Liz Loh-Taylor reached Afghanistan on January 1, 2023, where she was greeted with loud explosions, which were not fireworks. Even so, she set off to travel through the country that no longer seems to be at the centre of public attention, yet continues to be hit very hard.
Why did you start this series; what was the impulse behind it?
To be honest I wanted to see it all for myself, the propaganda and then, beyond politics, the truth. As with all of my projects, I wanted to form an untainted and unbiased view of the situation and to tell the stories as they presented themselves: stories of real people whose lives are entwined in this political farce.
What situation did you find there, in the wake of the Taliban take over?
There are so many different facets of Afghan life that have changed and deteriorated since the Taliban took over, and the reasons for them are more complex than the fact that the Taliban has taken Afghanistan. It is a mixture of fear carried over from when the Taliban last ruled, with utmost barbarism and instability within Afghanistan that wasn’t necessarily caused by the Taliban themselves. Women are slowly being curbed, their existence furtively excluded from normal society, though they continued to display a sense of insurrection. Music and dance have been banned from society, taking away the core of Afghan traditions and pleasure, which saw the contraction of a string of trades from those selling musical instruments to function centres, fashion and beauty salons. Men who worked for the previous government became largely unemployed. Most traders I have spoken to have advised that their businesses have at least halved, if not more. These are only but a few examples.
What did you want to show with your images?
I was conscious of capturing and showing the typical images from Afghanistan, of the curtailment, of suffering… however it was difficult to avoid that. I tried my very best to document it as I saw it: a mixture of fear and resilience, agony and pride, all in the midst of hopelessness, as they have no idea “who will save them next”.
To what extent do your photographs, which seem to capture normal everyday life, reflect the social conflict and the political situation in Afghanistan?
I’m glad you ask this question. A lot of what we see in the media is heightened to “sell a story” if you like, which in itself is fair enough I guess. Typically it depicts the essence of war, death, loss. I guess I am focused on the stories that have been forgotten in many ways. Lives continue to be impacted by conflict after the war. The repercussions of a war are vast and prolonged. I find this is the most important time to shine a light, when stories are starting to become “out of flavour”.
Your project is called In Search of an Afghan Soul. Is there an Afghan soul? What constitutes it and have you found it?
Universally speaking, I believe that music connects us, regardless of where we are in the world. This wasn’t something I was searching for, as I was focused on documenting the more apparent issues at hand. This came about when I went searching for an Afghan musical instrument called the rubab, and learned that music had been banned and it was no longer allowed to sell musical instruments. Music shops were turned into barber shops, musical instruments hidden in dark attics. I was fortunate to have met with some musicians whose livelihoods depended on that. I felt without a doubt that their hearts and souls had been shattered, ripped apart. Imagine a world without music, dance, singing… nothing, let alone a livelihood now completely lost.
How do you go about choosing your subject?
I believe my subject chooses me in many ways. I do not plan my meetings, rather I believe in meeting people by chance. I find this gives me a more authentic perspective, unplanned and unscripted. For example, I would wander the markets or shops, casually chat to someone and usually end up in their home. Or I would meet a shopkeeper, who knows of a seamstress who sews for them, who knows someone and we go from there. Chance meetings in coffee shops that lead to meetings with resistance groups is another…
How did the Leica suit you and your project?
I have used a Leica M camera for as long as I can remember. At least 15 years, if I remember correctly. What’s important as well as the camera is, of course, the lens, and I’ve never travelled without a 35mm lens… ever. I may add a 50mm to the suite, but never without my 35mm. I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to achieving the shot that I want, the way I want it, the moment I want it. I find the M is perfect for that. It enables unhindered creativeness and control by the photographer. In most of the places I tended to visit, the Leica M attracted less attention. Most assume it is a non professional camera, which works in my favour almost all of the time. In fact, I use the M, whether digital or analogue, for every project I embark on, without fail. It hasn’t failed me yet.
Is your work merely an inventory of the situation or also an appeal to the public?
In a way, my work is to challenge our way of thinking, to challenge what is presented to us by the mainstream media, to question beyond that and to then form an educated view based on truth. This is difficult, as there are so many truths out there. However, that was my primary objective when I embarked on this journey. My only answer was to see and experience it for myself.
Liz Loh-Taylor was born in Singapore and lives in Australia. She is a humanitarian photographer and writer who tells forgotten stories through photography and unprejudiced narratives. She advocates for those in need through her work as a photojournalist. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram account.
The Leica. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.