September Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | Published 9 years ago

I remember attending an event at my college where I sat at the same table as an alumna who works for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). She had recently returned from a mission in Afghanistan. I silently cringed as she recalled her treacherous adventures in the South Asian powder-keg to wide-eyed listeners. She was relieved to return alive. I then asked whether she had chanced upon a visit to Pakistan. She had — and had similar stories to share. I cringed further as she was now commenting on the place I call home, in a stereotypically prejudiced style.

Disturbed at first, I gradually began to wonder if I was the deluded one. Perhaps, the parallel normality and peaceful pursuits of the ordinary people of this region were mere figments of my imagination. It was with these thoughts that I saw an exhibition at the VM Gallery, by Dutch international reconstruction activist, traveller and author, Maarten Roest, of his photographic account of the “everyday life of [Afghan] people who, in spite of decades of unspeakable tragedy, have not lost their humanity.”

VER-4-L-LeprosyThe photo-series was titled, ‘Afghanistan — Through my eyes only.’ Roest’s reasoning for titling his exhibition thus is his realisation of  “how different the world looks through our own eyes,” as opposed to “television screens,” which merely reflect “a global division of power.”

I must confess that I was mildly underwhelmed upon walking into VM. I anticipated an exhibit that walked me through the lives of my neighbours with skilful immediacy. The photographs on display were too small, and in frames too distracting, to have the impact I imagined. Nonetheless, as I began to view each photograph intently, I found that the images still achieved Roest’s purpose with a modest charm.

‘Girls at School,’ ‘Girls from Badakhshan,’ and ‘Gulbahar Clinic’ were an evocative reminder of how ordinary humanity in Afghanistan actually is — in it reside children, who have aspirations, enjoy simple pleasures, and overcome challenges similar to those elsewhere. ‘Girls from Badakhshan’ was particularly endearing due to its candid depiction of an innocence which is, as yet, unused to being captured by the camera.

Another shot, perhaps the most poignant of the series, is ‘Leprosy,’ depicting an elderly man suffering from the disease. Although it is not an explicit glorification of pain, it is a manifestation that beauty lies in unanticipated places. The image itself is a triumph for Roest as a photographer. He captures the scorching energy of the sun, which burns, but still brings a crisp golden tinge to everything which it shines upon. His detailing of the leper’s face and head is impressive; every skin lesion, vein, and crease is visible with its finer points. The picture is perhaps a crucial illustration of the fact that people in Afghanistan can be afflicted by other troubles in life — medical conditions — as opposed to mere war and terror.

Adversity and hope are an unavoidable cost of living. Yet, Roest is careful in showcasing a life that is completely removed from the violence that seemingly pervades Afghanistan. In one of the larger frames, ‘Chaikhana,’ a group of men enjoy a collective moment of joy as they sip tea. ‘Bakers’ is a charming portrait of two women, dressed in vibrant blue outfits, peering outside their window against a delicate white tapestry. ‘Hazara Smiles’ is another favourite of mine. The faces of the group of men are beaming; simply delighted at being photographed by Roest.

Roest’s effort in photographing Afghanistan, and his decision to first display his work in a state like Pakistan, which is so close to and yet so removed from the Afghan experience, is thus a crucial step in restoring the humanity of people inhabiting war-torn states and elevating them from the status of mere collateral damage.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.