Photographer Paula Bronstein has been traveling to Afghanistan “since the United States began bombing it, in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. sites,” she writes, in the afterword to her new book, Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear. Initially, she was sent there on assignment for Getty Images news service, but over time she found herself returning for another reason — compelled by a desire to catalogue the daily lives of the locals, “beyond the suicide bombs.”
Working in Afghanistan as a woman photographer presents unique challenges, she writes, including the limitations wrought by cultural and religious taboos, and deteriorating security. “In this country sadness is a way of life — though sometimes so too is happiness,” writes Bronstein.”I have made some of the most extraordinary photos of my career in Afghanistan, with face after face offering a complex and intriguing gaze and revealing the constant tension between optimism and reality that shape the lives of so many here.”
In her foreword to the book, The Taliban Shuffle author and former bureau chief Kim Barker writes of an emotional fatigue that has overcome many people who are “tired of hearing about Afghanistan, tired of this war.” Bronstein, she says, forces people to pay attention through her rich portraits. “While she has certainly documented how people die, she also shows how they live,” she writes, reflecting on their years working together in the beleaguered nation.
British journalist Christina Lamb also penned an introductory essay for the book, taking the harrowing scenes of women breaking with tradition to bear the coffin of mob-victim Farkhunda Malikzada as a starting point to muse on the different sides of the lives of women in Afghanistan — a complexity that she says is well captured by Bronstein. At the same time as women are being promoted to positions of influence, voting, and receiving an education as a legacy of persistent advocacy, they are also operating in a deeply unsafe environment — sometimes forced to marry very young and brutally punished if they disobey.
“Many stories, both warm-hearted and harrowing, remain to be told,” Bronstein says. “And they need to be told.”
‘Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear’, by Paula Bronstein (University of Texas Press, Austin) is available now.