At the very beginning of shooting Russians and Royals, the area surrounding the royal palace was largely deserted (aside from one mentally troubled gentleman living in a tent within the perimeter). Young boys would play football and cricket on what used to be parade grounds and gardens, drawn from predominantly Hazara and Pashtun communities half a mile away. I was aware, however, that my visits to the palace would attract the attention of young Kuchi children (a nomadic ethnically Pashtun people) and I had no idea where they came from; they just materialised.
Eventually, I saw a small child slip through a partially ajar gate set in a tall wall just across the street, which I thought enclosed uninhabited waste ground. However, by walking to the top of the palace plateau I could see a couple of mud-brick houses with signs of occupation. I made a mental note and the next time I came to visit I decided to investigate further. I’d seen a gap in the rear perimeter wall, which would make for a safer and less easily anticipated entrance. I also did this to ensure that the palace served as a backdrop and therefore contextualised the space, should any photographic opportunities arise.
I was joined by a friend for company, alighting from the vehicle and walking along the edge of the wall towards the gap. We stood in front of the broken wall and stopped for a few seconds to survey the enclosure ahead of us, visible through the gap. No sooner had my brain taken in a few details, one child, then another, came hurtling towards me. Without much time to think, I stepped forward to clear the wall, lifted the camera, composed in a blink and fired a frame. I quickly wound and fired a second frame, but by this point I was already processing the fact that I had not specifically focused the camera and that only frame #1 might have caught the moment. It was clear that #2 was a little behind the curve.
This whole experience highlighted the importance of always, always being prepared. My camera was in hand, it was switched on before I left the car, the strap orientated how I like it, it was wound on and the focus had been set. Depending on where I am and what I am doing, I determine a default aperture and focus distance to set the lens at. I set it to provide a pre-focused zone where I think I am most likely to be surprised by activity. In this particular case (Bronica RF645), using the standard 65mm lens (about 43mm on 35mm/Full Frame format), the distance was set a bit closer than the where events had unfolded (the children were actually quite far away when they picked up speed and their the moment crystallised), but it was set at f8, which I knew would give some wiggle room.
I developed the negs and my initial response was ‘arggghhh!’ on two counts. I was not sure that the frame was critically sharp, but on closer inspection with the right loupe, I could see that the children were actually in perfect focus, Just. The ground before them is nicely sharp and I had just caught the children in the ‘tail end’ of the zone of critical sharpness. The Palace is not sharp and not strongly out of focus either, but it works just fine in print. In fact, it works better with very large prints because it the lack of focus on the palace is all the more evident, giving separation to the children and a sharp lead into the frame.
The second issue was air bubbles in my developer. For reasons unknown (I think it might be something to do with the extremely dry air and static… maybe) I was having serious problems with bubbles forming when I dislodge air bells from within the tank, during development. I had learnt to bang the tanks on a hard surface (stone floor), as hard as the tank could tolerate without splitting. This would firstly dislodge air bells and then also shock the resultant bubbles off the surface of the film. However, in this case I was plain unlucky. The ONLY frame on the reel marred by air bubbles was this one, but thankfully only in the smooth sky. This would make retouching easier.
I produced a pair of 20×16 silver gelatin master prints in the darkroom, which required bleaching to smooth out the tones in the bubbles, then very delicate spotting to build up a smooth tone and make them disappear. This required about an hour or two of delicate work per print, but it was worth it. The other difficulty with this neg is that it is a little underdeveloped and producing good contrast with my large diffusion head was difficult. Only Ilford Warmtone at Grade 5 was able to pull it off, followed by a dip in selenium to reduce the green hue and beef up the blacks.
A few years later, when planning an exhibition, this image appeared to be attracting quite a lot of attention and I was being asked about much larger prints. For this, I thought I’d try a drum scan. I retouched the resultant file to remove the air bubble damage and made a 34” inkjet print that really surprised me with its presence. Quite against expectation, this image evidently ‘wanted’ to be this size. In a solid black frame, it’s around 44” across and it took prominently place during les Rencontres d’Arles 2013. It was also used as the cover image for promotional literature and was used as the lead image during Nuit de la Photo, in Switzerland in Feb 2014.
As for the image itself, people view it through their own lenses so to speak. Superficially it appears to depict terrified children running in panic away from or towards something, against a war torn backdrop. However, if you look carefully, the children are smiling. It is absolutely not the photo it superficially appears to be.
Some will see a given image as depicting despair and others hopefulness; it’s this knife-edge balance that I find compelling as a photographer. I enjoy surprising the viewer and catalysing re-evaluation, because this completely changes the viewer’s relationship with a body of work and everything that stands behind it. From this point on, everything sloes down and details, and their significance, are assessed. At the simplest level, I enjoy challenging preconceptions, starting with my own. In fact, I can recall that in the run up to getting a tattoo (at 19 yrs old) a pair of mature students told me that having a tattoo indicated X, Y and Z negative traits about a person (while assuring me that I was not such a person and so should not get one). I thought this was absurd and figured that by getting said tattoo I would be living proof of the absurdity of their prejudice. I felt no sense of rebellion, but I did enjoy becoming physically involved in such ideas. Sorry, I digress…
Afghanistan is an astonishingly complex place and simple answers (or solutions) are rarely met with success. The complexity is, in part, a product of the various layers of history and the legacies that continue to shape lives. This image is an example. We see children, born during the ‘NATO era’, whose families fled to Pakistan during the Mujahedeen civil war. They are in the shadow of a building constructed by royalty in the 1930’s, well before communism was remotely relevant to the region… communism that was exploited by the Soviet Empire, whose withdrawal left a void that spawned massive ethnic violence, genocide and abject destruction (that included this building). At another level, the image communicates something very simple: survival. Afghanistan has been razed to the ground during 30 years of conflict, but life goes on, at various levels and to varying degrees of success, but its unstoppable. The people of Afghanistan, used to violence and destruction which we can barely comprehend, continue to push on long after most of us would have despaired and broken down.
Wherever I go, no matter what I see, I try to find something of the human spirit, even if it’s just a spark, because I believe this is where hope resides. It’s just far too easy to come away from Afghanistan with pictures of death and destruction. What does this tell us? Where does one go with that?
Technical details: Bronica RF645, 65mm lens @ f8 (approx.), Ilford FP4+, Xtol 1+1.