The Tragic Case of the Afghan Girl

Sharbat Bibi or Sharbat Gula, two names many people have never heard before. Yet her face is one the most recognisable images of the 21st century. Her sobriquet the ‘Afghan Girl’ is more likely to invoke the famous image than her actual name; there is a reason for this. Her name was not known by the photographer, Steve McCurry, until 17 years after the image was burned onto the Kodachrome film he was using whilst photographing at a refugee camp in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was National Geographic - the magazine which first published the famous portrait - which flew McCurry to Pakistan years later in search of the “green eyed girl.”

The original portrait taken on a Nikon FM2 and Nikon 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens.

The life of an icon is often tragic; the case of Sharbat Gula is no exception, when she was six her parents were killed by soviet bombs which regularly desecrated entire villages. Sharbat, with her brother, six sisters and grandmother fled Afghanistan on foot to Pakistan, traversing snow covered mountains, begging for blankets, and hiding in caves from the ominous sound of planes. The arduous journey ended at Nasir Bagh, a refugee camp just outside Peshawar, the camp in which her portrait was taken.

The follow up portrait of of Sharbut shows a face coarsened by hardship, however, through her leathery complexion those familiar eyes pierce you with their gaze. The reunion of the photographer with his subject was a quiet one, Sharbut, obeying strict religious tradition, did not look at McCurry; It is interesting to note that it was only through McCurry's lens that he was able to observe and capture the full expression of her face. 

During National Geographic’s investigation they found that Sharbat had returned to Afghanistan to live the sedentary life that is typical of her clan. Sharbat belongs to the Pashtun tribe, an agricultural warrior clan who made an exodus to Afghanistan between the 13th and 14th centuries. In the mountains of Tora Bora - infamously known as Osama bin Laden’s lair-style headquarters - Sharbat forged a life of worship, modesty and of nurture towards her three children. At a young age Sharbat’s religious lifestyle would’ve compelled her to complete a tradition know as ‘purdah’, an almost monastic tradition that forces young girls, during puberty, into a life of seclusion. Also, as per religious tradition, her marriage was arranged at a tender age. (Sharbat claims she remembers being married at age 13, however her husband insists it was 16). Continuing the theme of modesty, Sharbat's husband worked as a baker in Pakistan earning a pitiful wage, the equivalent of one dollar a day, and with this he managed to raise three children. Again continuing a theme, this time of tragedy, her husband died leaving her to raise her three children alone.

In late 2016 I was travelling on my usual tube journey, when I glanced over someones shoulder at a copy of the morning Metro newspaper; I straight away recognised that famous portrait. On further inspection it transpired that Sharbat's narrative of hardship had thickened.  According to Pakistani officials Sharbat was arrested for carrying false identity papers which aren't issued to foreign nationals and she could face the sizeable sentence of 14 years in prison and an addition fine of $5,000.  After a failed attempt by her lawyers to get her released on bail, she was hospitalised with the same disease which killed her husband, hepatitis C.

It must be remembered that Sharbat's case is by no means exceptional; she is one of legions of refugees displaced from their homes by disease, conflict and poverty. However, to us these people are faceless, in Sharbat's case we can stare at her as she stares back at us, all thanks to the fleeting click of a camera's shutter. Her green eyed stare, unbeknown to her, would become iconic; a symbol, not just of the plight of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, but of refugees in general. Nobody, not even Sebastiao Salgado (a photographer who dedicated a whole project to the migrations of peoples in the third world) managed to capture an image that encapsulates what it is to be a refugee than this simple portrait of a young girl.

Paris - The Beautiful and the Ugly (Part 1)

At the end of July I visited, for the first time, the city of Paris. A city, like many in Europe, that has had its fair share of front page headlines. Unfortunetely, for all the wrong reasons.

I would be travelling almost 9 months after the terrorist attacks of last November, in which 130 innocent Parisian socialites were murdered. Also, a week before I arrived in Paris, another city was in mourning after a lorry ploughed through families enjoying the Bastille day celebrations in Nice. France, it seems, was a country at war. I was kindly offered accommodation in a banlieue (suburb) north of Paris close to Saint Denis; an infamous ghetto and the location of a massive police operation after the November bloodbath. 

