Photographing Afghanistan

By Sophie Ibbotson, Shutterstock Contributor

Sometimes you visit a place that is screaming out to be photographed. It can be the simple beauty of a place that captures your imagination, or perhaps the striking costumes of the people, but for me the desire comes from wanting to show things that few other people have the privilege to see.

I never intended to be a photographer. I read Oriental Languages at university with the intention of going to work for the Foreign Office, but the more I worked overseas the more frustrated I became with the “official” view of the places I went. Governments and the media alike seemed to get a sickening thrill from describing my favorite places as war zones, security risks and militant strongholds, or simply ignoring their existence altogether. I never read about or watched a news report on the overwhelming hospitality of Iranians, Pakistani villagers resisting a rising tide of militancy, or Afghanistan’s rich and multi-cultural heritage. A sense of injustice is a strong motivator, and I’ve been writing and photographing the unseen sides of Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan ever since.

Despite having lived and worked in the region since 2006, I made my first trip into Afghanistan in May 2010. Several article commissions coincided and I was also asked by Afghanaid ( to shoot promotional photographs and footage for their forthcoming 10,000 days anniversary and a UK-Afghanistan road challenge. My Nikon D200 and I (with an Olympus SP-700 compact for back-up) were over the border from Tajikistan as soon as you could snap your fingers.

My aim in Afghanistan, as with all the countries I visit, was to document for myself, for my articles and for stock, the stories going on every day behind the headlines. I have a passing interest in war and politics (they’re a sad part of what makes the world go round), but my real interest is ordinary people and how they respond to the world around them. I particularly like to meet and photograph people who are doing something different, trying to bring about positive change in their community and overcome the adversities presented to them by poverty, the natural environment or the failings of mankind.

My first location was Nechem, a tiny mud-brick village in northeast Afghanistan. Although the Taliban never came here, it is a very conservative area and they’re not used to seeing foreigners. I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d be received. My fears were allayed as soon as I stepped foot out of the car. I set up the Nikon with an 18-200mm vibration reduction lens on a light-weight Giotto tripod with the intention of getting some establishing shots of the village. I didn’t stand a chance. Within seconds I was mobbed by small children (predominantly girls, surprisingly) wanting to have their pictures taken but also to see how the camera worked. There was as much of a crowd behind the camera as in front of it. The children were not only photogenic but incredibly enthusiastic about the whole process. They were a joy to work with and phenomenal ambassadors for the Afghanistan of tomorrow.

From Nechem, I traveled west to Baharak District in Badakhshan. Despite its immense mineral reserves, this is one of the poorest areas on earth. The provincial capital, Faizabad, has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world and in recent years, income has come from opium production. This money does not filter down into the community it stays in the hands of the warlords. However, even in this bleak situation there is hope.

I spent my time visiting rural enterprise schemes where villagers (predominantly women) learn skills to run their own businesses. They are able to take small loans from their micro finance groups and then invest the money in areas such as livestock, bee hives, fruit and vegetable processing, and textiles. The income this generates not only enables them to better care for their families, but also increases the status that they have within their communities.

There were times when I grew frustrated being a woman in Asia I am often left feeling like a second-class citizen but in Baharak my sex was a bonus. Unlike my male companions, I was able to enter the female parts of the houses and to photograph women uncovered. Stripped of their burqas and uninhibited by the usual social conventions that dictate behavior outside the home, the women were relaxed and keen to show me every aspect of their lives. When at first I attempted to take portraits, they were exceedingly formal, to the point that the subjects looked miserable. When I showed them their pictures on the D200’s screen, however, they burst out laughing at their own solemnity, and the subsequent photos showed many more smiles.

One young woman was intrigued not by the photos but by the camera itself. I showed her the basic functions (how to zoom, focus, take a picture and review the image) and then didn’t see my camera again for the next half hour. The pictures she came back with were fascinating intimate portraits of her friends with their children and, in one case, a pregnancy bump. This was a woman who had never held a mobile phone, used a radio or watched television. It’s unlikely she’d even seen an illustrated magazine and yet she took to photography like a duck to water. It’s a credit to the intuitiveness of the Nikon design and also the curiosity and creativity of the woman.

When I left Afghanistan and went back to the UK on holiday, I visited a class of students to talk to them about Afghanistan. When I told them it was my new favorite place, they looked absolutely horrified. The only images they associated with the country were battlefields in Helmand, burnt out tanks, and the shrouded coffins of heroes returning home. They did not understand, because no one had ever thought to tell them that the vast majority of Afghanistan is peaceful, that not all Afghans are militants, and that Afghan children are, in many ways, just like them. It was only when they saw pictures of their Afghan contemporaries, giggling and larking about in front of the camera, that their questions began to change. They stopped asking about weapons and death and the morality of the war, and instead started asking about schooling, employment opportunities and Afghanistan’s future. These are the questions we all need to be asking, and I believe adamantly that pictures are a powerful tool to get such topics on the agenda.