In this final ‘behind the scenes’ piece, I’m going to talk through some of the processes involved in shooting Afghan Heroin: Not For Export. If you’re coming to this afresh, I recommend you first read Part One and Part Two. Let’s see where my thoughts take me.
At the time of my earliest visits to the Russian Cultural Centre (RCC), I was well aware of the complex’s association with heroin; however, the main buildings seemed fairly empty. I did see the occasional addict outside and witnessed very rare movement in and out, but not in significant numbers. I’d seen photos from a few years earlier that showed large numbers of addicts packed into the buildings’ interior.
Locals informed me that many of the addicts had been forcibly removed from the RCC, after a newspaper piece caused embarrassment in government circles. However, I was also advised that if I were to visit bright and early, before sunrise, I’d most likely still find significant numbers of addicts hiding out inside the complex. So I did and I did.
But why were the addicts disappearing soon after first light, when they were surely better hidden and protected within the confides of the Russian Cultural Centre?
The reason turned out to be very simple: At around first light, the neighbourhood police would wake up and go through their morning reveille. They would then wander through the buildings looking for addicts. I naturally assumed that this was to ‘keep the area clear’ and ‘prevent the use of illicit drugs’, but the real reason turned out to be a little different. The police were robbing the addicts. This seemed absurd; after all these were hardly wealthy individuals, however, if there is a pattern of behaviour it is usually fair to assume that there is a reward of some kind….
Addicts often have a small mount of money on them (enough for their next hit) or their next hit of heroin itself (or both). They’re also vulnerable, often physically weak and of course have nobody to complain to, especially if the police themselves are responsible. The added bonus of robbing the addicts of their drugs is that the policeman can then sell the drugs back to other addicts. The victims (now without drugs or money) would go out and beg or commit petty crimes to raise the funds needed to buy the drugs to end their agonising cravings. When they weren’t robbing the addicts, I was told some of the police were rather partial to beating them, sometimes severely. Quite late in my time shooting this series, a group of addicts pointed to a spot on the floor and told me that it was where one of their friends had died. A policeman had entered the room and ordered them all to get up and get out. One man moved too slowly and was hit on the head with a piece of wood. Still he did not arise quickly enough and was struck again and again. He died sometime later. And that was that. There was no complaint, no file, no paperwork and no enquiry.
And so these desperate men quickly learned that they needed to rise early in the morning and get moving before the police had gathered the energy to go hunting for them. They also moved like ghosts; silent on their feet and speaking in the most hushed tones. They knew every nook and cranny and possessed an uncanny ability to walk through a door into a series of rooms and simply disappear. They were well aware of their vulnerability after a dose of heroin and made a point of knowing all the best hiding places for while they were wiped out. I often found myself scratching my head at their disappearing acts, until my own familiarity stripped away the magic. Small recesses….ledges outside window voids… squatting behind low walls, knowing that the angle of view and apparent space made their presence appear improbable. The power of hiding in plain sight was especially brought home during a related encounter, Two Boys Sleeping – also see photograph below.
The addicts’ elusiveness meant I had to move equally quietly. If I went clattering around, I’d see nobody. The addicts would hear me and quietly slip away. I therefore walked slowly, chose my footing carefully and listened continuously. Sometimes I would hear movement somewhere and this would help direct my search. The word ‘hunt’ comes to mind, because sometimes this is what it felt like: a stalking exercise. Until I appeared, they had no idea who I was and it wasn’t as if we had scheduled meetings.
I bumped into the police a number of times during this project (which I will talk about more later) and one time was almost comical. I was creeping around in one of the annex buildings (alone), heading towards a room that I knew was likely being used by addicts at the time. As I approached, I could hear voices, but they sounded agitated, rather like a brewing argument. I could hear physical movement. I therefore approached with great caution, not knowing what I was going to encounter. As my line of sight rounded an entrance I could see a policeman harassing an addict. The addict was sitting, submissively, and the policeman was manhandling him, most likely shaking him down for concealed money and drugs. At this point, I had a choice: do nothing and slip away, or introduce myself into the situation. I watched for a perhaps fifteen seconds to evaluate the seriousness of what was going on.
