Photographing in Afghanistan
I had the good fortune to photograph over several years in Afghanistan in the early 1970s. This was before the Soviet occupation and before the ensuing civil war and subsequent rise of the Taliban. It was a special time few Americans witnessed. I fell in love with the Afghan people, their art, culture, their families and their history. I grew to admire their goodness, generosity and their fierce independence.
In 1970 Afghanistan was about as remote a place as any on earth. Tucked away in the north east corner of Central Asia, it was however on the “Silk Road” of the time. This was the track that Hippies followed to get to India, Nepal and beyond. I had known little about Afghanistan until one night around a camp-fire on the beach near the town of Vai, at the very eastern tip of Crete. There I met a young woman from New Zealand who had just crossed Asia by bus. She had the most remarkable tales to tell about the mountainous desert kingdom: sleeping in the chai-khana, the tea houses, riding on the tops of reeling rickety buses through perilous gorges, 150 foot Buddhas carved into cliffs, exploring ancient caravansaray. I knew I had to go.
I first arrived in Afghanistan in the summer of 1970. It was near the end of August and it was hot. I entered through the border crossing at Spin Boldak/Chaman, from Pakistan, south of Kandahar. I remember looking at the thermometer in the hotel I booked into in Kandahar at the Herat gate. It read 126 degrees. I had hitchhiked to Kandahar from Istanbul, via Tehran and across Iran’s Dasht-I-Margo, the Desert of Death. It was nearly, but not quite, as bad as it sounds. Thus began my time in Afghanistan. Over the next five years I visited the country five times and spent nearly 40 months there. I had not planned to stay that long. Illness kept me there through the first winter. Then Spring arrived and I ventured into the countryside. The more I saw and experienced the more taken by the people, the landscape and culture I became.
I personally developed and printed these images during that period and kept them for my own use, showing them to friends and family as a record of my travels. For many years it had been my intention to revisit the photos, edit them and relearn the printing process in order to share the images on a broader scale. In 2004, I had the opportunity to do so and began the process.
Regrettably, 30 years of casual storage in the south Florida heat and humidity had resulted some damage to the film, thus the negatives needed to be scanned and restored digitally to remove spots and distortions. Reproducing the images photographically proved problematic so I have presented them as inkjet prints using archival inks and state-of-the-art fiber-based paper.
Photographs are a deft combination of time and place, light, composition, texture and content. In many of these images the sense of timelessness is strong, with little or no evidence of modern intrusion. I found the Afghans to be easily approachable camera in hand, but discovered that concealing the camera beneath my jacket meant I would not gather a crowd of youngsters following me, clamoring for bakshish, a little gift, and for their pictures to be taken. It is often noted that very few of the photos include girls or women. This is indeed so; even in the more relaxed and enlightened time of my visit, I felt it somehow intrusive to photograph women. I felt awkward and I regret this now.
All images were originally produced using a variety of 35mm Kodak, Ilford and Agfa films. All photos were shot using Nikon F and Nikkormat cameras and Nikon 24mm, 28mm, 50mm and 105mm lenses.