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.
When I first visited Afghanistan in 2003, Kabul was largely empty - under a night time curfew and emptied by years of conflict - it was however a place that felt the winds of optimism for the first time since the Soviet invasion in 1979. I returned again in 2009, when this picture was taken, and the place still felt calm and safe, and remained ebullient about its future. But on each subsequent visits, through to 2012, the sense of security and hope deteriorated - so that by the time I left for good, you knew the place was in another terminal decline. Whenever I look at the images I took during my time there, I wonder what happened to the subjects in my pictures - what became of this young boy who must be perhaps sixteen now. What became of him?
As I write this caption, another Taliban suicide attack has hit central Kabul - your options for travel in Kabul are the bicycle, or waiting for a bus. The grim reality is that despite attacks being primarily aimed at specific government or military installations, it is people like this, hanging around waiting for a bus to take them to work, who get obliterated.
In the winter of 2011-2012, Afghanistan was hit with the worst weather in 50 years. Hundreds died from avalanches in the mountainous north, and in Kabul hundreds more died of hypothermia - mostly children living in refugee accommodation. I walked regularly into the mountains that surrounded Kabul at that time, and observed how people struggled to survive. The higher you went, the icier, the colder it got. For children, daily chores included walking up and down slippery rock faces carrying water used in cooking, and the making of chai, traditional Afghan tea - to keep warm, and hopefully survive another night.
To be a girl in Afghanistan is to see childhood as a fleeting happy thing that will fast disappear. This photograph is about two distinct ages, the happy young girl, and her elder sister bleeding out of the right of the picture, literally and metaphorically. It illustrates that subtle time when a girl loses her childhood and becomes the possession of men. As I was taking this photograph the elder girl’s father ran out of the house, called to his daughter and demanded she return to the safety and privavcy of their humble bode. Her younger sister was able to play on, as yet unfettered by the future she will doubtless meet.
Pigeons are a sacred bird in Afghanistan and feeding them is considered to bring good fortune. During the day and throughout the evening hundreds arrive to throw a handful of seed at the Shah-e-Doh Shamshira Mosque, in central Kabul.
On a brutally hot summers day, this boy was palying with friends in a recently flooded irrigation canal. Play had a more old-fashioned feel about it, the communing of boys to play cricket or learn to swim. There wasn't a mobile phone in sight.
The Ka Farushi, Kabul’s bird bazaar. Made famous by those iconic photographs of the 1970's, narrow streets lined with cages full of birds - it still exists now - but somehow it has lost that 'hark' to another time.
After their invasion, the Soviets set about grand infrastructure projects across Kabul, always in that seemingly concrete monolithic style of imposing oppression. Overlooking Kabul, in Wazir Akbar Khan, and perched upon a hill is the old Olympic swimming pool they built. During the reign of the Taliban it became notorious for its executions, with victims being either pushed from the high diving boards into to the empty pool, or herded into its basin and shot. Standing in the pool back in 2003 was my very first taste of post Taliban Afghanistan, just hours off a plane, and I can remember to this day the bullet holes that pitted the walls, each an impression of murder. When I returned in 2009, the local authorities had ordered a couple of bowsers to partially fill the pool so that many of the local street children could swim and play. It was as incongruous sight as one could see, such laughter and happiness set against a wall riddled with the residue of death.
Afghanistan is a country whose culture stretches back 5,000 years, and in all that time they have developed one kind of bread - Ghani. If you ever needed to know anything about a country that doesn't want to change, this fact alone expreses it. The homes of Afghanistan are supplied by small bakeries like this, old fashioned stone ovens churning out Ghani flat bread.
In Herat, western Afghanistan, children do early morning homework before heading to school.
Although in time, Afghanistan has become motorised, the majority of transportation of goods still relies on this - a flat bed trailer pulled by hand. Herat.
For many people in the West, poverty is just a word. For me, this is perhaps the most pitiful image I ever took in Afghanistan. A filty refugee home on the outskirts of Kabul, and a women with a life of true burden.
Taken in an ante-room off the main Iwan (central three-walled courtyard) at The Jama Masjid of Herat (The Great Mosque of Herat). An old man sleeps on a hot Afghan summers day.
