If you’re coming to this afresh, it will make more sense if you first read Part One: Behind The Scenes: Afghan Heroin Not For Export
As you will have gathered, the project Afghan Heroin: For For Export arose as a product of the time I spent around the Russian Cultural Centre shooting Russians and Royals. I tend to find this is how things work for me. I become interested in a place, a people, issue or idea and the process of engagement leads my thoughts in new, related directions. One project therefore either spins off from an earlier one, or the experience of shooting one brings me into contact with ‘things’ that catalyse something completely different. Nonetheless, I find many aspect to my photography to be related, mirroring how we navigate our way through much of our own lives. Very few experiences exist as true islands. Most are in some way connected.
This is the ‘how’, but perhaps I should spell out the ‘why’. I’ll tell you the long version!
I don’t consider myself to be especially political, even though I do of course feel very passionate about certain ideas, principles or issues. Much of my time in Afghanistan was spent analysing the many facets to the conflict. While I tried to maintain an impartial frame of mind, there were times when I strongly believed that the West was making poor strategic policy decisions in Afghanistan. Naturally, this irritated me, not just at an intellectual level, but also at an immediate emotional level. Working as I did, with the people I did, I was either somewhat connected to, or intimately connected to the consequences of those decisions. My Afghan colleagues were struggling. They were struggling with safety issues, family health problems, financial problems and the kind of agonising choices that very few of us have any experience of in Western countries that have been at peace for generations. My Afghan colleagues’ relatives were having their windows blown in. Some of their relatives were dying. Some of my friends did too, as did the close friends of close friends and so on. You cannot escape the impact of a long-running, deeply rooted conflict like the one in Afghanistan. It surrounds you and permeates your consciousness, always. Some events are somehow anticipated. Others leave you reeling, when you thought you had everything, including your own stability, under control.
Taking photographs in Afghanistan was something I worked around a full-time career in security and risk management. In my capacity as ‘analyst’, I poured over endless incident reports. For years, I spent many hours every day reading about people being killed and horribly injured. Real people and often with all the details that constantly challenge deliberate detachment. I collated information and wrote ‘post-incident reports’ to learn lessons that would guide future actions. I advised organisations on the short and long-term prognoses, as well as shaped practical measures to keep our ‘extended family’ as safe as possible. I inspected and assessed offices, facilities, routes, ministries and homes, alongside proposed projects and ideas, all with a view to reducing the potential for death, injury and loss.
It was never theoretical for me, because I never had to wait for a reminder as to how real all of this was. And I felt the responsibility, because I cared. I cared about the individuals and I cared about the country, as I still do. Sadly, not everyone does. There are those cowboys who ride into town, their heads filled with nonsense and empty of concern or local experience in equal measure. They bring ‘flat-packed ideas’ with instructions that barely make sense, create the preconditions for a fiasco and then head off home when their 12 months is up. When their successor tries but fails to prevent things going belly up, they invariably crow about how they would never have let it happen… how they would have followed through. One who comes to mind was a senior US official with substantial influence on drug policy in Afghanistan.
It was shortly before starting my Afghanistan projects that I met him. We discussed US anti-drug policy in Afghanistan and he immediately struck me as the authoritarian type. The rules are the rules. Unsurprisingly, as a former military officer, I do understand this concept. However, I did not sense any interest in the kind of quietly uttered subjective interpretations that usually occur between the lines in the rulebook. I had been having a truly enlightening conversation with his deputy slightly earlier, whom I can only describe as an intelligent, decent man who clearly shared the same appreciation of and interest in ‘ground truth’ that I had. It wasn’t so much a question of agreeing on the subject of ‘how to skin the cat’, but that we were both looking at the ‘drug problem’ as a complex one with human victims and where the solutions should really point back in that direction. I did not feel that to be the case with his superior, unfortunately. He simply wheeled out the cookie cutter answers. Here is a highly condensed and simplified paraphrasing of that conversation:
Tom: What about the issue of the poppy farmers. It’s an extraordinarily poor country, most of the farmers are struggling with conventional produce. In light of the fact that there is a massive global shortfall in the opium required for making various pharmaceutical products, is there another way, instead of destroying the poppy crop? Could the crop somehow be used for making licit medication, under a degree of control?
Official: Poppy growth is illegal and you do not reward people for breaking the law. Buying the crop would mean precisely that. These drugs end up on the streets back home.
Tom: How do we tackle the issue of the farmers? Most conventional crops require far more water than poppy does, so alternatives are just not viable. Without poppy, vast numbers of subsistence farmers will have no income. We know the Taliban protects the crops and therefore ‘champion’ these communities, making the West the enemy of food on the table. Surely harvesting the crop for medical products would ensure farmers sustain incomes and the Taliban are denied a source of revenue as the major beneficiaries. It would also allow us to avoid conflict with the very people whose support we desperately need to marginalise the Taliban influence.
Official: The farmers are not real farmers. These are not people who were farming beforehand, but people who have taken up farming for the money. These people are criminals, nothing more. Have you seen the damage that heroin does?
Tom: Aren’t they taking up farming poppy because, despite the risks, it is the only way of making ends meet? I am not condoning it, but I do wonder if expecting their morals to align with ours is only realistic when they can feed and clothe their children and put a roof over their heads. Surely buying the crop as a raw ingredient for pharmaceuticals would prevent the drugs being sold on the open market and would mean less heroin on western streets? (I was desperately trying to see if I could get him to engage on a different level)
Official: If you’re referring to reports by the Senlis Council about the benefits of managed poppy cultivation, there is no basis for discussing it further, because poppy cultivation is illegal. If you find a man creeping out of your home with a TV he has just taken from your living room, you don’t pay him to put the TV back. You send him to jail.
