This image is part of the Russians and Royals documentary photography series. Photograph taken with a Leica MP camera and film.
I had been visiting the bombed out Russian Cultural Centre for some time; it was one of the four iconic landmarks that formed part of this series. Over time, I had grown to know many of the men who lived there, or just passed through, but every now and again there were new faces. I winced when I saw them, having seen countless times the ravages that drugs and the demands of survival placed on their bodies and minds.
When this particular photo was taken, I had been visiting with my Afghan-American girlfriend. She was working on an article and I was taking the photos. I’d been a little nervous bringing her into this environment, not quite sure how the men in this single-sex environment would react. It’s a strict culture and they were incredibly private in their suffering. However, she was well covered up, wore no makeup and, most importantly, could speak perfect Dari. I’d previously worked with drivers and ‘workable’ translators, but never before with someone who had such a command of both languages. After all, she was a writer and nuances were her business.
Morwari and I took a largely covered approach to one of the outbuildings and then quickly strode across the 50 metres of open ground. I tended to use a wide variety of routes from A-B so that I did not set patterns that could be exploited. If I knew that I might want to spend a lot of time inside a building, I would cross the open ground to get there as quickly as possible, minimising the likelihood that I would be seen walking in that direction. Often, I would walk past the building entirely, disappearing towards the exit in the far corner of the perimeter, only to double back hidden from view and enter through a hole in the rear.
We ascended the stairs quietly, trying to avoid shards of glass and masonry and the building seemed to be deserted. The addicts were masters of concealment and stealth (to evade predatory police), but over time I had developed almost a sixth sense that told me whether people were around. In reality, I think it was a combination of ground sign, odours and sound, but on this occasion it failed me. The building seemed to be empty, but when I checked the last room that I knew to be frequented, there was a man crouched beside the window void; a man we later came to know as Ali Reza. Normally the first greeting would be awkward. If I’d moved silently, they would be a little surprised to see me and look uncomfortable, perhaps even fearful. I would smile and reassure them that I was there to do no harm and that would be the starting point. In this case, however, we were met by a beaming smile. Ali was young (he later told us 19), fresh-faced, healthy and utterly disarming. He was busy however. Laid upon a dirty brick crowned by human faeces and a dead fly was a syringe. Ali was struggling with a tourniquet and had paused when we entered. He asked, ‘do you know how to do this? I’ve never injected before and don’t really know how. Can you show me how to do it properly?’
Neither of us had expected that question, but it did make sense. His body bore none of the usual hallmarks of heavy use, but he was here in a location synonymous with drugs, decay and death. A short exchange confirmed that he was indeed already addicted to smoking heroin, but his intensifying cravings had driven him to try injecting. We explained that we had no idea what he should do and both looked nervously at the syringe whose needle would surely have been laden with bacteria by now. I’d seen countless addicts with horrendous infections presumably from the same cause. Morwari struck up a conversation and, with relief, the focus shifted away from injecting to the story of how he came to be there.
Ali was born in Afghanistan, but like most addicts in the Russian Cultural Centre, had spent time in Iran as a refugee. The story was typical: Ali had grown up in Iran and one day, without any real understanding of the consequences, accepted an offer to smoke heroin. What began as a distraction to quell boredom soon took absolute control and committed him to a dark path. After some time, the authorities came to know of his addiction and he was prioritised for deportation, landing in Kabul only 48 hours before our meeting. He smiled ironically at the notion that he had been returned home, explaining that he knew nothing of Afghanistan, its people, or its geography. During the civil war of the nineties, he had been whisked off to Iran at two weeks old, along with his entire family, who remained there. He had returned to a country he knew nothing about and, without any relatives to help him, had asked strangers where a homeless person should go. ‘The Russian Centre’ was the unanimous verdict.
As his story drew to a close, Ali once again began fiddling with his tourniquet and hitched his sleeve right up to the shoulder. As he did so, a large tattoo of a woman’s face was exposed. We asked who she was and Ali stopped, appeared to connect with feelings deep inside and explained.
‘She is the woman I love with all my heart and the most beautiful woman you could imagine. But she is in Iran and she was my fiancé…. I will never see her again.’ The sincerity of these words was palpable, but there seemed to be a mixture of pain and joy that was difficult to understand.
We asked, ‘but if she is your fiancé, will it not be possible for you to find a way to get back together?’ Ali explained that this was impossible.
‘We were engaged to be married and I was the luckiest man alive, but I had also become addicted to this poison. Over time, my problems deepened and her family became aware of the heroin, so called off the engagement. Not long after, I was deported and here I am now, but it’s for the best. I was not good enough for her. She deserves better than to be with an addict and so I am happy that she is no longer subject to my shame. I hope she will be with a husband who will love her and give her the life she deserves. I will always love her, until I die, and that is my comfort in this place.’
During the discussion, I took a number of photographs of his tattoo, framed by his beaming smile. I felt a sense of guilt in doing so because I knew that they could not possibly say enough; they would be trivial. I thought of the woman standing beside me, whom I loved deeply and would be curling up with later that night. I knew that I would be thinking of Ali, sleeping on cardboard at best, surrounded by filth that would, given time, kill him. Only a matter of months ago, like me, he had considered himself blessed. Below is a photo from the next door room, of another man sleeping with a brick for a pillow. I photographed him at about 5:30am several months prior).
Ali turned to face the sunlit exterior and lit a cigarette, took a few drags, then slid the tourniquet into place. Wisps of smoke rose up into the sunlight and I fired the shutter. The featured photograph is the result.
I did not expect, on that sunny spring morning in that awful place, to receive a humbling lesson in the selflessness of love. But I did and I will never forget it. I returned to the Russian Centre many times over the following weeks and never did see Ali again. Although I worried at first, each time I failed to find him I was increasingly reassured. I believe his absence meant that he had found a way out and I can only hope that this wonderful, kind young man was delivered the future he deserved.
Technical Notes: I exposed generously to ensure that I had shadow detail to work with in the darkroom (the highlights could always be dealt with by flashing). I was using a Leica MP, 24 Summilux 1.4 asph, at about f8-11 if I recall correctly. I stopped down because I wanted the distant theatre roof to be recognisable, so that the image could be related in space to some of the others in the series. I think the film was Fuji Neopan 1600 rated at 640, but I’m 4000 miles away from my negatives as I write this, so not completely sure (it may have been Neopan 400 or Tri X). I have prints by my own hand and Robin Bell’s. Although it’s not such a strong image, I did of course make a large print of Ali showing his Tattoo.