It was from the apartment I was staying in that I got my first real glimpse of The Eiffel Tower at night, with it's impressive spotlight rotating its beam noiselessly over the whole of the French capital like a giant lighthouse.

The tram service that terminates in Saint-Denis

I was rudely awaken by my bodies urinary system at around 5 in the morning, this did give me the unique opportunity to get my first glimpse of Paris in the daytime. I snapped a few shots and hurried back to sleep, conscious that I had a long day of sight seeing scheduled.

We all finally awoke, showered and dressed ready to have breakfast in central Paris on the Champs Élysée. To get there required a 30 minute journey on the Parisian metro. In a recent essay by British journalist Ben Judah he describes how "you only know Paris when you know the Métro". This was my inaugural into the shallow tunnels of that vast system, a system whereby certain people decide whether they will pay or not (I saw on multiple occasions people forcing their way through the security doors without a ticket). A system whereby some platforms allow shelter to the homeless. A system, to quote Ben Judah again, where there are spots in which "women look behind themselves at night". The main artery that feeds the north of Paris is La Ligne 13. "Don't get yourself a commute on La Ligne 13, they joke," writes Ben Judah "it may be light blue but it goes from Romania to the banlieue end of hell." I would ride this line everyday whilst I was in Paris, clutching my camera bag, contemplating whether to pull it out and snap away. Alas, with some regret I didn't have the courage. 

The Champs Élysée is a long street running from the Place de la Concorde to the magnificent Arc de Triomphe. The French boastfully call this boulevard "la plus belle avenue du monde" - the most beautiful avenue in the world. It was here we enjoyed a coffee in view of one of Jacques Chirac's favourite restaurants Chez Clément. After coffee we walked past the many designer boutiques, theatres, cafes and - oddly - a Marks & Spencers towards the Arc de Triomphe. Due to heightened security only one subway tunnel was accessible to reach the roundabout on which the Arc is located. Whilst wondering aimlessly in search of this tunnel I managed to snap a shot of the Arc de Triomphe with The Eiffel Tower in the background, in the foreground the almost unbridled traffic speeding and veering around the roundabout.

A homeless man on the Champs Élysée.

A lady smokes and checks her phone on a street next to the Champs Élyées.

Heightened security in Paris meant soldiers on the streets were a common sighting.

We finally arrived at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe to marvel at it's architectural splendour. On the four main pillars are intricate sculptures depicting events from the formation of the First French Republic during the French Revolution in 1792, to the Treaty of Paris in 1815. My personal favourite is the La Résistance de 1814. 

The sculpture depicts the French resistance in the War of the Sixth Coalition in which Napoleon was forced back into France and battled against vastly unfair numerical odds to defend France against a coalition of Austrian, Prussian, Russian, British, Portuguese, Swedish and Spanish soldiers.  The bearded man cowering in terror whilst clutching the leg of another man standing gallantly always draws my gaze. 

Inside the facades of the monument are engraved French victories and military leaders of the French Revolution and the Empire, those that are underlined died on the battlefield. 

This magnificent monument is not just a opulent display of the France's history of military prowess. There is a more delicate and melancholy aspect buried underneath; the grave of an Unknown Soldier lies beneath an eternal flame.  Since the soldier was interred it is now customary during military parades not to pass under the Arc, but instead to go around it. Even a man such as Hitler abided by this custom after the French surrendered Paris to the Nazi's. 

It was from here that we took a stroll to towards Place de la Concorde to Pont Alexandre III, built in honour of the Franco-Russian alliance. This ornate bridge leads across the Seine to the 7th arrondissement, straight across is Les Invalides, home to the crypt like tomb of Napoleon.  

Wedding photos under the Pont Alexandra III

The Eiffel Tower as viewed from Pont Alexandra III

To describe Les Invalides as anything but grandiose would be an understatement, this stunning building is a museum, hospital, home for veterans and a tomb. The sarcophagus of Napoleon lies underneath the Dôme des Invalides in the centre of the complex. The sarcophagus - I am told - is designed in a way that you only ever look down upon it or up at it. As you enter the chapel you look into a crypt down upon the grand sarcophagus of the late General.  From there you can head down some stairs into a catacomb filled with the bodies (and sometimes just the hearts) of past military leaders, before reaching the viewing gallery surrounding the sarcophagus. 