I chose the latter, making a calculated gamble that nothing harmful would come of this. I was also carrying an old ISAF (International Stabilisation and Assistance Force (NATO military)) pass. The great thing about these passes was that they were in English. Although expired, I knew the policeman would recognize the card immediately, but would be unable to check the date. I walked into the room quietly, but confidently, said hello and looked a little bemused by what was happening. I made sure that I was smiling benignly, despite my raised eyebrows. I flashed my ID card, put it back in my pocket and then just stood there as if to ask the question ‘OK, hello, I’m neutral’ while passively asking the question ‘what’s going on?’ The result was hilarious. The policeman did not speak English and I did not speak Dari, but he behaved like a child caught with his hands in the cookie jar. He babbled away, evidently explaining himself, pointed to the addict and seemed to be trying to explain that he had been providing assistance of some kind. He even brushed down the addict’s clothes! I smiled, nodded and looked impressed and the policemen eventually sauntered off, presumably on other important police business. I did not take any photographs of course, knowing that the introduction of a camera could be interpreted as me recording the policeman’s illicit actions. In the end, I did not photograph the addict either. He got up and left, after an evidently unpleasant experience. The room in which this vignette transpired is the same one in which I photographed Ali Reza.
OK, back to the logistics and routine:
I would leave my own compound well before sunrise. I’d aim to arrive at the Russian Cultural centre with around 30 mins of working time before the sun actually rose into view. This would also give me anything up to 30 mins of working time afterwards. Vey often, however, I was on the ground for no more than 30-40 mins in total, with the most productive period always being before sunrise. Once the sun was up, the addicts would often be clearing away their bedding and on the move. Although this might sound like another opportunity, it did not seem to work out this way. Once they started moving, they were gone in no time and they were not inclined to dawdle for my benefit.
Naturally, this meant that working light levels were very low, even in rooms that received direct light from outside. I therefore mostly fed Ilford Delta 3200 or Kodak Tmax 3200 to my Leica MP, rating the former at anything between 1250-6400 and the latter from 800-3200. Due to the close confines I was working in, much of the interior work also required wide lenses (wider than 28mm) to get any real context. To begin with I was using a Zeiss 21mm f2.8 ZM Biogon, but the f2.8 aperture was a problem. Later on, I worked with a Leica 24mm f1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, which gave me two more stops of light to work with. A number of images would simply have been impossible without it. Even then, shutter speeds were often right at the point where sharp frames are far from guaranteed. As light levels rose, I would try to switch to my favourite 400 speed film, Kodak Tri-X, which I would rate from 320 to 640 most of the time. By carrying two bodies, with different speed films, I could swap lenses around and generally have the right tool for the job. However, for portraits that meant shooting a Canon DSLR with 85mm f1.2 L II. Now, I love Leica M lenses, but trying to shoot longer lens portraits with a Leica M would have been foolish. The addicts often swayed, or stopped only for brief moments. With so little time and so much going on, focus and recompose would have been futile. On top of this, the Canon lens is faster than anything offered by Leica and provides absolutely beautiful ‘organic’ results. Carrying around an EOS 1n/EOS 3 with this heavy lens attached was a bit of a pig, but worth every gram. Some of my portrait moments lasted seconds and I doubt I would even have focused the Leica M before the moment was gone. There’s no equipment romance for me. Whatever works… works. For me, it was Leica for 21-50 and SLR for 85mm.
So how did this fit in with me being a responsible security consultant working full time?
