Thank you readers for all the feedback you provided a few weeks ago. I thought I would start by writing a little more about some of my experiences shooting Afghan Heroin: Not For Export. I’m going to just write and let this evolve in a natural way, but the aim is to share more of what spurred me to shoot this series. I will also write about some of the challenges I faced, preparations I made, relationships I built and anecdotes that I will always remember. I suspect that there will be at least two parts (most likely three) and invite you to ask any questions you may have, regardless of whether it is about Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict, people, equipment, processes, motivation, ethics…. anything. I will do my best to answer them all. Just add a comment and I will reply.
The process and experience of photographing Kabul’s heroin addicts became an all consuming one. I arose at around 5 am, made sure my equipment was ready and was in the car by 5:30 am. The next stop was usually a local bakery, where I would pick up 20 to 30 flat breads and I might bring a few bananas and small cartons of milk along too. Quite how I got into this routine is another story in itself.
In 2007 (probably in the summer/autumn – I don’t quite recall), I visited the Russian Cultural Centre with my Afghan American girlfriend, ‘Mo’). It was a daytime visit and was really just about seeing the buildings, some of the old Soviet wall murals near the entrance and taking in some of the history. I’d been there quite a few times before, but she had not.
Mo spoke the local language to a native standard (which is predominantly Dari, in Kabul – a relative of Persian/Farsi), but was otherwise dressed like a ‘foreigner’. Naturally, a headscarf was worn, as is local custom for women, so as not to increase the possibility of local men taking offence. (Conflict can take an unpleasant turn all to easily in a country used to violence and where the idea of tolerance vastly outstrips the practical reality. There is a time and a place for sharing any objections one might have to a patriarchal system that many blame for the plight of women in the country. When you’re out in public and potentially vulnerable isn’t the right time…..)We spent a little time looking at the outside and then stepped into the compound via the side entrance. Shortly after we were approached by a man, who tried to make speak with us; however, Mo had long since discovered that it was not always a good idea to reveal that she could speak Dari. (The realization that she was actually an Afghan woman (and an ethnic Pashtun at that) sometimes resulted in endless questions about her family and background, not to mention comments about her non-Afghan clothing and company. Judgment was invariably harsh, with hostility potentially following. She was often subject to lurid sexual advances by men who regarded has as more ‘available’, as an Afghan, than a foreign woman would be considered. Such situations had in the past become out of control and dangerous).
So there we stood. The man trying to communicate with us in fragments of English words (who appeared to be an addict) was soon joined by a better dressed and healthier looking man, who was almost certainly not a drug user and then several more bystanders. A conversation ensued between the men, during which time Mo’s face looked increasingly ‘detached’. She smiled and appeared calm, yet suggested enthusiastically that it was time to leave and that we should get in the car right away. By this time, several other men had closed in and were listening. At no point did I sense anything untoward.
Safely inside the car, I was scolded for not realizing the gravity of the situation moments earlier, although this as perhaps a little unfair because I hadn’t understood a world of the Dari being thrown around for a good five minutes.
Mo explained that several of the men had began by discussing Mo’s nationality. One man initially suspected her to be Afghan, while another was convinced that she was not. This debate took several turns, during which one told the rest that he was ‘sure she is not Afghan…. She is French. I have seen many French women around here… they have offices nearby (which they did) and she is definitely one of them…. if not, she is from Italy’. This man’s certainty appeared to convince the others and a free flowing conversation ensued, in which Dari was spoken with the assumption of privacy. Mo explained that during this discussion, the first disheveled man had cooked up a plan. He had suggested to the other better dressed chap that they offer us a tour inside of the Russian Cultural Centre together, adding that he would then ‘smash his (my!) head in with a brick’ and then they would be able to take turns raping Mo. The discussion did not end there. Graphic details of his planned sexual exploits were shared with evident delight. Of course none of this happened, because we left. It was also quite possibly the worst criminal plan of all time. I’m not sure if the mastermind concerned could have lifted a brick, never mind swung it. In any case, we were not going to enter a building like that without considerable care and preparation. I never would have put Mo in that position. What was most reassuring is that nobody else listening seemed to be fully convinced of this plan. The wannabe murderer-rapist was right in sensing that several of them men were truly aroused by the presence of an attractive, young, ‘unveiled’ woman in their midst. While they may have been excited by the thought of having sex with this ‘foreign harlot’, they were less convinced by the murder and rape aspect.
This episode annoyed the heck out of me and to be honest, even though I did not take it one hundred per cent seriously (I did of course take it fully on board). It was akin to hearing how a drug addled Mr Bean was going to rob a bank. What did bother me was that it had now raised the fear factor associated with a building that intimidated anyone of sound mind. Sun struck outside, it was impenetrably dark inside. When the sun was up, you could rarely see more than a black void beyond the empty door frames and window voids. By this time, I was already shooting Russians and Royals; however, this did not require me to venture inside the most dangerous looking buildings. Russians and Royals was mostly focused on recreational activity and the general pattern of life at iconic sites associated with the Russian occupation and earlier Afghan monarchy. I had photographed various aspects of the drug scene around the outside of the buildings, but I had not delved into the human impact at a more human/personal level.