A lady looks up towards the chapel, behind her the viewing platform for Napoleons sarcophagus.

Stairs leading down to the crypt.

Napoleon's sarcophagus.

I was taken back by how seriously the French take there military history, the chapel was really a mausoleum for past generals. An interesting sarcophagus engraved with golden Arabic text contains the remains of one Hubert Lyautey a French colonial general based in Morocco, who later become heavily involved in the Fascist movement in Europe and admired Benito Mussolini. The second contains the remains of the ruthless Ferdinand Foch, the French Commander-in-Chief who perpetuated the 'war of attrition' tactic which made WWI an infamously sanguinary conflict.  This open celebration of military might seems, to me, slightly perverse knowing what we know now about the the sheer wastefulness of such conflicts and the various Commanders and Generals blatant disregard for human life. Of course, we view history through the prism of hindsight and historical analysis and this leads us to such conclusions. I'm sure these military men firmly believed that what they were doing was both necessary and just. If you're in anyway interested in a stunning account of the horrors of The Great War, listen to Dan Carlin's Blueprint for Armageddon. 

The Sarcophagus of Hubert Lyautey

The Sarcophagus of Ferdinand Foch.

I will dedicated a whole blog to the monumental splendour of The Eiffel Tower, therefore I will skip over our brief hiatus there for the next blog. I will only include this panorama; which was taken on the same day from the top of shopping centre. In this image you can see the Les Invalides, Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower.

I made it clear that I wanted to travel to the part of Paris that was attacked in November and this required us to take the metro to Place de la République. This is a vibrant area bustling with bars and restaurants, the square itself has a large bronze statue of Marianne, the female personification of the French Republic. This statue is now a graffiti covered memorial for those killed in recent terror attacks, a fresh display was in memory of those mowed down by a lorry on Bastille Day in Nice.  

I should take this opportunity talk about what I think is happening in Paris and France in general.  There has been an experiment in Europe with an concept known as multiculturalism. This is the idea that peoples of differing faiths, backgrounds and languages can live harmoniously together. This utopian concept is, in part, true providing the cultures are similar; that of a Spanish person emigrating to the UK. The idea falls apart when two entirely different cultures, with different lived experiences and, thus, different truths meet. Someone like Kenan Malik will argue that diversity - one of the principles of multiculturalism - is a good thing as it allows contrasting ideas to engage with one another, and through this engagement the value system most conducive to human well-being can triumph. Unfortunetely, it is just this type of dialogue that is being suppressed by well-meaning liberals in the name of 'tolerance' and 'respect'. There is also another issue; some cultures wish to be immune to such criticism and will do what they can to curtail it, this is especially true those that are heavily religious. Europe has seen a large influx of peoples from Islamic cultures and they have brought with them very conservative and, in some cases, anti-western sentiments. Attempts to integrate these cultures has, in the most part, failed (Angela Merkel even said so herself back in 2010). These ghettoised societies (like Saint-Denis)  practice their cultural traditions in lieu of the cultural norms of the majority and are seed beds for Islamist/Jihadist radicalisation. 

The French intelligentsia and liberal politicians tend to obfuscate the issue, this is best highlighted in Michel Houellebecq's novel Submission; in which France - with the help of liberals - rejects it's national motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité for an Islamist government. This is merely a satire, but there is one thing Houellebecq predicted accurately, and that is the rise of the far-right in France as a result of the failure of liberalism to stick up for its core values. 

It seemed business as usual Place de la République, with restaurants and bars crammed full of people (including A La Bonne Biere, one of the bars that was attacked). The square itself was festive with demonstrations, live music, art, lectures etc. 

The opening chapter to Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast we find him wandering the rain sodden streets towards "a good cafe" in Place St Michel. This was the an area of Paris that charmed me the most. It is situated in the 5th and 6th arrondissements on the left bank of the Siene, with Notre Dame on the other side. We arrived there in the late afternoon and the light was almost perfectly golden, Notre Dame shone brilliantly; it was magnificent introduction to the famous cathedral. A long the banks of the Siene people sat and drank whilst bikes whizzed past them. According to my friend to sit and chat whilst consuming wine was a common past time in Paris. 