It fitted into the gaps, where discretion and judgment once resided. In my earlier days in Kabul, when this series was shot, I not only had ‘time off’, but I also had the freedom to move largely as I wished. We had vehicles available to either self-drive or take out with the duty driver. Importantly, I also had a very understanding and supportive boss, who trusted my judgment. The work I did put me in a unique position to understand the range of risks associated with moving and working as I did and at no time did I take this lightly. It was my life and the safety of colleagues at stake. My boss trusted this and allowed me to ‘self-regulate’, which I did. I also informed him of what I was doing and took a whole range of precautions as I worked. These included randomising my visits as best I could, often spreading them out widely. I avoided being observed entering the buildings and varied how and when I did so. I disguised my direction as I did so, often walking in a particular direction, but doubling back onto a different route once inside the building. I always listened and observed to ensure I was not being followed. I also chose suitable clothing and footwear to ensure I could leap and run if required. I made sure I knew my exits and I limited my time on the ground. I always tried not to leave my back exposed, tending to keep walls to my rear and my eyes directed so that I could see any movement into a space, or by those already inside it. I think over time you become good at these things, as natural instincts become developed and piqued. Later on, as security policies became less discretionary, my approach would have been impossible. Even while I shot this series, I would not have been afforded anywhere near this amount of freedom were I working for most other organisations.
Did I take risks?
Yes. Everything I did carried risks. However, sometimes I did take additional risks. On a few occasions I went into the building alone; however, such visits were usually very brief (10 mins or so) and only to certain locations. I walked along bomb damaged roofs, climbed through window voids and more; however, some of these seemingly dangerous undertakings, done carefully, actually reduced risks elsewhere. I’d be lying if said that I never felt that primeval surge in my gut. I did, on many occasions. Sometimes it was followed by a huge slug of adrenalin that made me take note. Sometimes I was in the area and things felt ‘wrong’ at some point or other. When that happened, I left, without feeling the need to rationalise it.
I won’t try to break down the risks in detail, but here are some of the risk areas I was concerned with:
- Taliban/Insurgent attack/kidnapping
- Criminal kidnapping/robbery/attack
- Medical incident (needle stick, broken bone etc)
I wasn’t overly concerned with #1. There were *much* easier targets out there: people with fixed routines, no security awareness and of lower risk.
#2 is similar in that there were easier targets out there, by far. Within this category I faced possible attack by addicts, but I will talk more about this later.
#3 required me to take great care, so I did. Aside from inhaling a bit more heroin smoke than I’ve have liked on a couple of occasions, there were no problems. I kept a safe distance from men holding needles and I never lay or knelt down. I wore tough walking boots with deep rubber soles and trod carefully.
There is one risk sub-category I omitted and that was the police themselves. They’d fit squarely under #2, sadly. This wasn’t only because some of them knowingly engaged in criminal activities, but also because most had no comprehension of the law and individual rights. Authority in countries like Afghanistan is very different to back home. Most of those who possess authority see their personal power as a right and give scant consideration to the other party, whether making an arrest on fictitious grounds, or pointing their weapon at someone. Even pulling the trigger can be a result of feeling ‘insulted’ or ‘showing someone who is boss’. The police scared me because they could prove unpredictable. There were some really good cops out there, but not nearly enough. There were policemen who were both diligent and criminal and unethical all at the same time. This is a dichotomy found throughout Afghan society (and also in the west, albeit on a vastly diminished scale). As an example, if a policeman thinks you should not be walking around the Russian Cultural Centre, that can result in an arrest. The fact that it was accessible to the public and that there were no signs to warn otherwise is moot. If that policeman decides to arrest you, that is unfortunately that. Would he be arresting you because he genuinely believes it is in the public interest? No, almost certainly not. After all, he’d happily be ignoring other people at the site and picking on you. And this is what happened to me a number of times.
Why would a policeman be interested in a foreigner?
Because the foreigner has money and can pay large bribes to ‘get out of trouble’, even if the predicament is an absurd construct of the extorting officer and has no basis in law or reasonableness. $50, or $100 is a lot of money to a policeman, who might earn $60-150 a month! And so they tried it on. Having been there a while, I knew the routine: they’d come up and talk to you, explain that you were doing something wrong and try to execute what I call a ‘soft arrest’. This is rather like the technique of ‘cold reading’ that so-called psychics use, whereby the protagonist is constantly gauging what to do or say next, based on the target’s response. If you go along with a ‘soft arrest’, guess what? You end up arrested! If you understand what it happening, you might be able to wriggle out of it, but you have to be careful too. You need to raise the stakes by not complying, but not in a manner that escalates the situation too far.
