Afghanistan - From the Other Side

From the Other Side There are many ways to document conflict – no one particular view, no one side. I spent a year of my life between 2009-2012 living and working in Afghanistan. I was driven by the simple premise that people are usually better than we allow and we should represent them more honestly in our images. The human side to conflict is well documented, but it all too often eschews that positive human condition – the one that means that people survive and rebuild. No one side can fully express the horror of war and the beauty of people who endure it. This was my attempt to show the Afghanistan that I lived and breathed every day – a view from the other side.

One of the many mountains that circle Kabul, is TV Hill - known for the many communication masts that straddle it. It was one of the least safe places in Kabul. Someone once remarked to me that in western countries, the value of your propery increases the further up a hill you go - affording all those views - but in Kabul, the poorest of the poor live on the top of mountains. To get your daily water and food required walking up and down the mountain, and for these school kids hoping to better their world, the same applied. On a fine spring morning like this, its not so bad, but as the Afghan winter hit, and the roads were filled with ice and snow, it exerted an unbearable physical stress on everyone.
As this old Russian helicopter flew by, children grabbed stones and rocks and hurled them at it. I used to live in a house on a hill in the UK, and military aircraft would often sweep overhead, but my childern never responded this way - they just stood and stared. The repsonse of these children felt like a latent reaction to having been born in a conflict zone - a palpable aggression that seemed at once an impotent response, and a logical expression.
I was walking in the back streets of Karte Seh in west Kabul one June evening, when I came upon this boy leaning against a wall pitted with the patina of battle; bullet holes and mortar damage. There was something so defiant in his posture and appearance, something that seemed to say ‘You can destroy our homes but you cannot destroy us’. That’s how it seemed to me anyway.
As the long winter thaw began, I headed to the Bala Hissar Fort in the south of Kabul. The fort is located high on an escarpment and is watched over by the Afghan National Army as it provides excellent viewing to all quarters. Reconnaissance balloons watch your every move, as do the various soldiers who patrol there; you are careful in which direction you point your lens. At the bottom of the escarpment, down a muddy incline is a livestock market, from which the kitchens of Kabul are supplied and these goat herders from Helmand spent the morning there trying to sell their flock.
The Russian Cultural Centre in Kabul was once a splendid modern building with its own cinema, where the elite of Soviet and Afghan society would enjoy music, theatre and dance during the long Russian occupation. In the end it went the same way as the Daral Aman Palace and was reduced to ruins during the heavy Mujahideen shelling of Kabul. In recent years it had become famous as Kabul’s main drugs den, a place of red-eyed heroin addicts, both detached and aggressive. It was a violent and much photographed den, but it also had another side, a place of witty and black graffiti, the labour of the homeless and dependent. It has now been fenced off and the addicts evicted; what is left is their insignia, the walls covered in anti-war graffiti. In 2009 I spent several hours mingling with addicts after they had injected themselves, a disturbing thing as their agitated state led to worrying mood swings. These two were as disconnected from the world as is possible, minutes after filling their blood with Afghanistan’s most profitable crop, Opium.
The Jama Masjid of Herat (The Great Mosque of Herat) is one of those places that elevate you; you feel that you are in the presence of something, something that’s not tangible, something bigger than biology, that you can’t explain. I always felt it was an honour as a westerner to be allowed access, and to spend an afternoon talking animatedly with those who have come to pray. The Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif is the more famous, but I prefer Herat’s. The design, with its Iwan style, and the fact that it always seemed empty when I was there, makes it a more welcoming place. I often photograph ‘from the hip’ so that I can keep up conversation and capture those unguarded moments; there is an honesty to the shots that you don’t always get looking through the lens. It’s one of the reasons I love this shot - I was able to concentrate on our discourse rather than photography.
If a picture epitomises Afghanistan, then for me this is it. In the daily commute, you don’t see hassled executives beating the morning gloom as they rush to lose billions on crazy speculation. The great majority of workers are involved in the simpler, perhaps more important things of life. They are merchants or farmers, builders or blacksmiths; they are all those long lost out of fashion jobs that were the domain of our grandfathers; they are the foundations of society, not the modern day leaches. Work is a communal thing of drinking tea and laughter; it may not drive unsustainable economic greed, but it has been around for 5,000 years as a business model, much longer than our capitalist folly.
Builders in Kabul. After the fall of the Taliban, refugees returned and money flooded into Afghanistan. Many refugees returned from Pakistan, and with a pocket full of money from opium, they were rich. Keen to show off their wealth, a new type of property flourished, based on traditional Pakistan style housing, it was nicknamed 'narcotecture'.
Old gentlemen sit and talk outside the Ka Farushi, Kabul’s bird bazaar. For 30 years all they have known is conflict and brutal regimes. I occasionally used an elderly translator and he would tell me of his days in the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison, under Soviet rule. He was imprisoned for nothing more than not be being a member of the Afghan Communist Party, and endured years of terrible torture, including having electrodes attached to his genitals.
