I will soon be returning to live in the UK after more than a decade in Afghanistan. I remember arriving in January of 2006 thinking that I’d stay for ‘a year perhaps’ and that anything more than this would suggest I’ve earned of one of the ‘mercenary missionary or misfit’ labels! Unfortunately, it is possible that madness is responsible for such a long time in a conflict and violence ridden country. However, I’m not going anywhere near a psychiatrist at this point, so I guess we will never know. But I am fine I tell you. Meow.
There is a high likelihood that I will never return to Afghanistan and that changes everything when it comes to leaving. This has been on my mind a great deal, because it is not only what one leaves behind, but also what it taken away in the form of memories.
For the last few months, I have been focused on wrapping up my life here (the second of the two lives I have lived in an ‘on, off’ fashion, as I have moved back and forth). Consequently, I have been very distracted, which is why I have been posting articles at a slower rate than usual. I’m feeling the pressure of the momentous change and, as a result, my creative self has hunkered down into a little bunker inside my head and I am instead restricted to ‘functioning’. As I have written before when describing creativity (see Inspiration – A Fickle Mistress), I find this state quite worrying, but experience tells me everything will return to normal in time!
A few nights ago, I sat down for a drink with a friend here in Kabul. He is buying a number of prints to remember his dozen or so years in this country. Naturally, he is considering the options on their own individual merits, but he is also seeking photographs that will serve to anchor the many memories he has made here. One of the images that I inadvertently showed him and which he is now keen to own, is the one below. I did not show it to him earlier, because I have not yet produced a final print and also because it will be a very limited edition (four copies, approx. 72”/182cm) and therefore will be priced accordingly. Yet it was exactly what he had been looking for, because it is composed of a scene that has personal resonance for him (the lights are the homes littering ‘TV Hill’ and neighbouring hillsides). His response to the image was exciting for me, because this photograph (in fact the entire series) is very special to me as well. You can read about Terrestrial Cosmos here.
The Russian Cultural Centre and my relationship with that (now vanished) complex and its inhabitants is a microcosm of my entire ‘second life’ in Afghanistan. When I knew the Russian Centre was to be torn down, it distressed me. It may seem overly sentimental, but the physical structure provided a tangible reference for the memories associated with it. It is for this reason that I was compelled to return ‘one last time’ before its demolition (read Return to the Russian Centre) and ended up shooting Terrestrial Cosmos. This project, which is unlike anything else I have ever shot, became the next vessel to ‘make real’ the memories that would otherwise be at risk of becoming untethered and potentially lost over time.
But here is what I find interesting: I shot plenty of more conventional documentary/reportage photographs of the Russian Centre and the addicts and homeless men living there (see Russians and Royals and Afghan Heroin: Not For Export); however, on their own they were not complete. It took a more abstract and conceptual photographic approach to fully connect with the abstraction I was feeling. My last project in this country, Afghanistan 50K, was more firmly rooted in memory and the relationships we have with them (you can read about the genesis of this project here). In this case, I sought to re-frame some of my memories and to choose the terms of my departure from this country and the years of living that it represents. And now I am soon to leave, finally and completely.
There is a parting (departing) thought that I cannot shrug off and it is this: Eleven years of my life (Iraq then Afghanistan) have taken place in a setting that almost nobody I ever meet will have experienced and only a few more will be able to imagine. It has been a life within a life – a miniature universe that ceases to feel real the moment one departs and reconnects with ‘normality’. My photographs only scratch the surface. Essentially, everything that has made it a life will exist only inside my head, frozen in time and disconnected from all else. It’s a curious thought. It’s certainly far from a unique one, but that perhaps only a minority of people experience.
And it is multi-layered. Within this ‘Afghanistan snow globe’ sit my experiences at the Russian Cultural Centre, which is now gone, with all traces erased due to complete demolition and redevelopment of the site. Even at the time, I would photograph the men who lived there under terrible, hopeless conditions and struggle to reconcile that with the ordinary day that followed. I would quietly walk through the bombed out interior of the complex with fresh bread (for the men) in my bag and a Leica in my hand, stopping, chatting and photographing as I went.
I will never forget the smell of burning garbage, heroin and dusty earth warming beneath a rising sun. After an hour or so in darkened rooms and passageways punctured by blinding light streaming through shell holes and window voids, I would step out into a city just beginning to awaken. Even climbing back into a clean vehicle and opening a fresh bottle of water presented a jarring contrast. After a short drive, a shower invariably followed and then an early breakfast surrounded by ample food, clean faces and healthy bodies. By this point, the Russian Centre was already without present relation. It really was a foul place that even with its shell-scarred exterior hid its ugliest side – the interior – completely. As I say…. these things are layered.
How do I feel to be leaving?
In truth, I am temporarily worn out. I am tired enough not to feel the excitement that people assume I would feel. I can only describe the sensation as ‘weary longing’, laced with guilt. Afghanistan is a terrible mess and those who will be most affected by its immensely difficult future are unable to leave. This is a country drowning in adversity, corruption, hate and destruction. It weighs upon the soul, yet we have a choice: either we collectively give up and drown in these malevolent forces, or we try to find those places where the human spirit has remained buoyant and reinforce hope the best we can. That may come in the form of a grand plan, a local initiative, or support for just one bright and brilliant young person. The trouble is that so many of these hopeful young people are losing hope and leaving, with inevitable consequences. Time will tell, but in the cold light of day I think it unlikely that I will (be able to) return in the foreseeable future, if ever. The country is heading towards the precipice and I would be surprised if the vast majority of the internationals here now are not gone in the next 18 months, due to Taliban and ISIS pressures. But again, at least they can leave and remember better times.
So what lies in store for Tom and TPF?
Well, it is rather good! I will be moving back to the North West of the UK, living with my teenage boys and beginning a number of substantial photographic initiatives! I will have dramatically more time to photograph and to blog (full-time) and that excites me immensely. The last month has felt like everything has been balanced on a knife-edge, due to the number of moving parts involved in a change this substantial. When my *ss hits the tarmac, the old will be over and the new will become real, but not until then! Once I am established in a new home, (with fewer passing 107mm rockets) you will see rapid changes that require more time and fresh energy from me.
Afghanistan is a tragedy and feels rather like an imperfect, but painfully lost love. Both permit the fondest of memories, with the outcome coming down to choices we have the choice to make.