This happened, a number of times. Sometimes the best solution was to pretend not to be able to hear them calling from afar, casually walk around a corner at a dawdle and then burst into a run once out of sight, using knowledge of the complex to remain out of sight until safely clear of the complex. Stopping and waiting for them to come to you would invariably result in a far stickier situation. The bottom line is that they were mostly lazy and looking for easy victims. On one occasion, however, I was outside and the policeman rounded a corner and walked right into me and my driver/interpreter. The policeman asked what we were doing there and his manner made it clear to me that he was looking to play a card, but was testing the waters first. I explained that we were here to just look around ‘this amazing building, this amazing place, which has so much history….’ and the policeman asked more questions, looking for an angle. He said, ‘you are not allowed to be here’ and I replied, ‘please accept our apologies, we did not know. There are no signs and so we will leave now. Enjoy this beautiful day….’. At this point, my interpreter told me that the policeman was radioing through to his commander at the district station to ask what to do with us. I realised that would likely end in arrest, which I did not relish. It would also mean no bribe would be payable on the spot. I’d end up back at the police station and leave without my camera equipment. I’d never get that back of course. There would be forms. There would be requests. I’d need to get a new letter from my embassy. This is how their corruption worked; always hiding behind seemingly reasonable administrative requests, which never ended. Even if you finally peeled back every layer, they’d genuinely be unable to recover your possessions, because they’d have been sold or ‘re-owned’ long ago.
I had to make a decision: go along with it and lose my camera bag contents forever, or break away somehow. I chose the latter because I felt it was very achievable. The policeman seemed to be a little unsure as to how to deal with this foreigner and he had approached us in a manner that made this plain. Besides, he was struggling to get hold of his commander. I quickly told my interpreter not to translate a word of what I was about to say. I then said in English, with a jovial and most disarming tone, something along the lines of, ‘OK, well thanks for the warning, we have to go to the embassy, have a wonderful day and goodbye’. I gave a thumbs up and said something like ‘Police very good’ (which I knew very well he would understand, along with the word ’embassy’) then thrust my hand towards his in the form of a handshake. He took my hand, looked very confused indeed, I shook it, let go, turned and left. We walked and he remained speechless with his ear placed against the radio until we were nearly around the corner. I waved back at his faint undeciperable words, smiled and then we ran for the car and drove off. For him to have recovered the situation, he would need to have escalated it a great deal and I suspect he would have been highly reluctant to do that without any real justification. He had no idea who or what I was. He had no idea if I was armed or not and he had no idea what it would cost him if he pursued his ‘soft arrest’. After all, I’d been so friendly…
The techniques I used to escape difficult situations would not work in almost any other country. They were relevant to the time and place, specifically. I would not have used them a few years later, because by this time, the police were much more confident (and aggressive) in their dealings with foreigners. At the end of the day, we all need to apply our own judgment to a situation, whilst erring on the side of caution. I had numerous episodes with the police, including one where a bunch of high & drunk policemen tried to order me into their minibus while I was walking around the area of the Russian swimming pool. Their seriously impaired (and armed) state suggested that it was of less risk to again ‘slip away’ than to get inside. Sober Afghan police have the weapon safety skills of a drunken toddler that’s just watched a cowboy movie. There were at least four AK-47s pointing in all directions in the back of that Toyota Super Custom and an equal number of bottles of alcohol and joints, so I took my chances with another big smile, thumbs up and a swift walk in the opposite direction. In that case the hillside was awash with Afghan families, so I once again figured that they were just being fools. One policeman cradling his weapon had a very unpleasant look on his face, which gave the whole episode an air of true malevolence. You may be detecting a theme here: the police were a problem. Not only were they a problem for me, they were a problem for everyone (as are most officials or other people in positions of authority). It’s just another form of ubiquitous corruption and unaccountability. People wonder why the Taliban are doing so well….. but I have already explained what may be the single biggest reason: government corruption and abuse of power.
I’ll move on, because I would write forever on this topic. To end, however, I will add a Holga snapshot of some policemen who were very proud of their snowman. Even the snowman looks like he’s suffering at their hands 😉
What About the threat posed by the Addicts?