My first sight of Notre-Dame

From here we wandered to La Sorbonne or the 'Latin Quarter'; a small network of thin street lined with restaurants. We chose the set menu that appealed to our appetite, I enjoyed, for the first time the local delicacy of snails. We ate and drank until it was dark, the streets around La Sorbonne were busy, with middle aged restaurant owners tempting people in with the reasonable priced 'authentic' menus. 

Once we emerged from the tight and hectic streets of La Sorbonne we were treated to a truly exquisite sight; across the Rue Saint-Jacques past the restaurants was Notre Dame, it's facade lit up brightly with a full moon in the background. It is this image that is my favourite, for me - excuse the cliche - I feel a captured a quintessential image of Paris at night.

Paris at Night - my favourite image.

Paris at Night - my favourite image.

Views Through a Coach Window

I will preface this piece by advising readers not to ever, under any circumstances, use the coach company Terravision. Not unless you want to film a documentary about people who couldn't give a shit about their jobs.

In my last piece I was exploring London by foot, this time the exploration would consist of glimpses through the glazing of a coach window. I was taking a trip out of London to Stansted Airport with my girlfriend and her brother, Carlos, in order to welcome their mother in Arrivals.  


This gave me a unique opportunity to view the outer suburbs of London. These areas, to me, always conjure up an air of mystery, they're the end of the tube line, normally in the obscure Zones of 5 or 6. With names like High Barnet or Cockfosters, they represent the quiet edge of a ever growing and crowded city. I'm reminded of Arcade Fires 2010 album The Suburbs; it paints a bleak and romantic picture of them, lamenting that "Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains".

We boarded the coach at Kings Cross and travelled from there through Camden High Street, at which point it started to rain. We watched, in the relative comfort of the coach seats, people scrambling for their umbrellas or taking shelter in doorways, under awnings or simply facing the weather. I have to admit, I love photographing when it's raining.

After Camden we crawled slowly in traffic through Finsbury. The rain started to subside and the sun started to burn through the clouds.

After Finsbury the coach made its way through more boroughs before we hit the 'Spawls'. Here, we discovered ugly shopping warehouses and bleak industrial wastelands. I'm reminded of what Stephen Fry once said on a old episode of Room 101 when he was bemoaning decorative plates:

"All of nature is absolutely and unconditionally beautiful, whether it's a jungle, whether it's a desert, whether it's the Arctic wastes. The only ugly things you'll see are things made by man."

I am often reminded of this quote when I'm editing my photo's. Much of what we build today favours, rightly, functionality over beauty. This means, we as the viewers and users of these instruments live among them 24/7. However, although I find these things ugly, I have learnt to find beauty in them, and I try to show that in my photography. Indeed, if it wasn't for the ugly functionality and aggressive precision of an aircraft, it would be much harder for my girlfriend to be reunited with her mother; which is a beautiful thing.







Moments of Solitude - In the City of London

After working for 7 days straight, I was beholden for a day off; just me and my Nikon box with a hole in it. I had recently been entertaining the idea of photographing people reading as a personal project. Myself being an avid reader, I find the solitude that comes with it is important, especially in a city like London. 

I started the day slowly, not really finding subjects that interested me; the ones that did I failed to capture. I walked from my home borough of Islington, through Karl Marx's old haunt of Kentish town onwards through the dirty streets of Camden. From there, I traversed through the bland streets around Euston towards the hideous BT tower - it, to me, resembles a shit modern art version of Sauron's Tower from J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

It wasn't until I arrived at Goodge Street tube station that my 'twelve inches' behind the camera started to work.*

It quickly became evident to me that I wasn't just interested in capturing people reading, I was focused on that persons unawareness of the noises and people around them; their solitude amidst the flurrying. 

I soon had a hour of solitude myself in my favourite cafe, nestled between some antique bookshops close to Leicester Square. I drank coffee whilst reading the dense pages of A.J.P Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War. Directly opposite me sat a pretty girl enjoying the same solitude, but instead of reading, she was jotting things down in a colourful notebook; on occasion she stared out of the window. She reminded me of the character Rey from The Force Awakens.

After the second coffee and complicated inter-play of aloof politicians, I left. I made my way to one of the bookshops, it was busy.

