In Kabul, your lens can never quite capture enough.
In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history. These are my confessions, if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.
Book of Disquiet, Pessoa.
I discovered Pessoa for the first time in Kabul. An unlikely place to discover the extraordinary, and yet Kabul was just that for me. It was not about the war or countless other things now synonymous with the city. I went there to live in a fractured fragment of time, all of my own, an exercise in solipsism.
Why Afghanistan, I get asked. It is an extraction of an idea. Perhaps by dreaming of Kabul, I have created a space that is real in some other reality. Perhaps it is there that my narrative belongs. Like Pessoa, I narrate my factless biography. Unlike him, though, I have much to say, perhaps too many words to say too little.
The ground I stand on
Is the landscape just a state of emotion?
In a place like Kabul, simple acts become laden with a certain complexity of choice. A trick of the mind, where everything is as it is and as it must be. Then something happens, a blast, an attack and act of aggression, and the minute fibre of belief crumbles. Apprehension eventually gives way to a negotiated inner peace. All that is left to do then is to marvel at the city’s elasticity — the greatest contortionist of all time. It is this negotiated sphere that makes every act of existence a subversive one. To walk the streets of Kabul unescorted and unprotected is also an act of subversion. Every single image produced on those walks is thus endowed with a certain irreducible historicity of oneself — of myself. Every act is then an act of revolution. The landscape becomes a state of emotion. My emotion.
Settlements on the hill
I stand on top of Kohe Asmai in Central Kabul as the city bakes in the glow of warm yellow light and lays itself open before me. Kabul often reminds me of a watery grave where something sinks, other things float. Everything is marked, scarred, touched, sometimes just a vestige of something left behind. I jump into a cab and the driver takes me through the settlements on the hill. I urge him to stop and he warns that it is nearing dusk and stopping might be a problem. We negotiate a compromise. He would slow down and I would shoot from inside the cab. What I get are a series of images constrained by the outline of a cab window. But then, a photographer has very little choice in the finality of her image; the final relationship between objects and their images is always a result of chance, mediated by my receptivity to them.
A decent happiness
I step out into the receding rain, and remember lines from Creeley’s Rain: “of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference. Be wet with a decent happiness.” I find myself wet with a decent happiness, composing my incomplete symphonies in monochrome, and find myself turning into a reclusive cliché. Despite the early noon showers, the central Kabul skyline remains vivid and active with kites. As I get closer to the Mausoleum of Nadir Shah, I see hordes of boys and men flying kites, jumping to the spontaneity of Buzkashi with sandbags.
How many photographers have photographed this scene over the years?
A quick internet search reveals multiple stories of the revival of kite-flying in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban.
They all state in tones of forced sombreness that the Taliban had banned kite-flying and narrate this revival as a metaphor for the resurgence and renewal of something, anything and everything. These reports follow a preset pattern; some liberally borrow from on another, as if various writers came together to write and rewrite the same story over and over again.
The more I see the unravelling spectacle, the more I am convinced of the fiction inherent in everything, of the false importance exhibited by all realities. These images are vernacular at best. They are not meant to stand witness to a historic time, nor meant to record the complex and the prosaic. These images are not political.
Can a work of art ever be good if it has grown out of necessity? To borrow from Rilke, “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.”
The present before me is a function of symmetry and asymmetry that will dictate the finality of my image. To dictate that finality, it matters that I look. Most people don’t look, they identify, and very few seek meaning.