The Russian Cultural Centre possessed an incredible aura, by virtue of its brutal history (it was used as a strong point during the civil war) and due to the many ‘podari’ (addicts) that took up residence in the bombed-out structure. Just glancing at the forbidding structure, characterised by shell-shattered concrete and bullet-riddled perimeter fencing would command a thoughtful pause. I don’t think I have been to any man-made structure anywhere that has penetrated quite so deeply into the recesses of my soul.
I had been shooting the Project Russians and Royals for only a short time and had begun to walk around the grounds of the complex, getting to know the pattern of life within this bleak 150mx150m square. Children would sometimes play games there, but as often as not, it would appear completely deserted. You could spend an hour looking around and see nothing more than a few doves and perhaps a wandering dog or two. Once in a while, broken men would slip between buildings, disappearing into the pitch-black interior, but such glimpses were fleeting. With bright sunshine outside, reflecting off pale concrete and dust, it was not possible to see more than a few feet inside. Over time and by slowly building up a picture, I became aware of just how many people were living inside, often in near silence. The addicts tended to enter and exit at or before sunrise, so during the day nobody stirred. Few were prepared to venture inside, including the police.
On one such typical day, I encountered a lone child. He was kicking the ball up the slope with great concentration in what appeared to be obvious solitude and I took the photograph seen. I took it not because of what was visible in the frame, but that which is not. By this time, I knew that in the dark recesses and tunnels contained within the frame – beneath the boy’s feet – were men eking out a desperate existence. They hid themselves from view for their own protection; both from physical harm and from drawing attention to their shame. Addiction carries with it a severe social stigma.
The scene is one of divided worlds. Even with clear evidence of devastation in sight, albeit a little warmed by the boy’s innocent game, another much darker world exists just out of sight. It is a deliberately misleading half-truth and, to me, the image is a metaphor for Afghanistan in a much wider sense. There is so much we cannot see. There is a great deal we don’t want to see and into which only the brave, desperate, or foolish will venture.
The Russian Centre has been demolished and new structures are being constructed on the site. It’s a place whose memories will never leave me.
Technical Notes: Leica MP, Zeiss ZM 28mm Biogon at f8. Ilford Delta 100, Xtol 1+2.