Guardian photojournalist Sean Smith recently sat down with VICE to talk over three of the most powerful images that he captured during his time documenting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, including one photo that turned out to be more important than he could have imagined.
The first shows a line of suspected insurgents, zip-tied and blindfolded, being led through the desert by a single soldier; the second juxtaposes the helplessness of a zip-tied suspect with a sandbag over his head in the foreground against the military might of a helicopter flying by in the background; and the third… the third seems, at first, to be quite unremarkable.
The third image depicts a group of six soldiers standing around at an observation post, each minding their own business. But it might actually be the most interesting of the three.
That’s because the soldier front and center in the image, smoking the pipe, is the now infamous Beaudry Robert “Bowe” Bergdahl who walked away his post and was captured by the Taliban about a week later. This photo shows one of the last free moments Bergdahl experienced before being held hostage for half a decade.
Bergdahl was eventually freed and tried for desertion. But as Smith explains, his case took on a life of its own:
I think the main thing was that he became a totem for people to argue over the war, rather than an individual case where something extraordinary had happened.
To hear the whole story for yourself—complete with Smith’s insights on what it was like to photograph these wars and how the military tried to convince him to take this photo down before it was known the Bergdahl had been captured—check out the full video up top.