“I am particularly drawn to hidden corners or moments, which if not photographed, may appear to have never have existed at all.”
Conflict brings out the best and worst in people and I have had many experiences that could never occur in the West under normal circumstances.
British photographer Thomas Stanworth has spent many years in Afghanistan photographing the landscape and people, revealing a space that is at once shattering and beautiful. This is an unveiling of a place and people largely invisible to the western world.
Stanworth first travelled to Afghanistan in 2006, working in security at the US Embassy, Kabul. During time off, he would drive outside of the city and visit found that there was a great divide between the conflict that western media focused upon and what he was seeing. This time apart was essential to the development of this body of work, requiring of the photographer, an openness, resilience, and open heart that is likely to be broken, and a morass of unanswered questions and both silenced and untold stories.
RB: Can you explain why you returned to this place to tell the stories of the people there?
TS: Very quickly I found that I could not reconcile much of what was shown in the media with my own experiences. Reporting concentrated largely on fighting with little interest in understanding the people, the history, and cultural context. I have always wanted ‘to understand’ and these photographs have been my way of attempting to find answers, however vague or subjective. I continued to work in Afghanistan for ten years because it is still deeply mysterious to me and the country’s future remains a painfully unanswered question.
RB: Please tell me more about the Afghanistan 50K series; I am interested in this almost lovingly depicted aerial series, showing homes, villages, and vast landscapes.
TS: This body of work was deeply personal. Eight years in, I knew that I would be leaving Afghanistan within a few years and sometimes being surrounded by so much human tragedy weighs upon a person. I think one learns how to feel less, as sad as that may seem; yet, it remains exhausting.
Specifically, the idea formed the day before the final round of the 2014 Presidential elections, when I knew there would be a great deal of violence occurring around the country. I felt worn down by the pervasive misery and fear and just did not want to think about it any more. ‘It’ was not going to stop, but as I lifted off from Herat airport on board an aircraft bound for Kabul, I sensed relief.
My eyes traced the contours of the ancient landscape and picked out settlements, tracks, and abstraction with delight. I enjoyed silence in the literal sense and a growing stillness in myself. This detached view, where visceral human reality could not be touched, was hugely cathartic for me.
The journey felt like a wonderful ‘final, long look’ back at a country I had grown to love in so many ways, unburdened by what was occurring on the ground, in homes and on the streets.
I thought about the country’s long agricultural and cultural history – 50,000 years (hence the name of the series) – and placed the here and now in that context, which changed everything. I chose to look at a land that existed before and would remain long after any regime or era I could name. I wanted to show a beautiful country that is rarely seen, without political commentary or human tragedy. I had re-framed Afghanistan for myself and wanted to re-frame it for others too. ‘Afghanistan: 50K’ was shot during approximately half a dozen flights transiting the country over the course of about a year.
RB: Like the Russians and Royals series, this body of work is fascinating itself aesthetically, and because it shows a part of the world one rarely sees, and tells the stories of a people hidden from vision. Nevertheless, and more importantly, it seems to reveal something else as well: censorship and a western stubbornness and blindness about this region and those who live there…what are your thoughts?
TS: You are completely right. It is much easier to simplify and polarize than it is to deal with genuine complexity. It is also more comfortable for the lazy or the fearful. It was clear from the start that there was a widespread lack of interest in understanding Afghanistan and its people i.e. the underlying context of the conflict. The whole thing was a machine, in which the only three-dimensional people were our own. Many thought the West could fight its way to victory, but history tells us that you cannot beat an insurgency like that. We knew that, yet it took many people too long to act accordingly, not only in terms of the conflict, but also in terms of how the development effort was being approached.
RB: When reading your account of the places shown in the Russian and Royals series, your approach is forthright and unflinching but also exhibits a compassion for children and the addicts of this region. Of course, these groups are some of the most vulnerable of any nation, and their stories are incredibly moving, however I wondered why you chose these particular groups? You mention the constant presence of children doing what they do best, playing….
TS: Although I could have approached it in various different ways, I think we chose each other. The children defined the King’s Palace for me, because of their constant presence. It was their playground. I also had children of a similar age and I could not help but to compare and contrast their innocence and their prospects whenever I looked at these Afghan boys and girls.
With so little money and food, some were as tough as nails, but they remained children. They carried with them the scars of the past – many families left during the civil war – but they also represented the future. What would become of them would be a reflection of the country as a whole. I became an adult that showed them interest, saw them play, and just spent time with them. Being accepted in this way was a real privilege.
RB: And the addicts?
TS: As for the addicts, they were at the bottom of the social pile, reviled, and pitied by the rest of Afghan society. Yet, they carried such a wealth of stories and personal history and were a commentary on the country’s past, present, and future. With nothing to lose, they shared their thoughts candidly and enjoyed having someone there to acknowledge their existence in unprejudiced terms. They were living ghosts in many respects, having left the world of the living, disowned and shunned. These men lived at the very core of everything we fear and this was something I wanted to explore. I wanted to understand all I could about how they came these circumstances and what kept them going. I will never forget them.
RB: While you were making the series, did the country change in any way? How long were you there?
TS: I was there for a decade and the country changed a great deal. It became more violent, less friendly, more desperate and less hopeful. Afghans who swore they would never leave were searching for a way out, any way. Photographing in public spaces (in the way I had been) became much more dangerous, so I stopped well before I left and well before I wanted to. I still have negatives from an unfinished project, which was halted after a ‘close call’.
RB: Are their particular people you met and photographed that stay with you, even today, or reside in your heart still?
TS: So many people! My time in Afghanistan was a decade long life within a life. A great many people made a deep impression and will be remembered for as long as I am able: addicts, children, policemen, loving parents, young political activists desperate to see violence consigned to the past….