Not once did I ever feel at serious risk from an addict. Most of the time it was the very opposite. We build up a bond of trust. I did not force photos. I listened. I talked and asked questions when I could. I showed an interest. In short, I treated them with respect and courtesy. After some grumpy exchanges at the beginning, which saw me gracefully part company, relationships began to develop. At first, the more sceptical men began to treat me with neutrality. They no longer scowled, or turned away. They would acknowledge me, while preferring to keep their distance and let the more confident and comfortable members of the group engage me. However, with time even this changed. For me, one of the most touching moments was when a man who had acted with profound discomfort to my company on the first three or four times he saw me, actually approached and asked to be photographed. It came out of the blue and following that moment we achieved an ongoing respect. I think there were several keys to being able to develop these relationships: consistency, calmness, respect and kindness. I knew I could do little to alleviate the misery faced by these men on a daily basis, but I did what I could not to add to it.
I brought Afghan bread in the mornings, to ensure they had something to eat after they woke up. I would normally buy between 20 and 40 flat breads, depending on where I was going. Sometimes I would bring small cartons of milk, if I was meeting a smaller group. But I did not always bring bread and that was OK too. Sometimes, due to route, or timing, I could not bring it and they did not hold it against me. One of my concerns was not having enough bread to go around, but I normally got the numbers about right and sometimes we went looking for stragglers at the very end of our session so we could hand out the last few.
But sometimes the bread did run out and one occasion will remain with me forever. This occurred long after I’d ceased photographing at the Russian Cultural Centre. There was a big crackdown, the addicts I’d grown to know were forcibly ejected from the complex and the perimeter was fenced off in advance of planned demolition and redevelopment of the site. The guarding was abysmal and the fence had its holes, but the vast majority of addicts stayed away. As a side note, you can read about my later Return to the Russian Centre here, which took place just prior to demolition. You may also like to see some comparison ‘before and after’ photographs here.
I asked around and was told that the addicts had gone to an area called Puli Sokhta. This was a bridge that carried a main road over a river. The addicts were living underneath the bridge in even worse conditions that the Russian Cultural Centre. In March 2014, I wrote:
“Empty Russian-made rooms comprising of six sides have replaced two; mud flats flanking a small river beneath them and the underside of a road far above. The same men now live amongst the entrails of animals slaughtered above and pitched over the side between carriageways. Frozen earth, bitter wind and icy waters mark winter. For the rest of the year, clouds of flies coat living surfaces from dusk until dawn, drawing heat in anticipation of morning flight. Many of these men, Soviet-trained engineers, former businessmen and bright teenagers amongst them, will no longer be alive“
One morning I was photographing there and handed out all my bread to the men under the ‘little bridge’ (there was a much smaller and older one behind the larger newer one). A short while later there was a late arrival whom I’d never met before. He saw the other men eating, looked at me and asked for bread. My interpreter explained that unfortunately all the bread was gone. The man shrugged his shoulders and settled himself down. As I turned around to take some photos there was an exchange between the addict next to me, whom I thought to be sleeping, and the hungry new arrival. The adjacent addict reached inside his coat and beneath his clothes and removed his untouched bread. He swiftly tore it in half and gave the larger portion to the newcomer. He then turned around and proceeded to doze off. It was that casual. This man, who had nothing himself, didn’t hesitate to hand over half of his bread to a man he’d never met. And so it worked with these men. They formed groups and they looked after their own.
I tended to photograph under the little bridge at Puli Sokhta, because it represented a more manageable group and felt a little safer. I did take photographs under the larger bridge, such as the one below, but found that being visible to so many desperate men (most of whom didn’t know me) problematic. On one occasion, I had been shouted at by one addict, who according to my interpreter was making no real sense. Shortly after arriving under the little bridge, an addict I knew told me that the irate individual was ‘crazy…. some of those men are crazy and unpredictable… which is why we prefer to stay over here’. Mental health issues and addiction are often found together, but my suspicion is that many of these men were victims of circumstance more than mental health problems, as might be more commonplace in the West.
