The powerful, haunting portrait above, of a young Afghan woman mutilated by the Taliban, by South African photographer Jodi Bieber, has this week won the World Press Photo of the Year 2010 award. Eighteen-year-old Bibi Aisha had her nose and ears cut off, an almost unimaginably brutal punishment for allegedly leaving her marital home. The image first came to worldwide attention in August 2010, when it was featured on the cover of Time magazine, alongside the provocative headline ‘What happens if we leave Afghanistan’.
The image, and Time’s use of it, caused much controversy and debate. It’s selection by the jury of World Press Photo has guaranteed that controversy and debate will only continue. It will almost certainly turn Aisha into an icon of Afghanistan in 2011, whether she likes it or not (she’s since been taken to the USA by a charity, received reconstructive surgery, and has now settled there). Many people have commented on the similarities between Bieber’s image and Steve McCurry’s earlier (1984), iconic photograph of a young Afghan girl. McCurry’s image is so well known and has been so widely reproduced that it is certainly an unavoidable reference point.
David Campbell, a writer and lecturer on photography and politics, talks perceptively about McCurry and attempts to place Bieber’s image in some kind of context of it’s own in a post on his blog, which I recommend reading in full. Essentially, he argues that portraits such as Bieber’s and McCurry’s are, almost by definition, immediately de-contextualised by their reliance on a caption to inform the viewer about the subject’s story. There is no contextual information in the images themselves to locate the people depicted in either a place or a time.
However, contextualised or not, Bieber’s image is at least a different take on Afghanistan. Provocative for sure, and a shocking reminder of the horrific brutality of the Taliban. Bieber herself says that she wanted to make a portrait of Aisha that showed her as a beautiful woman, and was not just about what had happened to her. Ambitious? Naive, even?
Bieber says of her photo that, “you’re not taken aback by what happened to her at first. You look at her first as a woman and then you see what happened to her”. I’m not sure I agree with the first statement here. Even in today’s image-saturated, image-fatigued context, how can anyone not be taken aback by what has happened to Aisha? But the photograph’s power lies precisely in the tension between the obvious trauma and the defiant stare and obvious striking beauty. You can read the full interview with Bieber via the BJP, or watch a short audio slideshow on the Time website, but unfortunately we can’t hear what Aisha herself thinks.
But Aisha’s/Bieber’s image also stands out for another reason – it’s one of a growing, but still relatively small, number of photographs from Afghanistan over the last couple of years that have made by ‘western’ photojournalists working outside of the system of military ’embeds’ (the now well established approach of facilitating access for journalists by embedding them with the military). Afghanistan is a difficult place to work in for journalists of any description, and much of the imagery we’ve seen from the country over the past decade has been produced via the embed system.
There are many excellent photojournalists who are continually pushing the boundaries of embeds, looking for new and different ways to tell a story – from Damon Winter’s photographs taken with an iPhone and an app (also recently award-winning and equally controversial), to Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Oscar-nominated documentary film Restrepo. And the dangers for those embedded with the military are very, very real. Just this week, British photojournalist Giles Duley was gravely wounded by a landmine while embedded with US forces in Kandahar province. In October 2010, New York Times photographer Joao Silva was also badly injured in a similar incident.
But there is of course another side to Afghanistan, beyond the military and the Taliban, and it’s this aspect that I’m keen to explore.
Faces of hope
In some parts of Afghanistan it is possible for photographers to work outside of the military embed system. And as part of my job, I’m continually looking for imagery that tells the other side of the story in Afghanistan – the stories of progress and development that come as a result of improved safety and security. And those stories are there, in increasing numbers.
Recently I’ve been working on editing a series of photographs that turn the whole dynamic of military embeds upside down – images that depict ordinary Afghans and the outcomes of successful development projects, shot not by a photojournalist embedded with the military, but by a professional British Army photographer who turned his lens away from his colleagues to focus instead on the people that they’re there to help. I’ll blog more on that separately, hopefully soon.
I also recently came across another powerful and inspiring set of images a few weeks ago, when I met the British photographer Martin Middlebrook. He has visited Afghanistan independently a number of times over the last couple of years, working on a series of images entitled Afghanistan: Faces of Hope, one of which is posted above. This image is in many ways just as extraordinary as Jodi Bieber’s photograph – for the very fact that it depicts a girl in school in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, only around one million children attended school, and almost none of them were girls. Now, over five million children attend school – and over a third are girls.
There are huge challenges ahead for Afghanistan, and difficult decisions to make for western countries with military presences there over the coming years. For those reasons alone, the country will remain of interest to photographers for a long time to come. There will be many more challenging stories, like Aisha’s, to tell, many more faces of hope. But is Jodi Bieber’s approach the best way to tell them?