Tag Archives: storytelling

Power of Photography: Voices – Mariam Alimi

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I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the talented Streets of Afghanistan  photographers, Mariam Alimi, today in Kabul for lunch.   I met her briefly 5 years ago, in November 2008, when I met all the Afghan photographers in Kabul for the first time at AINA Photo Agency to discuss the inception of the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition.   I delivered her a copy of the book and over pomegranate juice and lunch we talked about the exhibition and the power of voice, the power of photography.   As we talked about her career and how she started as a photographer in 2006, we talked about courage, and activism, and women’s rights, and our cultures.  Mariam said at one point when talking about her start in photographer, “I was not so brave as I am now.”  When I asked her to explain I was surprised to learn that it was intrinsically linked with the key photograph of hers that we used in the exhibition.

One of her first photographs was one she took in Heart, its one that we had in the exhibit and its one of my favorites.

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This man was a poppy farmer near Herat decades ago, before the mujahedeen.  During the civil war and the Taliban times he moved to Iran.  While there he learned about saffron cultivation.  When he returned in 2002, he starting planting saffron thanks to the help of an organization that gave him a few bulbs from the Netherlands.  Each year his crop grew a little more and eventually he started sharing the bulbs with other farmers to cultivate.   When Mariam met him it was to interview him as part of an organization to make a documentary about saffron cultivation.  After they got done filming him, he asked if he could hear what he sounded like and they put the headphones on him and played back his interview.  This photo was taken at the moment he first heard his voice and the look of pure joy hits me every time I see the photo.

But Mariam almost wasn’t there to take the photo.  As a single Afghan woman, she lived at home and had to ask her father’s permission to go with her organization to Herat.  She had never traveled without her family before, and she was scared to ask her father.  She invited her boss, a foreign woman, to come to dinner and meet her family and in the conversations that followed, she asked Mariam’s father for permission to come with her to Herat.  He agreed to allow her to go, and it was the first step of a journey that changed Mariam completely.   She continued to ask permission to travel and now she has traveled all around Afghanistan, and to many countries, including the United States.

When we started talking about how change for women in Afghanistan starts, she gave me a beautiful example that reminded me of my own journey.  “Everyone when they are young thinks, “I want to change the world”.  As we get older, we realize that we should start by changing our country.  But the difficulties make us realize that we should focus on changing our community.  Then we realize that our own families are part of the larger problem so we should look at changing our family.  Finally, with age and wisdom we realize, everything starts with us, as individuals, and that real change must happen from within each one of first. “

Mariam leads by this example.   She is unusual for Afghan women of her age, one of the handful of female photographers in Afghanistan, she walks the streets by herself, meeting strangers, taking photos.  When she speaks with young girls, they often say to her, “I am not as brave as you, I could not do what you do”.  Mariam tells them that it’s not a matter of being brave or not brave.  It’s about taking a small step in the direction you want to go.  Change yourself first, so that others see you for what you really are, and live your life in a way that reflects what you believe, and those around you change in unexpected ways in reaction to you.

You can see more of Mariam’s work on her website and her work in the groundbreaking, Streets of Afghanistan exhibition, in the newly released book available through Hatherleigh Press and Random House.  Streets of Afghanistan book

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Streets of Afghanistan – A Cultural Exhibition

One of the most important things we can do as a non-profit organization is to make a connection. Not just between donors and projects, but between communities and individuals. Working in Afghanistan makes that connection very difficult to achieve.

Time and time again, people travel to the far-flung corners of the world, and come back changed forever. Touched by the people they met, the smells, the food, the landscape, they become connected in a visceral way. The people that have lived and worked in Afghanistan have that visceral connection, but it is not a place we can take donor trips to or host student exchanges.

Couple the lack of security with the media coverage of the war on terror, and the stereotypes built around a nation that has endured nearly forty years of conflict, and it becomes even more difficult to connect to the real Afghanistan. Mountain2Mountain was founded on the idea that we can create a ripple effect of change and compassion by connecting communities and cultures.

Out of that founding principle, Streets of Afghanistan was born. A multimedia exhibition that unites Afghan and Western photographers and videographers to bring a little piece of Afghanistan into our world for one night. Visitors walk amongst 10×8 foot high images and video projections that recreate the market streets in Kabul. The rolling green hills captured by photographer Beth Wald, look more akin to Norway than Afghanistan until you notice the yak train in the corner. It creates a different sense of place than the deserts and dusty landscapes usually associated with the region. The beauty, and the dichotomy of that beauty, set against the destruction and history takes your breath away.

The signature image of the exhibition, is a woman covered in a burqa sitting with her child in her lap, begging in the middle of the road. The image captures both the pain and beauty of Afghanistan; juxtaposing the dream-like quality of the country and its residents, against the ravaging effects of three decades of conflict and war. Photographer Tony Di Zinno captured the image from an oncoming car — lensing the feeling of impending contact. In reality, the driver stopped when he came to the woman and handed her some food from the kebab stand he had just visited for lunch.

Interspersed amongst the landscapes and streets, seven-foot-high portraits of women greet visitors. Images of teachers, students, police officers, ministers of parliament, mothers, and victims of self-immolations show the diversity of the women of Afghanistan — their beauty and strength in a country known for its oppression. Walking, ghost-like, through the crowd the images, and the video projections of market scenes and rural life, are real women dressed in the different colored burqas of Afghanistan.

Art has the power to change. Streets of Afghanistan aims to do just that; open hearts and minds in an effort to combat apathy with compassion. “Dare to believe in our common humanity” is not just our tagline — its a call to action. Come join us!

Streets of Afghanistan opens in Denver with a one day event at the Denver Art Museum on April 28, 2011, followed by an event at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art as it begins its journey as a traveling cultural exhibition.

 

photo by Di Zinno

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