I have talked quite a bit about my thought processes, when undertaking landscape photography work – my two Iceland Trips (January and May) being good examples. I have also shared several photographer interviews in which I have tried to get underneath the photographs and gain a real understanding of what drives the person to take them in the first place. As some of you will know, I have had a large project on the go for some time – an aerial piece – and thought I would write about how it came about. As is often the case with me, it was an evolutionary process, built upon foundations that had already been laid at an earlier point. I have called this new ‘documentary landscape’ photography project ‘Afghanistan 50K’, but need to start at the beginning…
Some of you may remember the photo series ‘West to East’ (blog post here and full-series here), which I shot on a mobile phone during a single flight from Herat in the West of Afghanistan, back to Kabul in the East. I can now say that this experience and the photographs I produced turned out to be a ‘taster’ – a toe dipped in the water if you like – but it took me some time to understand what would come of it. I did not shoot West to East for any ‘reason’. It just happened, as a result of living life and exploring thoughts and experiences along the way. I certainly was not prepared for it, because I did not really know what it was well enough in advance. It happened in ‘real time’.
I will start by explaining the ’emotional background’ to West to East (later referred to as N-S-E-W) i.e. the context within which that flight took place. In this regard, I feel that one’s emotions can be rather like a fluid that bathes the activity of photography. I use the word ‘fluid’, because it is not necessarily structured enough to be described in terms of clear thoughts, but profoundly influences the experience and activities nonetheless. For me at least, it can be a combination of intuitive motivation, as well as a blizzard of fleeting half-thoughts and senses. I have learnt to go with it and not push too hard to translate these swirling sensations into anything defined, before they are ready that is.
The flight took place on the 12th of June 2014 and I had been back in Afghanistan for only three months, after deciding to return to full-time work in the country for another couple of years. That decision was incredibly difficult for me, because of the consequences I knew it would have for my personal life, however, for various reasons I knew it was what I needed to do. Despite this resolve, I was very aware that I would need to fight through a deep yearning to be home and closer to my family (and normality). I had hit ‘the wall’ some time earlier and had also battled against some very difficult (and extraordinarily toxic) experiences at work and so I was digging deep just to accept the decision I had made. Part of this experience was an inner dialogue that asked questions like, ‘what on earth are you doing?’ on a regular basis: Instincts vs. imperatives.
The 12th of June 2014 was more specifically significant, however. It was the day before the second (and final) round of voting in the Afghanistan Presidential Elections. The first round had seen Abdullah Abdullah and Ghani emerge as the finalists, who were now engaged in a run-off for to succeed Karzai… the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history. Anyone who is familiar with the short history of Afghan elections will know that they are characterised by violence and corruption. Tribal leaders and warlords intimidate their ‘subjects’, while insurgent groups such as the Taliban try to derail the entire process by terrifying the population into staying at home. They do this by way of threats, assassinations, suicide attacks at polling stations, roadside bombs and more. Voters have their fingers dyed so that they cannot vote twice, which may cut down fraud, but it makes it east for insurgents to identify those who have defied their warnings and cut off their stained fingers, or worse.
Reports describing the violence were flooding in and I could picture and smell it as we took off, questioning once again why I had chosen to continue working in a place where unspeakable violence has become so normal. I felt exhausted. At times it feels like I have lived and breathed human misery as an occupation. I would consider my experiences far more benign than many, but having lived here so long, the violence is with you always. Long gone are the days when, as a foreigner, you could go out to a raggedy restaurant in Kabul for a meal and a drink to escape for a few hours. The popular restaurants have either been blown up, or people expect them to be and so the violence invariably feels close to home. You know the place where each attack happens and often know some of the people who die. And even if you don’t, a friend does. Facebook becomes a macabre bulletin board after such events. And then there are your Afghan colleagues and friends: their children die from illnesses that would scarcely be of concern in the west and they work in locations that have been attacked in the past and surely will be in the future. They lack the sanctuaries and restrictions that we find stiffing.
Even when it is not tangible, it still takes a toll: photographs of the dead and injured spread quickly in the wake of an attack, you’re subject to endless attack statistics, dozens of incidents reports circulate daily, you see the pock marked walls and craters in the road (or worse) and the friends and colleagues who are ‘not doing so well’. It takes a toll on the soul and induces a unique kind of fatigue. At the same time, it becomes normal and this can be far more worrying.
We took off and, as we gained height, such thoughts flowed through my mind. They were accompanied initially by a fatalistic sadness and weariness that were later succeeded by a feeling of total disconnection. I could see houses and people below, which condensed into neighbourhoods, then suburbs and eventually dusty grey abstractions amidst swathes of green and brown. Human settlement gave way to the remoteness of the country’s interior: towering mountains, remote valleys and captivating geological beauty. I did not want to think about violence any more. I did not want to think about my own slog to the finish line either. I did not want to think about anything, quite frankly and I could not have chosen a more effective catalyst. There may have been one other passenger on the 30 seat aircraft, but I cannot remember if there was. All I remember was emptiness, silence and a scrolling landscape that I could not take my eyes off. This was the same country and the same me, but an entirely different relationship between us thanks to the detachment that 20,000 feet makes possible.
