When I mentioned to photojournalist Michael Connolly there being noticeably few shots of women in his recent (and outstanding) series of photographs from Afghanistan, he reminded me that in the more religious parts there, it’s almost impossible to take photos of them in public. He went on to share an example in which he was followed by an armed gunman near a mosque in Herat who prevented him from taking pictures of women in the area.
Some of Connolly’s captivating work from the country, which he visited this summer, can currently be seen in the exclusive photo essay Afghanistan: Facing the Polls.
The Japan-based artist, whose life-altering trip to Kosovo (while still a first-year university student) originally drew him to photography, cemented his career in documentary photography after a 2007 journey to North Korea. It was then that he came up with his personal mission: ‘to use photography as a tool to help people see the rarely shown sides of cultures that often receive biased portrayals in popular media.’
I had the opportunity also to ask Connolly more about his photography and impressions on Afghanistan:
What was your greatest impression of Afghanistan on this latest trip?
That's a tough question to answer, since so many aspects of this experience wowed me. I guess the first impression that comes to mind is a conflicted feeling between wonderment and sadness. When visiting the unfathomable, breathtaking beauty of the Band-e-Amir lakes of Bamiyan, I was certainly awed. However, I also felt a pang of sadness, since I was one of the only people to be out viewing such a beautiful site. Of course, one should expect a dramatic drop in tourism for any place that experiences war, but actually visiting such a beautiful place that deserves to be shared with the world and realizing that the whole area is nearly void of people, is a curious experience. As a photographer, you're happy to have the place to yourself, but once you've taken your shots, it would be nice to be able invite people back in from the sidelines so that they could continue enjoying the site.
Why did you go to Afghanistan?
Well, I've been deeply interested in human rights issues for much of my life. My Master’s focused on the civil rights struggles of the ethnic Korean minority in Japan. And I'd also volunteered in a war zone before, traveling to Kosovo in 1999 to work with a human relief assistance group. Since graduating last year, I was spending more time looking for volunteer opportunities and a friend of mine who was volunteering at a small school in Kabul invited me out there based on our similar interests. Although he didn't stay in Afghanistan long enough for us to meet up, I became deeply impressed with the school he recommended. It's called SOLA, the School of Leadership Afghanistan, and they are focused on finding talented students from around the country and working hard to secure international scholarships for them. Although I was nervous about the security situation in Afghanistan before heading out, I felt that I was in good hands with the founder of the school. He's a retired US legislator, who has personally traveled across all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces in his banged-up Toyota Corolla. Perhaps not the best person to advocate safety, but he helped instill in me the confidence to fully engage myself with local Afghan culture.
Is photographing people in this country different from other places you have shot in the past?
Although this varies in different regions around the country, I'd have to say that shooting in Afghanistan was a much different experience than shooting elsewhere. First, as I mentioned before, there’s still the sense of a cultural taboo against seeing, let alone photographing, women. In adherence to local customs, I certainly understand and respect the local traditions and rules. However, as a social documentary photographer, it’s essential to capture portraits of daily life as it happens, regardless of people's reactions. So the next surprise was that male Afghans were incredibly receptive to being photographed. Under the reign of the Taliban all forms of personal photography, with the sole exception of passport photographs, were banned. It’s important to bring a portable printer, or to be willing to visit local photo shops, since many of the people you photograph here will actively ask for a copy of the photo afterward. Because of the security risks and kidnapping potential in Wardak province, I was half-terrified to speak with the locals there. However, after our van ended up bursting both a tire and the spare, we had to stop in a mountain village for repairs. I shyly flashed my camera at a couple locals, who quickly warmed to the idea and I ended up being allowed to photograph some tough-looking individuals who even tried hamming it up for the camera. That day is one that I'll remember for a long time.
All photographs by Michael Connolly