Hidden women of Afghanistan

Canadian photojournalist Lana Slezic gives voice to the nation's women

Lana Slezic
Lana Slezic

It takes a brave woman to embark on a journey into Afghanistan for the sake of a few photographs. But it takes an even stronger woman to go back. New Delhi-based Canadian documentary photographer Lana Slezic set out in 2004 to capture the story of women across Afghanistan, documented in her 2007 book, Forsaken. After two years in the country, Slezic says she was emotionally exhausted, but felt there was unfinished business. So she went back.

‘The new series was a way for me to make peace with my time in Afghanistan. The first visit was an emotionally taxing time. It was often horrifying. I gave everything I could and I left an empty vessel,’ she says. ‘Though the book was complete in its own regard, I felt there was more to be shared about the Afghan women I met. My new show, “A Window Inside”, aims to communicate the beauty of these women, and the strength that resonates from within them.’

Here, the 39-year-old explains how stumbling upon a vintage box camera in a Kabul market helped to inspire her latest exhibition.

Was it difficult to earn the confidence of the women you met in Afghanistan?
To communicate with the women and to understand their stories, I needed an assistant that could not only translate, but help me to make the women feel comfortable enough to open up. During my first two-year visit, I met a young student photographer named Farzana, and we became close friends. She helped me again when I returned to shoot ‘A Window Inside’. I’m incredibly proud of Farzana, who with my help was able to move to Canada to continue her studies in photography and develop her English language skills. Today she is an award-winning photographer in her own right, based in Kabul. We worked very closely together over 18 months and I felt I couldn’t leave Afghanistan without helping her.

Did any women refuse to have their photo taken?
This entire body of work was taken in Kabul, near the bus station across from the main courthouse. The women and girls were each having their photo taken by the box camera photographer, for small black-and-white photos used mostly for ID purposes. As they sat down, with the help of my fixer, Farzana, I asked them for their permission to be photographed, and I showed them what the photos would look like –
in that sense, a digital camera has benefits. Many of them were very happy to be photographed – excited, even. Some didn’t allow it, particularly if they were accompanied by a male family member.

How did the women react to having their photo taken?
Many of the women and young girls seemed to really enjoy the moment. They sometimes laughed and giggled – I think they enjoyed the individual attention. These were beautiful moments when, for a short while, everything surrounding them dropped away. This was the beauty I hoped would resonate within the series.

How old are the women in the photos?
Most are much younger than they appear. Afghanistan ages people, inside and out. Many look 20 years older than they are. Their faces tell stories of war, oppression, hardship, fatigue, violence – these elements are in every woman’s face. No amount of jewellery or make-up can hide it.

How did you create the effect seen in the images?
The portraits were taken with a digital camera shooting into the old Afghan box camera. The women were sitting in front of the box camera, and I focused on the sheet of ground glass inside the box. Because these old cameras were originally used for traditional photographs, they contain chemicals for developing. That, and wear and tear, causes the sheet of ground glass to scratch and change with spillage, creating an interesting texture on which the reflection of the subject can be seen. There is no post-processing and no filter or after-effects applied to my images.

How did you decide which background colours to use?
I bought a variety of coloured headscarves at the market: when a woman or girl sat down for the portrait, I chose a colour that worked with her clothes and accessories.

Any memorable anecdotes?
I always photographed between 8am and 2pm, which is the opposite to how I’d photograph any other series. Between these hours, the light was the best for this work. Normally I’d arrive about 7.45am, but one morning I was late, which saved me from a bomb blast at the bus station next to where I’d been photographing every day.

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘A Window Inside’, until Tuesday October 25 at Gulf Photo Plus, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz 1 (04 380 8545).
Price range of works: Dhs6,060 to Dhs13,960.

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