by Maximilian Clarke
A year spent living with Afghans whilst working first for a school, and later with a human rights organisation, offered me a unique and unparalleled insight into Afghanistan’s many beautiful, rich and at times terrifying cultures.
Before long I had fallen for the country, hooked by its abundant natural beauty and the often humbling generosity of the Afghans who, despite being among some of the world’s poorest residents, seldom refuse to extend invitations of hospitality.
But despite this beauty, the country remains deeply troubled, scarred by 35 years of continuous warfare as well as deeper and more pervasive patterns of cruelty. The country remains one of the hardest places to be a woman, with child marriages, persistent abuse and a lack of opportunity all fuelling a worrying increase in desperate women setting themselves alight in order to escape their misery.
Whilst working out there I sought to capture what I deemed to be the real Afghanistan; reflecting the beauty and the tragedy in equal amounts with the medium I know best: my camera.
Ruins of Amanullah Khan’s constructions in Darulaman, Kabul. Built in the 1920s, the structures were part of his vision to modernise Kabul and transform it into a modern European-style capital. Along with the developments came a host of societal reforms that ultimately resulted in his being chased from power by conservative groups.
The twisted remains of countless pieces of armour abandoned during the Soviet Union's bitter conflict remain strewn across the country. The conflict raged on for nearly a decade, resulting in the deaths of some 14,000 soviet troops and more than a million civilians.
Boys play on the historic Pul-i-Malan bridge across the Har Rud near Heart.
Street art is gaining popularity both as a form of political expression or artistic escapism. Shamsia is one notable artist whose elaborate and stylistic pieces confront gender issues often deemed taboo in conversation. Kabul’s street art scene also attracts celebrity graffiti artists including David Choe, whose murals in Facebook's Silicon Valley office would later earn him $200 million in shares.
The giant carved Buddhas of Bamiyan looked out across the valley for more than 1500 years before being dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. Now all that remains of the World Heritage site are their empty alcoves, standing as a haunting reminder of the Taliban's brutal occupation.
A cool climate and lower levels of violence Bamiyan is a popular destination for Afghans during the hot summers, with visitor numbers peaking during the annual Silk Road Festival.
Almost every vista in Afghanistan is framed by the majestic mountain ranges that have shaped the country's tumultuous history and cultures. Kabul itself is in a valley some 2,000 meters above sea level and the peaks of the Hindu Kush extend to nearly 8,000 meters. This unforgiving terrain is reflected in the people and even the animals that live among it, notably the ubiquitous fat-tailed sheep whose bulbous fat deposits see them through the long harsh winters.
Soaring opium production since NATO’s intervention in 2001 has resulted in one of the highest addiction rates in the world, with the UN Office for Drugs and Crime estimating as many as 1 in 70 Afghans are opiate dependent. A settlement of addicts has sprung up beneath Kabul's Pol-i-Sokhta (Bridge of Ashes) in the city’s western flanks where upwards of 800 individuals sleep on the bare earth of the river bank, surrounded by refuse and discarded drug paraphernalia. Here heroin is consumed openly, as the men huddled beneath the blanket demonstrate, and violence endemic.
Treatment centres are rare and receive virtually no government support. In one such clinic a recovering addict shows off the remains of the leg lost to a Taliban that triggered his opiate use. The clinic lacked electricity and medicine, and the candle had been lit for my benefit. Addicts slept on the floor in pitch darkness each night.
Religion and culture are inseparable in Afghanistan and Islam extends throughout society. In public and in private Afghans will often stop what they are doing in order to pray in time with the calls to prayer, and prayer beads adorn the hands of many, regardless of situation.