I had been photographing for some time at the Russian Cultural Centre, when I made this photograph. I had a routine and I thought I knew what to expect from my often unpredictable encounters. I had dealt with a great many friendly and truly decent addicts, a few aggressive ones, those who plotted to rob me and one who had stolen the wing mirror glass from my car. I was always very careful not to be caught off guard when moving around the building and took great effort to slip inside unnoticed and to disappear. However, this encounter was completely different. I did not take place inside the bowels of the building, or in a secluded corner of the grounds but right inside the front gate, in public view.
I rarely visited the RCC after first light, because it was invariably empty later in the day. However, on this particular day I was passing by en route to the King’s Palace and thought I would just have a look and see if today was any different. It was: I walked through the rusty gates and he was just lying there. I could see that he was unable to stand and that his skin was a strong yellow colour, presumably from jaundice. He appeared to have limited control of his legs and, stuck out in the open under the midday sun, he was in trouble. He was terribly gaunt and appeared severely dehydrated.
While my interpreter began a conversation, I took two frames of which this is one. The man was clearly desperate, but paused when he heard my interpreter relay the essence of their discussion to me in English. At this point he asked me if I spoke English, to which I replied ‘yes’. What followed was a calm, if pained, explanation of what he wanted, articulated in remarkably good English. He wanted ‘vanta’. I nodded and replied, ‘you want water?’ and he said ‘no, vanta’, outlining the shape of a bottle with his hands. I was confused and asked my interpreter to help clarify and he said, ‘he wants Fanta, the orange soda… the one in the big plastic bottle.’ I told the man that I could get him a large bottle of water, which in light of his dehydration would be much better for him that Fanta. This was met with a vigorous rejection of the water suggestion and a clear assertion that Fanta was what he wanted. I asked if he was sure and he said that he was, following up with detailed directions (in English) to the nearest shop that stocked Fanta, along with an explanation as to what it looked like in case there was any remaining doubt.
Five minutes later I returned with a two-litre bottle of Fanta, which he drank within a few minutes, pausing only when the fizz threatened to overwhelm him. A sizeable group of well-dressed Afghans noted the spectacle and came over to investigate. After a quick discussion they offered to take the man to a medical facility for treatment, which the addict initially refused but finally accepted. And then he was gone. This was the first and last time I saw him.
Five years later, I still don’t know what to make of this encounter.
Technical notes: Leica MP, 35mm Summarit-M @ about f6.7-8, Delta 100, Xtol 1+1. 20×16 silver gelatin print.