For previous generations of girls, education was completely denied. After the Taliban, and a longed for 'more tolerant' state, girls once again returned to full time education. I visited many schools during my time there, and the commitment and happiness particularly amongst girls, was something you rarely observe in the UK. Tragically, as great swathes of Afghanistan sit under Taliban rule once again, school girls are being routinely targetted, and that dream of an equal footing is slipping inexorably back to the middle ages.
Herat is Iran's nearest neighbour, and as a result, Afghanistan's most tolerant city. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, those who lived in the central and eastern provinces of the country fled to Pakistan, and those to the west, left for Iran. It means that a generation of Afghans grew up with a more tolerant, enlightened view of society. For all of my struggles to photograph women in Afghanistan, Herat was the one place I would occasionally succeed. Indeed my translator was an 18 year old female student, and she was feisty and smart - very much a 'hoped for' new generation.
Afghanistan is an agrarian, small business economy. Every street is lined with small family concessions such as this, selling everything from cooking pots to carpets.
The Day of Ashura is on the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar and marks the climax of the Mourning of Muharram. It is commemorated by Shia Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala. Participants reach a trance state in communing houses before self flagellating, until exhausted they collapse or are stopped by minders before they do too much damage. I had been advised not to attend this particular Ashura as the latest security information suggested a possible threat, but I went along all the same. After an hour of shooting I noticed some missed calls on my phone, so I headed away from the noise of the crowd and back to my driver who had parked just 100 meters away, jumped in the car, and as we drove off a suicide bomber detonated killing 60 innocents.
I had last been in Afghanistan in 2003, and I was desperate to return. On arrival I spent the first few days bogged down with the necessities, but all I wanted was to get my cameras and get out. And then I received a call from the office of Hedayat Amin Arsala, the then Vice President of Afghanistan, requesting that I take campaign photographs for his upcoming canditature for the Presidential elections; another day gone was how I viewed it, all of which is a little disrespectful because I had met him several times before and since and he is a wonderful man. So when I finally made it out I was chomping at the bit and somehow it showed in the energy I had that day. I headed to the Russian swimming pool and just got shot after shot. Some days are ‘dog days’ but others are a rich seam that you can mine. That first day’s shooting, after a six-year absence was just that.
The Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Mazar-i-Sharif, is one of the reputed burial places of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in law of Muhammad. I spent several days there in April 2012, and as the sun sat low in the sky and warmed the richly saturated tiled building, women began to flood in. I was told that the mosque was specifically open for them on Wednesday’s. As with many things Afghan, this sense of optimism was soon overtaken by old stark realities. As I continued to work, a crowd of initially disgruntled men formed around, their increasing aggression aimed firmly at my Afghan translator and myself. Soon several policemen joined in and I was evicted for taking photographs of women - which I had not deliberately done so. This image is the one shot that I did take with a female subject, and every time that I look at it, I am reminded not of the beauty of the photograph, but of the difficulties it caused me that fine spring evening.
This is a scene you come across twenty, thirty times a day, but mostly in the poverty-stricken Kabul; homeless mother’s with illegitimate children banging on your window and thrusting their child and a can in your face hoping to exact a few Afghanis. I took this photo through the open window of my translator’s Toyota Corolla and I resisted a guilty handout, something I have not always done. A couple of years later I gave some money to another, only to watch as two drug addicts ran over and grabbed it from the resigned and filthy women - it seems that she sits on the streets all day with her newborn, collecting funds to feed the habits of her tormentors.
Afghanistan, like so many developing nations is pockmarked with bore hole water pumps, a kind of standard UN issue - seen across the planet. In Afghanistan it is the children who fetch the family supplies. In Helmand this young girl skipped away as a photographer approached.
I had spent the afternoon in The Jama Masjid of Herat (The Great Mosque of Herat), talking with the assembled worshipers, about faith and ideology. Every thing is fine in these situations, you can have your western Christian god, and though they are compelled to convert you to Islam, it is always a good-natured discussion. I know from experience that to admit to being an atheist however will elicit a more aggressive response, and this photograph was taken minutes after I had just done so, the mood had become edgy and safety had compelled me to depart. As I entered one of the corridors that led from the Iwan (central three-walled courtyard) back to the streets of Herat, I photographed this gentle man in a moment of peace. It seems to me to be a photograph from another time, as almost everything in Afghanistan is, even to this day.
On the Darul Aman Road in western Kabul, a brand new mosque (silhouetted) nears completion. The mosque, built with Saudi money became a focal point of new investment. Although Afghanistan is effectively a non-sectarian society, the dominant and influential are Sunni muslims, having always held positions of power, be it the King or the President - it is seen as a Pashtu Sunni birthright.