The flight was over in an hour and a quarter and the light had been surprisingly good. I shot perhaps a few hundred frames on my Samsung work phone, while suspended in a splendid bubble that I was disappointed to leave, when the plane touched down in Kabul. I felt such peace… such catharsis and I had no expectations with regard to the images I had captured – they were phone photos after all. Nonetheless, I processed them immediately and felt strongly about the results. I reminded myself that this is normal, when the experience has been a powerful one and does not mean the images will match the experience.
A few months later, my mind kept returning to the thoughts that had emerged, the photographs that I had taken and the relationship between them. I decided to throw the photos out there on their own – with no explanation – and see what came back. Feedback was surprising: people appreciated this completely different perspective on Afghanistan and wanted to see and know more. I submitted five frames to the International Photography Awards of 2014 and forgot about it for a while, but later found out that it was placed 2nd in the landscape category.
In the time that elapsed, an itch developed. What I had touched upon became something I needed to develop and better resolve in my mind and there was only one way that was going to happen. The question was whether it was feasible and whether I understood it well enough to be able to explain it to anyone.
Genesis of a Photography Project Part 2
A word that kept resounding in my head was ‘catharsis’. I had enjoyed that flight so much that I delved down more deeply into why and the reasons are several:
1. I was on the ‘final push’ in Afghanistan and could sense the end of my time there. I knew that I had already hit ‘the wall’ and was looking forward to the time when Afghanistan would be behind me.
2. I had a lot of negative memories. This takes nothing away from the wonderful moments I have experienced in a country, often with people I value greatly; however, if I am to use a handful of words to describe Afghanistan they would be attrition, brutality, death, intolerance, futility and tragedy. The only truth here lies in honesty and I have read back over that list and would not change one word, sadly.
3. Afghanistan is much more complicated and interesting that what is shown on the news, or even covered in the most insightful newspaper ‘opeds’. It could be so much more, but almost certainly won’t be anytime soon. Herein lies the tragedy: it’s a horror show that needn’t be, but due geopolitical, religious and cultural realities, it is seemingly inescapable meat grinder into which human souls are fed through.
4. Shooting these aerial photographs had provided catharsis by allowing me to escape by engaging with a different Afghanistan: the one I chose to look at.
Upon looking at the images from West to East, I was amazed to see small settlements and villages that I simply had not registered at the time. They must have been visible, but I had taken no notice. Some were in the middle of nowhere and it occurred to me that in these places, regimes and politics came and went, but largely left people’s lives unchanged. The fisherman still caught fish and the cobbler still mended shoes. I wondered whether in these tiny hamlets in the middle of nowhere, where life has remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years, whether they give the current NATO vs. Taliban era much thought at all. The field still need sewing and harvest remains hard work.
I also noticed paths and dirt roads where in the most improbably remote places, some of which astonished me. Yes, there is a lot of wilderness, but there is even more ‘assumed wilderness’ that upon close inspection is studded with minuscule settlements or at least traces of previous habitation. The pioneering and enduring tenacity of human beings came through very clearly to me, as did the simplicity of life where contemporary politics holds limited sway. Staring down at the primeval geology and clear signs of long-abandoned civilisation set the current era in a new context and it was one that I appreciated. It took away its negative power, by making it clear that the precise factors making Afghanistan such an intolerant, destructive place today will be gone long before the goat tracks and mud brick buildings I was staring down at. This is a country with fifty thousand years of human civilisation to its name and, viewed without regard for the events of ‘today’, it is absolutely breathtaking.
Many good people, Afghan and foreign, have lost their lives in Afghanistan, so I need to be clear about something: What I have said thus far is not an attempt to belittle their sacrifice, but simply a personal way of choosing a parting memory. I can either choose to fixate on misery and destruction and have such thoughts define my parting impression, or I can remember these things at the same time as etching into my mind and soul something different…. something more conducive to a peaceful and enduring goodbye.
By I hope you will have a clear idea of what Afghanistan 50K ‘is’ and will be for me. It is my last major effort in Afghanistan and there is a good chance I will never return. It’s the last glance back over my shoulder and one that I hope to remember with a fondness that keeps other memories at bay.
Condensing everything I have written here into the ubiquitously requested ‘artist statement’ is proving to be a challenge, so I wanted to share the longer and bigger picture with you all here. We talk about projects a lot and now you know that this particular project is to me along with how and why I choose to shoot it.
You can the Afghanistan 50K Photographs Here.