My last shot was captured on my tube journey home; a common sight at that time of day during the rush hour. However, the man seemed immersed in the evenings news, so immersed he didn't even notice the camera pointed right at him.

*Taken from the Ansel Adams quote “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!”




From Lesvos to Paris - Reflections on the work of Alex Majoli.

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

The Greek island of Lesvos sits, much closer, to the Turkish coast than the Greek. On this island a mass exodus of Greeks and Armenians braved the Aegean Sea on over-crowded boats from the shores of Turkey, across the channel to escape a renewal of ethnic tensions, the Greco-Turkish war. 

That was 1922, it is now 2016 and Lesvos is seeing a very similar exodus, but of peoples further east. Alex Majoli, an Italian photographer, in 2015 found himself witness to this exodus, and with his camera he has captured a stark, theatrical tragedy. His use of high contrast black and white make his images almost timeless; they could have been captured on black and white film in 1922 and processed in a dark room. Instead, Majoli is using modern digital camera equipment, instead of rickety rafts the refugees arrive on dinghies, instead of blankets the refugees can be seen wrapped in foil. 

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

Majoli's images are surreal and ethereal, small glimpses of a vast human tragedy. Indeed, Majoli himself claims he took inspiration from an Italian absurdist novelist called Luigi Pirandello. The photographer Robert Capa famously mused that 'If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough'. This is certainly the case with Majoli, his photo's are close enough for us to see the subjects frightened eyes and ethnic features. However, Majoli has framed them in a way that give us the position of the audience in a theatre and his flash is a stage light, illuminating the events as they unfold. 

If you compare Majoli's images with those of another photographer, Warren Richardson, it can illustrate what I mean. Richardson won the 2015 World Press Photograph of the year with his image of a small child being passed through barbed wire by a tired-eyed father to the hands of an person unseen. This image was illuminated not by a flash, but by moon light, and the camera's high ISO allowed for extra exposure. In the case of Richardson's style, his images are snap shots taken in the heat of the moment. They look and feel like memories, etched into the mind of a witness, the ISO noise and the motion blur caused by slow shutter speeds make them rough and gritty; with Richardson you're in the moment, with Majoli, you're standing outside it.  Both have a dreamlike and timeless quality, but in the case of Majoli, you are more aware of the photographer.

©  Warren Richardson

© Warren Richardson

On the opposite side of this crisis, is Europe, the refugees destination. But, Europe is dealing with a crisis of its own; which is a direct result of this mass exodus. Open borders in Europe have allowed mass migration onto the continent; which has been both a blessing and a curse. My opinion of mass immigration will not be discussed in this piece as I wish to concentrate my energy on the photo's themselves, but - and it must be said - mass migrations of peoples from one culture to another will inevitably cause tensions. It is to these tensions that Majoli also pointed his lens.

On November 2015, on a Friday night in Paris the city was the target of a massacre. The perpetrators of the attack - one of many in recent years - were doing it in the name of Islam. This, one of largest of the Abrahamic religions, is the religion of many of the refugees landing on the shores of Lesvos. The bullets that may have killed the friends and relatives of the refugees, were fired with the same motivation as the ones that killed French socialites; in the name global Jihad. 

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

Majoli travelled to Paris to witness the aftermath of the November attacks. In his photographic style, he captures a city that is in shock, mourning the dead and intrigued at this new level of violent religious fervour. In my favourite picture, taken in a restaurant a mere 100 metres from one of the establishments that was attacked, a women reads a newspaper with the simple headline typed in bold L'HORREUR. Around her, the restaurant is packed full of people eating and drinking wine. The France in this picture, is the France of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, a place of leisurely cafe's, bars and terraces. It shows the defiance of the Parisian spirit.    

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

This is why I consider Majoli's work to be so meaningful and - I would argue - necessary. On the one hand we see the bedraggled masses arriving scared onto a foreign continent, often risking their lives and spending large sums of money to make the perilous journey; of which nothing is certain. On the other, we see Europeans, confused at witnessing a new type of religious violence, one that wants to police free speech and expression, often upheld by politicians in the name of multiculturalism and, failing that, through extreme violence. Majoli's images offer beautifully poignant moments in an ever-changing and complicated drama.