I was in Herat and for the first time in days I felt calm. I had been in Jalalabad in the eastern reaches of Afghanistan earlier the same week, and had narrowly avoided being blown up by a suicide bomber. I had arranged to be standing exactly where the bomber detonated and at the same time, but had once again been thankfully held up at a police checkpoint, delaying my arrival. I then had the long and difficult drive back to Kabul through areas regularly attacked by Taliban. So to find myself in the relatively peaceful, moderate and tolerant Herat, in the western fringes and close to Iran, was a relief. To top it all, my translator was an 18 year-old girl of Iranian descent, and she proved a feisty and valuable companion. Construction has continued unfettered and I came across this building site as a young man laboured to erect the wooden scaffolding that dominates in Afghanistan. There is something terribly wrong about cutting down trees in such an arid land for such a mundane thing, but it added a quality to this image that somewhat elevates it.
There always seems to me a difference in family values between the west and, well other countries and cultures. Perhaps I should redefine that it; seems to me that in countries with wealth those values we likr to think we care about, have been whittled away somewhat. In Islamic countries this is hardly an atypical scene, a grandfather with his granddaughter. Family ties are strong here in every sense, with extended families living together, eating together and playing together.
I call these two ‘Brothers in Arms’; though whether they are I have no idea. The nature of the infrastructure in Afghanistan, narrow alleyways and tiny windows, means that light often streams across your subject in beautiful ways. There is a somehow a religious feel to it all, in which it falls across the faces or bodies of the living, throwing backgrounds into shadow. This image was taken in Ka Farushi, Kabul’s bird bazaar, I managed to grab just two shots as I turned a corner and saw these young boys resting in the summer sun.
On a summer’s evening as the sun slides behind the mountains that border Kabul, worshippers come to the Shah-e-Doh Shamshira Mosque, in central Kabul to feed sacred pigeons. Seed sellers make a handsome living as Afghans feed the hundreds of pigeons that mass at this beautiful mosque built during the reign of Amanullah Khan, King of Afghanistan between 1919 and 1929.
An old and battered Iso Container is home for this man. On wasteland, he made his simple living selling fire wood - an essential for anyone hoping to survive the harsh Kabul winter.
Bamiyan is the ‘garden spot’ of Afghanistan. Everyone will tell you that you must go, it’s heaven, but nothing can prepare you for the beauty of the landscape or its people. I was on assignment for the Government of Afghanistan, and had spent all morning getting all my papers authorised and signed so that I could visit a local school. Working in Afghanistan is an exercise in patience, which somehow nearly always pays off in the end. You spend days sorting travel and access and fixers, and just when you think you have covered every thing, you have to jump through a few more hoops. You are frustrated and irritated in equal measure, but then an hour later you are sitting in a classroom of happy children, thrilled by their visitor and excited about tuition. Children take their education very seriously, they see it as an opportunity that has been denied to those of previous generations and to crouch in their classroom and watch hands thrust up or feverish notes taken is an honour.
The light in Afghanistan plays tricks on your sense of reality. I have occasionally seen photographs that have defied belief, and yet in time I have come across the same light and appreciated that the photographer was simply fortunate enough to witness a richness that does exist.
Children are irrepreshible wherever you are in the world, but never more so than in Afghanistan. Play has an old style western feel about it, with no access to TV and Facebook, children flush the streets with their charm and energy, pusing an old bicyle tyre with a stick, or smashing a ‘Heath Robinson’ manufactured cricket ball to all corners. These children were playing in Karte Seh near the house I regularly stay in, in west Kabul, and as the sun set the whole scene was draped in the perfect light.
I came across an area of apartments that had been destroyed, and whilst reconstruction was continuing across Kabul, these buildings had not changed since the day shelling had reduced much of it to rubble. The remaining buildings were home to a number of Afghan men who stared at me from broken windows, and frequently asked me to leave. It seemed quite tense and as always I turned to my translator to request his thoughts. His response rather explained why my presence here with cameras was unwanted. On 27 April 2008, just a year before this photo was taken, there had been an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai during a military parade. Taliban fighters fired rockets, killing three including a Minister. This was the building from which the attack had taken place.
Hazara’s are Afghanistan’s labour, the oppressed Shias in a Sunni world, but they do it all with a cheerfulness that belies the poverty of their lives. Reconstruction has been the beating heart of the redevelopment process, mostly undertaken by men like this.
Lost in a landscape, an unseen part of a wider context - women in Afghanistan.
It is a little quoted fact that 60% of violence against women in Afghanistan is perpetrated by other women - predominantly mother-in-laws punishing their son's spouse. One way or another, from father's selling their eleven year old daughter's to buy a new Toyota Corolla, to being imprisoned for infidelity when raped, being a women in Afghanistan is to be of less value than livestock. It always seemed to me that whenever I saw women in Afghanistan, they were walking distantly away - they weren't part of the melée of life, they were avoiding it.
Back to Top