Charikar, Parwan Province, Afghanistan, November 2001. A man stretches out his hand to release a pigeon, the light catching his profile as the pigeon leaps with open wings into the misty sky, silhouetted in the low morning light. Further in the distance, a flock race above the mountains and rooftops beyond. It is an image by Seamus Murphy of freedom and peace, from this remarkable set of black and white photographs of the country spanning 1994–2007.
Murphy’s long-standing connection with Afghanistan is borne out in the close and trusting proximity with which he is granted access to capture intimate scenes of village life, and the spirit of a country which is often more crudely depicted as a mess of poverty and war.
Humanity, against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s awesome landscapes, is always at the fore in Murphy’s photographs. The barren beauty emphasises the physicality of Afghani life; the inescapable elements foster a raw vitality in the faces we see.
In Gulbahar, Kaspia Province, November 2001, a crowd of men stand on a half-demolished house. A young boy on a horse stands patiently, and everyone is craning to look at the traditional sport of buzkashi, where men fight on horseback to claim a headless goat.
Elsewhere, in Ishkashem, Badakhshan Province, November 2004, a father and son load a donkey with barley – its tiny rear end fanned out with bushels to at least four times its size. In the same area, a mother and daughter return home from work in the fields. The mesh of the mother’s burkha comes directly into the lens, and the daughter at the centre of the image, strains under the weight of a sheep wrapped over her shoulders and neck. They are all staring into the camera in what is a sharp confrontation with the extremes of physical labour.
In the heat and dust, relief can sometimes be found, and when it is, is met with joy. A picture from the bathhouse in the Jadai Masegara Massoudi Hamam shows water and light streaming down over closed eyes, dripping from the nose, and a man smiling in pleasure, as the liquid cleanses and washes away dirt and sweat.
These are scenes that we do not normally see. But Murphy’s pictures of war and killing also offer fresh perspectives. In one image from 2000, we are in the back of a car with Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan’s resistance hero, heading to the frontlines. Shah Massoud fought nine Soviet offences and was then driven from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996. Just one year after the picture was taken, we are told, he was killed by suicide bombers. A timeline in the exhibition makes a useful guide to the dates of control wrangled in this land, which over the last 100 years has been the pawn of ideological ambition.
Seamus Murphy’s images pay homage to a country whose identity struggles to survive in the face of fear, bombardment and conflict. His love and fascination with Afghanistan carries us deeper into its heart; to the people, its spirit and the land. This is a significant and humbling contribution to our understanding.