Magnum Print Room, London
5 June - 28 August 2009
A cross roads between East and West, mountainous and landlocked, Afghanistan's history is one of regular invasion and a long struggle for self definition. In the late 19th century, Afghanistan became a buffer state in "The Great Game" played between the Russian and British Indian Empires and has remained a pawn in international politics ever since. Since the late 1970s the country has suffered continuous and brutal civil war in addition to foreign interventions by Russia and America.
Post 9/11 and the start of America's war on the Taliban, Afghanistan has rarely been out of the news: in the UK media, announcements of British army losses resulting from tough fighting in Helmand province are an unfortunately familiar occurrence. With a new administration in the White House and a shift in foreign policy towards the country emerging, the world waits to see what direction the Afghanistan will now take.
This exhibition features photographs of Afghanistan through the decades; from Eve Arnold's early investigation into the customs of the veil (the only photographs pre Soviet intervention) to Thomas Dworzak's found portraits of Taliban fighters, beautified through make-up and an additional layer of hand-colouring. Many Magnum photographers, including Steve McCurry and Abbas, have experienced a long engagement with Afghanistan and McCurry's popular 'Afghan Girl' and work from Abbas' new book 'In Whose Name' is featured in this exhibition. Others such as Paolo Pellegrin, Thomas Dworzak, Alex Majoli and Christopher Anderson have produced startling images on assignment during the American invasion.
Afghanistan's people, with their old traditions and beliefs, and the landscape itself, continue to exert a remarkable pull on the imagination. Both despite and because of its troubles Magnum's photographers continue to go back. Chris Steele-Perkins, whose acclaimed and meditative documentation of Afghanistan is also included, describes the lure of the country thus: "The experience of being there works its way into one's being; an infection of the soul demanding that you return."