I recently asked readers what they would like to hear more about and I received a response asking for more articles on the thinking, processes and build up to photographs/projects. While there is an enormous amount to say on this subject, one particular photograph came to mind and it is this one. Photographing ‘Afghan Heroin: Not For Export’ had many challenges, including logistics, safety and language, but by far the largest was trust. I needed the addicts to take me into their world and they needed to be sure I would not make them sorry for their candour.
In Afghanistan, the importance of a person’s honour is very difficult for outsiders to understand. It is not a matter of hurt pride, embarrassment, or even shame. It is a matter that determines the social fortunes of families, their economics prospects and in quite a few cases, life and death. The use of drugs is prohibited under Islam and to be revealed amongst family and friends as living rough, amongst filth and faeces, while abusing drugs, is a something none wanted to share. In fact, some of these men had elected to hide in dark recesses and away from their communities precisely so that their addicted, broken state would not be a source of shame for their families. They regarded themselves as dead men walking, but were determined to live out their remaining years of shame anonymously amongst the shadows.
They had so much to lose from my presence and so very little to gain. Their first question was often the obvious one: ‘why do you want to photograph us?’, which was easy to explain, but often they would interrogate this answer. I later came to understand the extent of abuse they suffered from other Afghans; the humiliation, scorn, physical abuse, crime and ridicule. I found it surprising to discover that some really did need reassuring that I was not there to take photographs with the express purpose of humiliating them. My answer…the motive I provided was often very simple and contained one core message: ‘I would like to to hear your story and to understand how you came to be here.’ Most felt that they only partially existed and some were beyond caring. However, others I believe talked to me so that there was a record of their story, their trials…. their existence. Here in front of them was someone who was not Afghan and who was not judging them on those terms.
I had to work very hard to built an understanding with most of the addicts I encountered and it meant not taking as many photographs as I could have. Sometimes this was a difficult decision, weighing up the pros and cons, but most of the time it was not difficult at all. It was very easy to see why someone would not want a particular photograph to be taken and I had to respect this. On other occasions a gently raised hand would let me know that an event was ‘off record’. At the beginning I had to be very patient, but as time passed, ‘old hands’ would tell newcomers that I was ‘OK’ and could be trusted. I came to learn that some of the addicts had been given promises from journalists in the past only to find their photos where they were assured they would not be seen. I therefore trod carefully and treasured the trust we had built together. I say together because I was sometimes alone…. sometimes I was with an interpreter, but I was always vulnerable. I was extremely careful, but I can honestly say that, once I started photographing inside the bowels of the Russian Cultural centre and under Puli Sukta bridge, the only times I felt unsafe was during encounters with the police. A failure to live up to my end of the bargain would have let me down, but also the men who gently talked down newcomers that were incensed by my presence and acted so as my guarantors. I could always walk away, whereas they could not.
Every encounter is different and when this photograph was taken, I was in one of the outbuildings in the grounds of the Russian Centre. It was all but empty and I had passed by a little cubbyhole that must have been an old toilet/shower, that was occupied. I had seen signs of life before, but never anyone inside. I had flash, but you cannot just go firing flash into the gloom in an environment like this, so my Afghan friend gently uttered my usual pitch into the void. A face emerged and the man politely made it clear that I could not photograph him. After a few more assurances, he did not budge and it was clear that he would not do so, no matter what I said. He did not know me at all and so I was hardly surprised, but I was still disappointed. I paused, thought about a solution and then requested my interpreter to ask him his concerns. The man replied that he wanted to help, but could not take the chance that his face would appear in Afghan media (who could blame him?). I then realised that the fear of being recognized by society was a photo in itself and so asked him if he would mind being photographed with his face fully concealed. To my surprise, he accepted.
I had to think quickly as to how I would make the shot. I decided to use my flashlight and lit him with a tight spot to create an emphasis on the blackness, his isolation and his covered face. I could see through the hot shoe viewfinder that it looked right, but exposure and focus was another matter. I guesstimated that the light was much lower than my eyeballs were telling me (everything looks bright inside a bombed out building) and settled on 1/15th at f2.8 with a 21mm lens. I could not illuminate the man and focus the camera at the same time, but without the torch on him I could not see anything to focus on! I therefore scale focused it (probably bang on the 2m mark) and took a couple of frames with small movements of me back and forth from what I thought was about 2m. Even at f2.8, there is depth of field wiggle room with a 21mm lens wide open and thankfully one of the frames was spot on.
This photograph is important to me. It reminds me of the trust we shared, the mutual respect that was built up from nothing and the enormous generosity of the men whose lives had become awful beyond imagination. These lives – or what was left of them – could have become a lot worse through my actions, but in so many cases they gave whatever they could. In this case, it was a photograph to a complete stranger in a truly terrible place.