Afghanistan has been entwined with America for more than 20 years of war, but to say Afghanistan, to see it on the news, does not call to mind an idea of who the Afghans are. Even to the hundreds of thousand like myself who served in the war, Afghans remain unknown. With that in mind I approached Esquire about an Afghan assignment in early 2020. In Early 2021 I spent a month in Kabul photographing Afghans as President Biden’s withdrawal announcement loomed over a period of relative peace.
Why Afghanistan? Why Style? You can find out for yourself on Esquire as of today, and read my own narrative of the project below.
Fashion, that is clothes, how they are worn and what is communicated with them is found best at the extremes. To my experience these are the cities on the leading edge of culture, and the small blank spaces on the map in the American conscience, passed over by the homogeny of industry. I can think of no more unjustly a blank space in the American mind than Afghans. With President Biden’s announcement of withdrawal imminent I set out in late February 2021 to document Afghan style.
In Kabul, from the street kids born into the war, to old men whose empty sleeves and folded pant legs where pinned back in the last 40 years of it, each one stared me in the eye, unwavering. They stand tall behind peddlers carts, on crutches, arm in arm with friends. If they had work they showed it to me eagerly: rings, rags, hand quilted velvet, glistened vegetables, calluses like cherry tomatoes. I learned never to photograph butchers.
Piran Tamban (a matched long shirt with wide cropped trouser) and the 9ft long Patoo shawl are the national costume, and nowhere besides Kabul will you see more variation on it. Color, embroidery, hem shape and headwear can easily distinguish the region an Afghan calls home. The accessories of note are military field jackets and vests made iconic by Ahmad Shah Massoud, who apposed the Taliban, and Cheetah sneakers made famous by them.
Kabul was one of the last cities in Afghanistan to resist Taliban contention largely due to ongoing peace talks. The capital had been beyond their control but not their daily reach. Small bombs targeting government employees, local journalists and activists were a daily occurrence. From the center of town I never heard them. The shooting heard occasionally were unrelated. When I ask about gunfire down the street, I’m told “They shot a thief”.
For all the anxiety and danger I expected to find in returning, it was the un-expected return to tribe that shocked me. T.M and Jim, longstanding Kabul correspondents are my guides. Fast friends, and fast Fridays spent tearing up Kabuls emptier quarters on two wheels, or well worn rugs at house parties.
After a few weeks I developed a little report with the familiar faces of Kabul’s streets. Those Afghans I could speak to asked: “what do Americans think of Afghans? bad people? bombs? terrorists?”.
I lied. Because Americans do not think of Afghans at all.