I felt this needed to change. I also needed to see what lay within the interior and basements of the various buildings. I had seen addicts coming and going. I had seen addicts standing just outside entrances. However, I had no idea at all what life was really like inside. All I knew is that it looked horrendous. It takes a lot to shock a person who had been in Afghanistan 18 months by this time, but the Russian Cultural Centre really was a special kind of hell.
I talked to some of my Afghan colleagues about the Mr Bean plot and about the building. I researched the complex online, looking for photos of the heroin scene that would help me prepare. I discussed it with well-trusted driver-interpreters and we made a plan to go. I recall that I went with a driver called Shafiq – a young man of about 20. I liked the fact that he was open-minded, possessed a good sense of humour and his judgment had proven sound in the past. On top of this, he had shared secrets with me; real, deep secrets of the kind that would likely prove fatal were they betrayed. This kind of trust is priceless. He had put his faith in me and now I would do the same.
We arrived at the side entrance and walked inside the courtyard. Our first stop was one of the smaller buildings near to the perimeter, where I had often seen addicts standing around, with blackened faces. I brought my trusty Pelican torch, which is small, yet very powerful, thinking that this would be useful navigating in pitch darkness. I was most likely carrying my Leica MP and a small selection of Zeiss ZM lenses in my Lowepro 100 slingshot bag. I found the Slingshot bags made it a lot easier to run, if I needed to, yet provide much easier access than a rucksack. There is no shame in fleeing at high speed if things get sticky! On my feet, I was wearing a very solid pair of walking boots with thick, high and dense rubber soles that I figured would provide a fair level of protection against hypodermic needles that were scattered around the area.
That day, I only took a few frames. I wanted to see how the men would react to me from a distance and did not want to push anything. Shafiq and I had discussed how to explain our presence to the addicts in a succinct and non-threatening way. The gist was that we were there to hear their personal stories and to learn how they came to be living at the Russian Cultural Centre. They were assured that I would not take any photographs without their consent.
The addicts’ response was simply a wall, to begin with at least. I was eyed with suspicion and fear. It was clear that while some felt defeated, others were angry. Some explained that foreign journalists had taken photographs that later appeared in the Afghan media, bringing shame upon them and their families. Others asked why nobody cared about their plight, about how few beds were available in rehabilitation clinics, but the overall theme was anonymity and defeat. To a man, they considered themselves lost, as if they had somehow slipped into a wormhole that took them to an alternate dimension that existed right alongside the world and lives they used to know, while keeping them entirely separate. While my camera was visible, it goes without saying that I did not even think about raising it to take more individual photographs. That would take time and I felt very privileged to hear these first stories.
The men asked many questions too. They wanted to know why ‘the foreigners’ had not defeated the Taliban. They asked why the international community was fixated with the heroin ‘issue’ but showed no care for them. They explained how they saw the big armoured cars and money being spent, but could not understand why so little had change in the country as a whole. This got me thinking, because I had been working for some time as a security and political analyst in the country at this point. What struck me most of all was a glaring injustice that sat right at the heart of the issue and it goes something like this:
- Poppy cultivation is ‘bad’, because it is harvested and used to make heroin. The vast majority of the world’s heroin comes from poppy cultivated in Afghanistan.
- Billions of US Dollars were spent on poppy eradication activities that were intended to prevent heroin ending up in the hands of people all over the world (however, this can be refined to ‘in the hands of Western young people’).
- Poppy cultivation generates income for the farmer. There are so many steps in the distribution chain that farmers do not get rich. Few people do, aside from those at the very top. Farmers earn enough to live on, but this is in a country where just making a basic living is impossible for a great majority of people.
- Poppy eradication destroys an (admittedly illegal) income for people who are invariably going to struggle to replace that income with other work.
- In order to eradicate poppy, public cooperation is essential. Turning up at fields in the middle of nowhere, in Taliban infested areas, when everyone hates you, tends to result in eradication teams being blown up and shot.
Now for the awkward truth>>>> If you want to garner public support, you need to demonstrate common interest, shared goals, mutual respect and mutual support. One of the first steps in that process is to recognize that Afghans are victims of ‘the drug problem’ too and deserve the same level of consideration as our own citizens back home. If you do not do this, the perception will be that ‘all you care about is your own people. You do not give a damn about our people dying from heroin, yet you want to make things even worse for us by taking our subsistence incomes away.’ And so there you have a very common and understandable response to the poppy issue. Eradication was an unmitigated and staggeringly expensive (not to mention entirely predictable) failure. I won’t deny that part of that failure was fuelled by ubiquitous corruption, but that’s another story. The ‘problem’ I am getting at is this:
The West said heroin was a huge problem, because of the destruction is wreaks on (often young) lives, but ignored the Afghan victims of this problem. Therefore the West’s agenda was transparently self-serving and undeserving of Afghan cooperation. Without Afghan cooperation, it was destined to fail.
Yes, the subject was and remains much more complex than that; however, it is hard to deny that recognising the Afghan addiction problem (it’s vastly higher by percentage population than in any Western country) was a basic first step. Yet Afghan rehabilitation clinics were few and far between, they were understaffed, underfunded and bore a greater resemblance to nineteenth century mental asylums than any medical facility. This perspective gave me the title of the project: ‘Afghan Heroin: Not For Export’ i.e. ‘we must stop the export of these drugs, but make no mention of the domestic impact of these same drugs.
Part 2 is now ready to read here.