I didn’t see very many dead addicts, which surprised me. Considering the horrendous conditions they lived in, I had expected more to succumb. I recall the man shown below, who was as yellow as a sponge cake and barely able to move. His jaundice was accompanied by infected sores and he looked unlikely to live more than a few hours. He lay underneath the little bridge, covered by a few blankets in weather that was around freezing at night. In the morning I saw him, he was coated with flies using his body heat to warm up ready for morning flight. I took a few photos, but he noticed and it distressed him, so I stopped.
As I left, I thought ‘that’s the last time I will see him. He’ll die right there’. Only he didn’t. About a month later, I saw him not only alive, but no longer yellow and looking much healthier. Frankly, I have no idea how he pulled through, but he did.
I tended to avoid photographing the dead. I am not entirely sure why, but I think it had something to do with not wanting to take ‘cheap photographs’. It is relatively easy to use a dead body to create a dramatic image and caption. I could have done so, but felt repelled by the idea. It seemed wrong to give more attention to a dead man than those still struggling for life. Photos of the dead seemed to be the photos that others wmight expect a photographer to take, which may also have contributed to why I didn’t take them. I felt it devalued the relationships I’d built with some of these men. This was a very personal decision and I am struggling to explain I now, but I was very clear about it at the time (and each time). I respect that others might have approached it differently and have no issue with that.
Everything that I was doing was possible because of these relationships; because of trust. It was not uncommon for me to enter a room at the Russian Cultural Centre (RCC), or through the larger crowds beneath the large bridge, and know only a few of the men present. This would set the others chattering and sometimes shouting comments in my direction. Most often, if anyone started to become truly agitated, one of the addicts I knew would shout something back to him, like, ‘he’s OK, we know him well, don’t worry about him’. I can only remember one occasion when this was not enough to cause everything to settle down again. In this particular case, the addicts I was with told me that the protagonist was ‘crazy’ and that we should ignore him. He also warned me to stay well away from the man, who had apparently stabbed another addict sometime previously. This was of course advice I heeded.
After each visit, I had a routine. From the moment I left the RCC, or the underneath of Puli Sokhta, I was back in the world of the living. The dirty, chaotic streets of one of the world’s most impoverished countries seemed uplifting by contrast. I’d arrive at my compound, inspect my boots for excrement and leave them outside to air. I would enter my bedroom, remove my clothes and hang them out to air too, before putting them into the dirty washing basket. The stench of burning plastic, garbage, rotten organic matter and heroin smoke needed fresh air to dissipate. I would then shower thoroughly and go to the dining room for breakfast. At this point, perhaps 30 minutes after leaving the addicts, I was surrounded by well-groomed, clean and healthy people, fresh fruit and there was order. The contrast was such that a form of cognitive dissonance set in each and every time. One of the two had to not be real. I compulsively grappled with the idea that I was able to step into their world and leave. I could not only return to the relative luxury of my very basic domestic situation in Kabul, but I was at liberty to return home to the UK anytime I wished. They could not; they were fatally stuck in most cases.
When we think about a person in an horrendous situation, we invariably consider it from the perspective of someone who is not only not in that situation, but someone who is able to see and experience better circumstances. It is remarkably difficult to break free from the idea that our own lives and sense of self would somehow be recoverable….. somehow. However, when you stop considering yourself in that situation and think again of actually being that person in their situation and without any of your mental constructs, it changes profoundly. These embryonic thoughts eventually gave rise to the conceptual project, Terrestrial Cosmos; however, that’s a story for another day.
Over time, the project slowly came to an end. The addicts I knew moved on (or disappeared for one reason or another) and my visits grew less frequent. Combined with vacation outside of Afghanistan, my efforts began to lose focus and I knew it. This happens with every self-driven project that lacks a finite time window. I didn’t fight it, because I knew the natural end had come. The security situation meant that the risks were going up and the police were becoming more troublesome. And so without any planning, or awareness, one visit became my last. I could not tell you which it was, but I feel sadness at the thought. I think I feel this way, because I was not able to do anything to help and I know many of the men will have continued to slide towards death. Afghanistan is a country that is broken in every conceivable way and these mens’ lives played out beneath decades of rubble. But they lived.
This is the end of the series of articles on ‘Afghan Heroin: Not For Export’. However, please feel free to ask any questions you may have. I will do my best to answer them