The People Of Afghanistan

Photographs & Text by John D McHugh

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For many years I have heard the American military in Afghanistan use the phrase, “putting an Afghan face on the war.” It is invoked when the coalition has achieved something it wishes to publicise, but wants to give all the credit to the Afghan troops. The theory is that by praising the Afghans their morale is improved, making it more likely that they will do better in the future. At the same time, the media report this Afghan “success” back in the West, giving hope to the public that the Afghans are improving and so the war will soon be over.

If the Americans conceive an idea, plan it carefully, execute the mission well, and achieve their goals, then that’s certainly an achievement. To promote the success as one achieved by an Afghan army, when everyone who has spent time on the battlefield knows that although the Afghan troops are brave and willing fighters, their logistics and planning capacity is almost zero, could be seen to be divisive or at worse, propagandist. They run out of ammunition and fuel on a regular basis, and immediately turn to the Americans for help. Putting an Afghan face on the war means lying to the Afghans, lying to the Western public, and sometimes, I think, the military are lying to themselves.

But in 2014, when the American conventional forces leave, those lies will be stripped away, and the cold, hard and brutal reality will be laid bare for all to see. There is a very real possibility that Afghanistan will be plunged into civil war, with the collapse of a government that has already lost legitimacy in the eyes of many ordinary Afghans. Old warlords are waiting in the wings, and new ones are emerging, as is evidenced in the “Ander uprising” in Ghaznai, much lauded by the Americans as similar to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, when clearly it is nascent warlordism. The Taliban are strong and confident, with 11 years experience of hard fighting, and the Haqqani Network and Hezb - I - Islami hold power in large swathes of land too. As one former Taliban told me, “The dark clouds of civil war hang over Afghanistan”

The abandonment of Afghanistan has begun, with the middle classes and business community preparing to flee. Many have already bought homes abroad, and moved eye-watering amounts of money out of the country. In 2011, $4.6 billion in cash was legally exported through Kabul airport. Who knows how much more was brought out illegally, in plane, cars, and on the backs of donkeys over the mountain passes.

The international community too is leaving ahead of 2014. The once staggering rents in Kabul are falling fast as aid agencies, media outlets, and foreign businesses reduce their numbers, or close entirely.

And so, Afghanistan begins its slow and inexorable decline. It could probably still be halted, and even turned around, but the political will is not there any longer. It’s become clear that Western leaders have decided the most politically expedient message to deliver to their voters is that the Afghanistan mission is done, and the troops are coming home.

As I watch Afghanistan slip into reverse, I worry about the country, and its people. I’ve spent a long time covering the war, and I’ve met some extraordinary people. Now, it pains me to see them forsaken. I wanted to find a way to portray the dangers that these amazing people face. Their country stands on the edge of an abyss, and if civil war engulfs them once again, their lives and community will be shattered. Civil war destroys all the structures of modern life, as though the country is thrown backwards in time.

The first time I went to Afghanistan I felt as though I had been thrown backwards in time. For a Westerner, even an Irish farmboy, life in rural Afghanistan seemed to be hundreds of years removed from the modern world. And despite all the billions of dollars and gargantuan efforts of the foreign soldiers and civilians, progress has been very slow. Now, with the impending withdrawal of Coalition troops, and the very real threat of civil war tearing this beautiful country to pieces again, the regression has begun. And so I decided to regress too. Vivid, crisp digital images look pretty in glossy magazines, but they don’t represent the mindset and realities of a country and people sliding into chaos.

Selecting my equipment was easy. A Linhoff Technika with 270mm lens for portraits would allow me to shoot tight portraits, and a front tilt would drive the focus into the eyes of these people. A changing tent would let me reload my darkslides as necessary with no need for a darkroom. Simple and straight forward.But it was once the sheets were exposed that the difficulties would begin. Afghanistan is an insecure place at the best of times, and so there are random and arbitrary searches at traffic checkpoints, building entrances, and sometimes in the street. And of course the airport.

I knew that if I shot all my material and simply boxed the exposed negatives up to develop back in London, I was asking for trouble. The likelihood of some over enthusiastic official demanding that I open the box, and therefore ruin all my work, was too great to risk. I gradually accepted that the developing would have to take place in Afghanistan.

Film may not be as popular as it once was, but you can still find a lab in most cities in the world, especially the capitals. Not so in Kabul. After extensive and increasingly desperate research, I came to the painful conclusion I would have to do it myself.

For a start, I would need chemicals. Again, I discovered that nothing was available in Kabul, so I would have to take my own. Liquids were not an option, as everything is scanned on arrival at Kabul Airport. They are particularly suspicious of liquids, believing every foreigner is an alcohol smuggler, and the last thing I wanted was to be told to drink my developer, stop, or fix. Powders would be far less likely to draw attention.

Developer was easy; my preferred Ilford ID 11 comes foil-wrapped and boxed, and clearly states the contents. But stop and fix were more problematic. Silverprint in London produce a citric acid stop in powder form, but the smallest sealed container was 500g, where as I would need only 20g for a litre mix. And fix was the real problem. Again Silverprint had the powder I wanted, but this one only came in a huge tub, which was going to take up a lot of space in the Peli-case I had designated as my darkroom in a box, or “dark box.”

I contemplated measuring out only the quantities I would need and bagging them up. However this would mean flying with unlabeled bags of white powder in my luggage, and before I even got to Kabul I was transiting through Dubai. Just to be clear, Dubai is definitely not a good place to have bags of white powder in your luggage, whatever the explanation.

In the end, I packed the containers, with their somewhat official looking labels, and included a printout of a “How to develop your own negatives” document from the Ilford website. The instruction manual had lots of diagrams, and I hoped these would help me explain to any official what the chemicals were for.

All the worry was for naught however, as I wasn’t stopped or searched once on my trip. After that, life was lot easier. My bathroom was converted into a processing lab, and my changing tent was set up on the fridge in my room, emptied of expensive snacks and drinks and filled with my stock of Ilford FP4 film.

There were still some challenges. Loading 5x4 film in a tent is a bit tricky, but doing it in 38 Celsius, as the changing tent turns into a sauna, is not to be recommended. I had sweat running off my hands, and film sheets sticking together. Hence, some of the final images have some damage.

All processing was done in a Paterson 3 reel tank, with the ingenious MOD54 insert. The MOD54 lets me load 6 sheets of 5x4 into the tank, all in my changing tent, and then pop on the lid. After that, processing can take place in a lit room, as the tank is light-tight and the film sheets are held securely in place by the insert. This was the easiest part of the process.

The developing itself was not ideal, as the cold water coming out of the taps was far too warm, and I had to adjust my times accordingly. But most frustrating of all, even though there was glorious sunshine everyday, most of my subjects were photographed in their own home or offices rather than outside. This was usually down to security reasons, and I couldn’t very well ask someone to stand on a roof or a street, exposing themselves to the ever-present threat in Kabul, just for my photographs.

Despite all of this, I feel the portraits and accompanying quotes do something I’ve wanted to do for many years. They put an Afghan face on the war!