When you’re best-known for following LCD Soundsystem around on tour it must be a relief to shake off the screaming mayhem of rock’n’roll life on the road and focus your energies on a project that’s slower. Ruvan Wijesooriya has felt that relief in his latest work, trading pop music in the USA for education in Afghanistan. Yearbook: Afghanistan follows a journey Ruvan made to Kabul, where he immersed himself in life at the Roots of Peace School, photographing pupils and teachers as they went about their daily business. He also gave disposable cameras to the people he encountered, encouraging them to document themselves at home and in the classroom.
Our perception of Afghanistan is complex here in the west, muddied by generations of political and military tensions and biased media coverage, but Ruvan’s images draw parallels between our own experiences of education – with young boys and girls attending classes together – and immediately humanise a country we’ve become accustomed to discussing in a negative light.
The project serves as an archive of Ruvan’s time in Kabul, a body of portraits and documentary photographs that offer a snapshot of a country with a bewilderingly complex history, but Ruvan’s humble about what he’s achieved to date…
What did you expect to find in Kabul?
I wasn’t sure. I’ve been to a good number of places in the world, but not to central Asia and never to a country in the midst of war. In terms of the school, I knew it wouldn’t be comparable to any western school, and it wasn’t; there wasn’t running water, barely any electricity, no school supplies. Kabul was beat up badly, and it seemed like it had been that way for a long while – bombed-out buildings with most everything worn down, distressed and dusty. I’ve been to some pretty destitute places and Kabul was certainly not the worst, but it was bad. Outside of Kabul – where the school is – there’s simple, basic living; nothing fancy anywhere, people are poor and it is a hard, generally physical life.
Did you go with any kind of an agenda or did you approach things openly?
The idea of the school yearbook was something I had been thinking about for a long time and I knew I was going to make one when I left my home in New York City. In that sense there was an agenda. Once I was there, I went to various sites that Roots of Peace was involved with – a new surprise and visual experience every day. In that sense there was really no agenda except to get the school yearbook done. I was very open to the experience and was taking pictures non-stop of everything I could.
How were you treated as an outsider arriving in Afghanistan? Is there suspicion of westerners and if so how does that manifest itself?
Westerners have funded the wars in Afghanistan for the last 30 years so of course the people of Afghanistan are suspicious of them. Everyone there believes the CIA funded or created Al-Qaeda so they would fight the Russians. Then Al Qaeda was fighting the less conservative Northern Alliance. Then the US entered Afghanistan again to fight Al Qaeda.
But I digress… yes, I am clearly an outsider and the suspicion of westerners manifests itself in warfare and targeted attacks. People there are scared – there were several times when I was taking pictures out of the window of a car and people thought it was a gun. That didn’t feel good at all, and it wasn’t like I could stop the car and say, “Sorry, it is just a camera, I mean no harm.” After all we were on a main road and snipers aren’t rare in those parts.
While I am an American with Sri Lankan heritage, I can easily pass for sub-continental Indian to people who don’t know American culture; however, with close attention to my shoes, my clothes and the pep in my step, it is clear I am American. A few teenagers came up to me at a mosque in Mazar I Sharif and in a kind of taunting way whispered, “you know there are a lot of Al Qaeda people here – you should be careful.” I just brushed them off, but it was pretty unnerving.
"People there are scared – there were several times when I was taking pictures out of the window of a car and people thought it was a gun. That didn’t feel good at all..."Ruvan Wijesooriya
Given education of women is forbidden by the Taliban what’s the atmosphere like in the school? Do people feel like they’re doing a dangerous thing?
Mir Bacha Kot is in the Kabul province which is governed by the US-supported government, so all things considered, it is more safe than most other places. The humanitarian programmes make a massive impact on people and their livelihoods. A recent report championed by the Swedish government shows that there is a direct relationship between gender equality and peace in a nation: the more gender equality you have, the more peace you have. This is where the school comes in. I think this fact is something that people can actually feel, and I think some of that feeling exists within the confines of the school. It is definitely a safe place where people don’t feel like they are breaking the law and the Taliban hadn’t run those parts in close to a decade before I got there.
One of the difficult things about modern media is the way it skews our perceptions of a place, but your photos humanise a nation that for years we’ve been taught to fear or despise. What does it feel like to have taken pictures that have achieved something like that?
I’m truly flattered you feel I have achieved that! I felt it myself, to be honest, and it feels pretty great. It feels like I got away with something, if that makes sense. In some ways I looked at it as a collage, but rather than layering visuals on top of visuals to create an idea I took a whole bunch of ideas and layered them to create very simple visuals, stripped of context and shot on film to accentuate a timelessness. In that sense I felt it was conceptual. I should say, though, that these pictures were made for the kids to remember themselves by. There is something crucially different to that approach instead of taking pictures to show an audience back home.
Tell us about the cameras you gave to the kids and why you did it?
I took a lot of ideas from my own high school yearbook for which there was a yearbook committee of students who would take pictures of life and events around the school. In trying to emulate that, I felt like the disposables would be a good substitution. On a personal level I wanted the project to involve the kids in a fun, positive experience they would remember – it is really for them and about them. I was also very curious about how they would see their own world. I was curious about their composition and thought it would add a lot to the project. There were four cameras with 27 frames each, which from the edit on the site means I found most of the pictures interesting.
"The fact of the matter is that it is one of the most dangerous places in the world and spending time in that kind of a place for too long seems interesting, but also extremely depressing given the life I lead in the world I live in."Ruvan Wijesooriya
Were any of them familiar with photography?
Not that I could tell, though when I was around I was surprised nobody was excessively greedy about having the camera. I think it was something they knew and had seen but had very little experience with. It felt to me like the portraits I took of the kids were the only portrait many of them had been in, certainly the only school photo they had sat for.
What’s the story of the little Caucasian boy who appears in a couple of photos?
Ha! I love that kid! His teacher told me his nickname is “The Englishman,” but I always thought he looked kind of northern European or Russian. I don’t know his story, but it could be a pretty intense one. Or it could be a recessive gene from when Ghengis Khan or Alexander the Great were displacing peoples and forcing them to interbreed with the intention of creating peace and the master race.
Did you make any firm friends while you were there?
To be honest I didn’t. The people whose company I enjoyed the most were not the people in charge of anything. There is a strong hierarchical social order that is strictly adhered to in that there is the head honcho and everyone else falls into place underneath. From the way they walk in a group to the way they sit down and eat together, the order is generally preserved.
When some of those I got along with well were around other English-speaking personnel, I found they preferred to pretend they didn’t speak English. They were very interesting, humble people with big hearts full of hope, but staying in touch didn’t seem like an objective – it felt more like a “we’re here now, let’s learn from each other and enjoy this experience” kind of vibe. It was pretty clear that I wasn’t in Afghanistan because I wanted to plant seeds and come back. The fact of the matter is that it is one of the most dangerous places in the world and spending time in that kind of a place for too long seems interesting, but also extremely depressing given the life I lead in the world I live in.