I got no further than that. What’s more, I got no sense that this was just a public position (despite this being a pre-organised off the record discussion). I really do think this was the totality of his interest in the larger debate…. you know, the one that actually determines how these things work out in practical terms and (in this case) far beyond ‘just drugs’. I certainly understood that the solutions were never going to be as simple as the ones I put to him in very generalised terms. I was just curious as to how he would shoot them down and had been hoping to leave with a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. Instead, and to borrow a contemporary phrase, it seemed to me that he saw Afghans as ‘fake people’, as if their problems did not matter as much as ours. As a policy man, his desire to hunker down behind a policy trench line was understandable, but what bothered me was the lack of pragmatism. Practical solutions are often hard, ugly, controversial and difficult to justify from a moral perspective. Those that hide behind easy moral sound bites are so much easier, because you can simply disengage from reality and keep the discussion in a conceptual vacuum. The double whammy is that he did not actually need to care to see that both agendas and fates were intertwined. All it would have taken for me to know that he was unable to discuss in further detail, but understood where I was coming from would have been a look, smirk or similar. All I got was deadpan expression that bordered on irritation. Clearly I didn’t get it. Drugs are illegal and further debate is surplus to requirements.
When I first started talking to Afghan addicts, before I really commenced Afghan Heroin: Not For Export, it was clear that they had been forgotten in all of this. For cultural reasons, they were not on the local Afghan agenda. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, they were not on the international agenda either. Only a small number of donors were quietly supporting minuscule programs to help a tiny fraction of addicts. The men I talked to had diverse backgrounds too. They included mature civil engineers trained by the Soviets, businessmen whose ventures had failed elsewhere in region and were deported back to Afghanistan, penniless. A common theme was youth and Iran. Many were Shia Muslims (from the Hazara ethnic group) who had spent time in refugee camps in Iran, where they first became addicts. All had lives, thoughts, opinions, relatives and played a tiny, often overlooked role in the devastation caused by conflict. It is natural to assume that a young person who uses Heroin either has a mental health issue, or is a fool. But what about the young man who became addicted when his father tugged on an opium pipe all day, while weaving carpets with his son? What about the father of six , who was run over by a passing motorist and for whom opium was the only affordable pain killer before and after the amputation of his arm? The boy who cried for food that parents could not afford and whose parents gave him a tiny piece of opium to placate him? The list goes on.
The shame many addicts felt was crushing. Any discomfort wider society felt at their downfall was eclipsed a thousand fold by their own private shame. For some, this meant that they rejected being photographed, to begin with at least. For others, the issue was far older than that and a camera elicited no fear. They were dead men walking, not in my eyes or words, but in their own. In many cases there seemed little self-pity, only a granular connection to the reality they now faced and could not undo. Their lives were forfeit, their souls condemned and their existences stricken from the universal record. As one older man said to me, ‘It’s no problem, you can take one of me. After all, what is a photograph when Allah himself will no longer look at me.’ And so the theme built and I came to know the men. There was no ‘day one’ of this project. There was no premeditated objective. Instead interest, exploration and empathy yielded a purpose and it was simple: I wanted to give faces and identities to the vast, horribly dark and destructive heroin problem in the country blamed for exporting the drug. I wanted to humanise them. I wanted to make a record and share something of their lives and stories. As one young addict told me, touchingly, ‘without photos there would be nothing to show that we existed at all’.
Remember Mo? Well, she’s a talented writer and, as an ethnic Afghan, understandably connected to the country’s fate. We’d been discussing the issue for a while and thought it would make most sense to collaborate, so we did. The end result was a lengthy article in the New Internationalist magazine, illustrated with my photographs. The issue needed words to really get beneath the superficialities of the the discourse in the mainstream media and it achieved exactly that. Sensationalism often is the enemy of subtlety and depth and, in the process, much of what matters can be lost. The ‘conclusion’ can even turn 180 degrees. For me, the purpose and justification of this series, beyond the article, was a difficult one. Almost to a man, they wanted to be photographed in the end. Those who had started out not trusting me, grew to do so, but one of the conditions was that I would not share photographs in the Afghan media. In reality, this meant that the images could not be shared with the Western media in a form that could come back like a boomerang. I did not want to put the photographs out there as a ‘sensation piece’, using the addicts as pawns in a game of ‘look at me’, so finding the right platform for them has been difficult. Naturally, at various exhibitions and/or awards, I have submitted written work to explain the circumstances behind them. I have been able to share this information with many thousands of people in one form or other.
Perhaps perversely and I do not mean this narcissistically, I think just listening was the most important aspect of all. They told me that other journalists had run in, snapped the most shocking photos they could, and left without really engaging them. It only added to their sense of powerlessness. In contrast, I made no promises of being able to change anything. I simply told them that a small number of people in the west would see their photos and hear their stories. It may sound unbelievable, but some of them were moved just by the thought of this. Perhaps that isn’t too difficult to comprehend when dead addicts are often walked and driven around for hours to days…. when their final journey is in the back of a pick up truck to a burial area, where a short Muslim ceremony is conducted, before they are buried in an unmarked grave. For some, talking and being photographed was a kind of existential memorial stone in advance of a their predictable demise. Perhaps Victorian photographs of the dead is a better fit, only taken during life. I think some saw it as all they were going to get for all their years lived, thoughts had, efforts made and struggles won and lost. I felt very moved at the time and I still do thinking back on it now.
You can read more about two specific photographs shown below, while I work on Part 3.
Below is a young Afghan man, former refugee in Iran and still very much in love with a young lady now engaged to another man: The Story Behind Ali Reza . I only ever saw Ali once and hope this was a good sign.
The story associated with the below photograph is here: Asking For Fanta.
Part 3 coming soon…. I will endeavour to cover some of the challenges I faced, processes, precautions and practicalities and more.