Paedophiles, politicians, photographers and the big lens theory
Documentary photographer, photojournalist, snapper, paparazzi, picture monkey, painter with light. You get called a lot things in this gameÉ none of them particularly flattering, the pay’s shit, the hours are stupid, I have a slipped disc due to regularly humping around 20 kilos of accoutrements. I’ve been assaulted, spat at, stoned and on one occasion whipped by a schoolgirl (I know some people would pay for that, but this was in Afghanistan so sexual intent can be pretty much discounted). I was once accused of being collectively responsible for the Death of Princes Diana (which I am quite proud of, only don’t tell Mohamed Al-Fayed).
Practicing my chosen profession/vocation (delete according to wage slip) here in is even stranger. Like most things in Afghanistan, it’s never straightforward. Photography was banned under the Taliban yet it’s almost impossible to walk past an Afghan male without being forced to ‘axe’ him. On the other hand, try and photograph a woman and you could lose your head. I’ve been to three weddings so far and I’ve not so much as smelt a female. Girl’s schools, outside of Kabul, are placed on mountaintops so high that only God and fighter pilots can get a visual. So far so Muslim culture …I can deal with that.
Only this country has what you might call a lot of women based stories. I was commissioned by MS Magazine to do the lead to the story… Initially titled Unwanted Advances - Facing a resurgent Taliban, Afghan women have had to cover up and take cover. Malalai Kakar, a female police chief led the piece. Shooting her was compounded by the fact that she got shot by the Taliban. So far so Afghan culture …I can deal with that.
Well not really, but as you can imagine photographing women is not what you might call straightforward in this town. The Ôwhipping incident’ came when I tried to photograph a girl’s school. Despite having permission to shoot outside the school gates it wasn’t long before the Afghan branch of St Trinians, the infamous school for ‘young ladies’ set upon me. My swift exit, aided by the school caretaker who helped drive them away with a big shitty stick.
This I can deal with. Working round a society’s cultural customs is part of any documentary photographer’s modus operandi. What I have a real problem with here is the cult of paranoia amongst the country’s resident ‘internationlistas’. Mainly the Americans, whose fear, suspicion and mistrust, (obviously linked to their love of the war on abstract nouns) of photographers has so far placed me at loggerheads with lets say more than enough Yanks to be a coincidence. So bunkered down are most of them that they never even leave the confines of their bunkers at the US Embassy compound but the ones that do and bravely attend parties seem to believe that a drunk Brit brandishing a Nikon is more likely to disseminate the information to insurgents or potential kidnappers than any of the other happy snappers in attendance. I call it the big lens theory and if we murdered Diana we’re a capable of anything.
One major incident (a ‘major incident’ out here can be as insignificant as a car backfiring resulting in 1000 NGOs forced into a lockdown) occurred whilst attending a Friday morning knockabout Frisbee match. For security reasons I wont give you the GPS co-ordinates of this weekly rendezvous but it’s held in a semi-public space – a sort of green zone lite. Obviously I was tooled up with a bigger than ‘normal’ lens/body kit. So within minutes I was being quizzed by various panting members of the Frisbee posse.
‘Why are you taking pictures? What for? Who for?’ Sarcastically explaining that Operation Enduring Freedom was here to defend my constitutional right to do such a thing, fell upon deaf ears. I was accused of putting their lives in jeopardy if the Taliban got to see their pictures in print. Trying to explain that getting interesting pictures into publication was hard enough, never mind long-lens shots of anonymous sweaty jocks tossing a piece of plastic around an empty football field.
Leaving the secret location, which happens to border a military base, I was stopped by a US Soldier in full Terminator battle dress. “Excuse me sir I need to check your camera equipment.’ Cut to me showing some grunt the most boring set of pictures I’ve shot since I’ve been here. Occasionally the grunt would grunt, “delete that one”. “You have the power to order me sir. I will delete.” “I also have the ability to retrieve the pictures with simple software when I get home”. I thought. Only I didn’t… Redacted or not they stayed in the bin.
But here’s the rub. After he’d finished exercising his right to delete highly sensitive pictures of a US Frisbee game, he requested to take a picture of me, ‘for the record’. He took my name and email address. I think I maybe now on a US terrorism watch list. That’s me, Nelson Mandela, Cat Stevens and a million other unfortunates. So far so American culture …I can deal with that.
P.S. some of my best friends are Afghans, schoolgirls and Americans