anjuman Pass in Afghanistan because of a snowstorm, which closed the pass for at least two weeks. He helped Perkins and others negotiate the pass on horseback.
These accidental double exposed negatives were taken during out trip through the Panjshir Valley from Nowabad and then to the Anjuman Pass where we stayed in a mud hut because of a snow storm that blocked cars from crossing for two weeks. We continued on horseback through the pass and then on by car to Jabal-os-Sarāj, which was the launching point of the Northern Alliance's assault on Taliban controlled Kabul. Image: Image 1: Here near Nowabad, Afghanistan, a Northern Alliance solder finishes a long day of standing watch near a refugee camp. Image 2: In the background a jeep follows us as we make our way high up in the mountains of the Panshir Valley. SLUG: FO/afghan28 DATE: Oct 28 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Nowabad, Afghanistan CAPTION: Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. (Lucian Perkins)
A horseman outside the hut.
These accidental double exposed negatives were taken during out trip through the Panjshir Valley from Nowabad and then to the Anjuman Pass where we stayed in a mud hut because of a snow storm that blocked cars from crossing for two weeks. We continued on horseback through the pass and then on by car to Jabal-os-Sarāj, which was the launching point of the Northern Alliance's assault on Taliban controlled Kabul. Image: Image 1: Here near Nowabad, Afghanistan, a Northern Alliance solder finishes a long day of standing watch near a refugee camp. Image 2: In the background a jeep follows us as we make our way high up in the mountains of the Panshir Valley. SLUG: FO/afghan28 DATE: Oct 28 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Nowabad, Afghanistan CAPTION: Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. (Lucian Perkins)
Women head to the market in search of food for their families. War and famine had endangered the population.
These accidental double exposed negatives were taken during out trip through the Panjshir Valley from Nowabad and then to the Anjuman Pass where we stayed in a mud hut because of a snow storm that blocked cars from crossing for two weeks. We continued on horseback through the pass and then on by car to Jabal-os-Sarāj, which was the launching point of the Northern Alliance's assault on Taliban controlled Kabul. Image: Image 1: Here near Nowabad, Afghanistan, a Northern Alliance solder finishes a long day of standing watch near a refugee camp. Image 2: In the background a jeep follows us as we make our way high up in the mountains of the Panshir Valley. SLUG: FO/afghan28 DATE: Oct 28 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Nowabad, Afghanistan CAPTION: Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. (Lucian Perkins)
Travelers find shelter in a mud hut during a snowstorm. They gave firsthand and sometimes riveting accounts of the news occurring in the regions they visited.
These accidental double exposed negatives were taken during out trip through the Panjshir Valley from Nowabad and then to the Anjuman Pass where we stayed in a mud hut because of a snow storm that blocked cars from crossing for two weeks. We continued on horseback through the pass and then on by car to Jabal-os-Sarāj, which was the launching point of the Northern Alliance's assault on Taliban controlled Kabul. Image: Image 1: Here near Nowabad, Afghanistan, a Northern Alliance solder finishes a long day of standing watch near a refugee camp. Image 2: In the background a jeep follows us as we make our way high up in the mountains of the Panshir Valley. SLUG: FO/afghan28 DATE: Oct 28 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Nowabad, Afghanistan CAPTION: Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. (Lucian Perkins)
Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes are not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees said they hadn’t received any food or supplies in a month.
These accidental double exposed negatives were taken during out trip through the Panjshir Valley from Nowabad and then to the Anjuman Pass where we stayed in a mud hut because of a snow storm that blocked cars from crossing for two weeks. We continued on horseback through the pass and then on by car to Jabal-os-Sarāj, which was the launching point of the Northern Alliance's assault on Taliban controlled Kabul. Image: Image 1: Here near Nowabad, Afghanistan, a Northern Alliance solder finishes a long day of standing watch near a refugee camp. Image 2: In the background a jeep follows us as we make our way high up in the mountains of the Panshir Valley. SLUG: FO/afghan28 DATE: Oct 28 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Nowabad, Afghanistan CAPTION: Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. Refugees from the village of Azor Bogh find their clothes not warm enough as a cold front blows through the Nowabad refugee camp. The refugees say they haven't recieved any food or supplies in a month. Nowabad, SLUG: St/horses DATE: 30 Oct 2001 PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucian Perkins/TWP LOCATION: Anjuman Pass CAPTION: The trip up the Anjuman pass begins easy enough with clear blue skies and a gently climb upward. But that would soon change as we got higher up to steep and narrow paths and blizzard conditions. (Lucian Perkins)
A Northern Alliance fighter and villagers can hear U.S. fighters bomb Taliban positions near the northern corner of Afghanistan near the Tajikistan border.

Lucian Perkins, a former staff photographer for The Washington Post, is a freelance photographer and filmmaker based in the District.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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