Afghanistan is often called ‘The Land of Blood and Dust’ by photographers and journalist who work there. The dust is so much a part of every day, and you become so use to its effect, that you accept it in an almost alien way. When you take your socks off in the evening a soft plume of dust fills the room, even if you have not left your accommodation all day. You clean your laptop, and half an hour later it is covered with a white film; in fact everything you own eventually succumbs to its pernicious effect - camera equipment takes a real beating. In the summer all over the country, men and children stand dutifully hosing down roads and pathways, as the afternoon winds whip up dust storms - it is a daily and as I see it, futile battle. This shot is full of dust, from the surface of my lens and sensor, the subjects and their belongings, and the air that dances with reflected light from the millions of particles that fill the frame.
Bamiyan was famous for its Buddhas, 1500 year old, 100 feet high statues carved into a mountain side. They were dynamited and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban. Bamiyan is the home of Afghanistan's buddhist community - and it is a place of absolute beauty, both visually, and through its people. I walked the back streets and came across these carpenters. There is a western view of Afghanistan, of its people, but this picture is perhaps more resonant of the truth.
Balkh, northern Afghanistan.
Mangoes are the great farm product of Afghanistan - and in season, streets across the country are lined with concessions selling them.
I found this small child and his brother's playing football together. Refugees who had recently returned from Pakistan, they lived in the most abject poverty in the grounds of the Darul Aman Palace.
This is the Darul Aman Road, a 3.5 mile long artery that leads from Kabul Zoo in the west of the city to the Darul Aman Palace. It is now a redeveloped six-lane highway, if such things meant anything in Afghanistan where driving standards are some of the worst in the world. To the left of the picture are hundreds of meters of concrete blast barriers that protect everything from the Afghan Parliament to embassies and security installations, and out of sight in the distance is the house where I lived when I was in Kabul. 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 development, and whenever the Taliban launch audacious attacks on Kabul, they mostly do so from the interiors of buildings presently under construction. A few months after this image was taken, I witnessed just such a Taliban attack on the Afghan Parliament, a few hundred yards from the blast barriers in this shot. I sat in my bedroom all night listening to the sound of Afghan forces (assisted by the coalition) flushing out the remaining insurgents who had taken cover in one of the many buildings built by this man, and his colleagues.
Builders in Bamiyan.
The humble bicycle is, across the planet, the most affordable way of getting around. In Afghanistan, they seem to come in one size, adult size, and kids look ridiculously cumbersome riding through the rutted mud streets.
If I could remember Afghanistan as an average image that represented the country, it would look like this.
One morning in Herat, I climbed the mud built stairs of a disused building in the centre of the city, and found myself standing on a roof that overlooked much of the old town. It was a precarious thing insofar as the flat roof was riddled with human-sized holes from previous conflict damage. I was reminded of Steve McCurry’s breath-taking pictures of Herat, taken at night, from just such a rooftop during the Afghan Soviet war. On this occasion however, it was a hot and sunny day and as I was about to leave, these two women walked by and on seeing me perched on the roof, removed their veils and smiled. In this most tolerant of places near the Iranian border, it was the only time that I received such an open expression from women in my entire time in Afghanistan.
A young girl attends school in Herat. Taken on assignment in 2010, it was a moment when young girls for the first time in years were once again being educated. In 2016, the Taliban now control much of Afghanistan, and they intend to stop the education of women, by whatever means. School girls have been murdered, whole schools have had their water supply poisoned. Taken six years ago now, I wonder what happned to this beautiful young girl.
Afghanistan is a textural place, a place of ad hoc advertising and graffiti, dappled light and a muddy patina. It always feels like a living thing.
To view Afghanistan from the air is to behold a vast and empty desert, bordered by huge mountain ranges to the north and east. But it is disected by seemingly inconsequentially small rivers, that are the arteries of life. As winter snow melts that aerial abstract becomes a piece of art, slashes of life giving green disecting a vast and empty brown. All of rural life lives next to these rivers, and the world depopulates the further from them you are.
The Ka Farushi, Kabul’s bird bazaar, doing what its name suggests. So much of Afghanistan is fighting a western proxy onslaught, determined to hold onto its own cultural heritage. In the countryside, away from the five main cities, this has mostly been retained. But in Kabul, the young, with access to an uncensored internet, are keen to adopt western ways and western clothing - jeans and leather jacklets, mobile phones and motorbikes are fast becoming a new cultural heritage - and scenes like this are holding on by their finger tips.
And at the heart of it, are the blacksmiths and other small industries, metal workers and mechanics who bash cooking pots and mend a punctured tyre.
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