I am ‘out of town’ for a few days – Mazar-e Sharif to be precise – which means more aerial photos for my ongoing project. The outbound Kabul-Mazar flight provided some reasonable opportunities, but three factors conspired to make this a particularly difficult shoot, despite sharing the flight with only one other! 1) It was early and light levels were low, forcing me to shoot at much higher ISO than I would like, 2) the windows were filthy and growing ice crystals and 3) the hot exhaust gases emitted from the top edge of the engines caused a great deal of distortion in the air, through which the naked eye could only make out a gelatinous version of the landscape beyond. Still, I shot away and may have a few images to add to the mix – we shall see. But, do you know what? It was stunning.
I arrived at the airfield at 0630hrs and the snow topped mountains surrounding the capital were illuminated by a gentle, rose-tinted light from the horizon. Once airborne, puddles of fog hung over depressions in the city landscape, above which the sky was deep blue. Sure, the windows were dirty and festooned with ice patterns resembling star fishes, but photographs are nothing without the experience to inspire their making. Every once in a while, we photographers benefit from not having things go our way and being forced to just look, without a lens in the light path.
The flight took about 45 minutes, during which time I tried to find clear patches with the front element of my lens and constantly played with aperture and shutter speed to bring the insane ISO requirements down to a sensible level. The cabin was genuinely freezing, after which the heat forced me to strip down from my winter coat to a T-shirt and all the while I could not take my eyes off the landscape. I wanted to be a fish (with lungs, of course), or a gazelle, because then I could have looked out of the West and East windows at the same time. The former revealed pristine white mountains, interspersed with rolling lower peaks, white only on the North face, as if spray painted quite deliberately. The latter maintained a diffuse orange glow, devoid of detail, as the low sun remained scattered by fog and haze. Approaching Mazar-e Sharif, rugged mountains gave way to scars, fissures and creases in the Earth’s orange-brown surface that you’d be forgiven for thinking were observations from Mars.
Rather than seeing off a flurry of shots before coming into land, I could see that ‘photographically’ it just wasn’t going to work. Instead, I sat back and just stared, experiencing the same giddy wonder I felt when I arrived here in 2006 and in the first few years afterwards. This country is truly beautiful, yet its hard to envisage the time when many outsiders will be able to see it and when Afghans will be able to take benefit from it. Minutes after landing, with cabin luggage to hand, I was inside a white car weaving through traffic in the capital of the North. There’s no majesty to rickety hand carts, callused hands, filthy clothes and human attrition. On one hand being ‘back to Earth’ catalyzes guilt at the pleasure just experienced, but on the other, I feel it makes the discovery of beauty that little bit more important. Without it I couldn’t be here.