“Embedded in Afghanistan” by Finbarr O’Reilly

The impressive “Embedded in Afghanistan” photo essay by Finbarr O’Reilly truly has a profound effect on its viewers. From  the placement of the  images to the captions, O’Reilly demonstrates the epitome of an effective photo essay. The story being told in these 25 photos is very clear — to show the world what quotidien life in present-day Afghanistan entails. We see the the perspectives from the American soldiers as well as from the native Afghans that are unfortuantely placed into the seemingly eternal war. Despite the vast cultural differences, O’Reilly ties them together by placing the Americans and Afghans in corresponding situations in adjacent photos. For example, the first two photos depict an American soldier weightlifting and an Afghan soldier sleeping, respectively. Despite all the negative coverage spewed out the media, people in Afghanistan, whether soldiers or natives, are actually human beings who attempt to live a life the “normal way.” O’ Reilly’s photos open up minds that many aspects of life in America exist in Afghanistan: town meetings, reading comprehension lessons, and the innocence of children. To be frank, the captions seem to be unnecessary. The photos speak to me; hence, I know the story of every frame without ever reading the text. This is a testament to O’Reilly’s work, since his photos of excercise, learning, water, gatherings, children, and of course, guns elicits a theme of occasional normalcy in this war-torn region.

Marines from the First Battalion Eighth Marines Alpha Company watch a video on a computer in their living quarters at an outpost in Kunjak in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, February 18, 2011. REUTERS-Finbarr O'Reilly

A band of brothers
Photo by Finbarr O'Reilly

 The second part of “Embedded in Afghanistan,” is a nice complement to the first version. Instead of reading captions, the viewer listens to the “captions” by hearing Sgt. Thomas James Brennan’s commentary and other auditive pieces, such as gunshots and short conversations between the soldiers. As much as I appreciated O’Reilly’s photo album in the first version, I found the combination of visual presentation with audio to be more powerful especially since the audio generates a new dimension to the project. By simply hearing him commending his fellow soldiers’ bravery despite the heavy concussions they suffered, you immediately have an emotional response. You are part of the action, with the shots and shouts of war. You felt a father’s pain of not seeing his young daughter in her early years. You hear his pride in serving our country overseas. In essence, the story is the same — life in Afghanistan. But the audio places you in that setting of the vast, arid lands of Afghanistan. O’Reilly’s expertise in combining sounds with pictures brings the album to life, a talent that demonstrates the brevity and sheer effectiveness of “composing with images.”