Photographer aims to shed light on war-torn Afghanistan

Unordinary Lives on display at The Gallery until March 31

On the drive up to the Inter Continental Hotel, there’s a swing that overlooks Kabul hanging from a tree.

Photojournalist Manca Juvan knows it well. Over the seven years that she visited Afghanistan, it’s a place where she would reflect on her time in the war-torn country.

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“I don’t really know,” the Slovenian said, when asked why she’s been attracted to a landlocked country. “Maybe I am running away from here to get closer to myself. I was dragged by something. I was 22 and just curious and passionate about photojournalism. It was basically me getting to know the world around me.”

In 2003, having failed to gain a visa for entry to the country the year before, Juvan boarded an Afghan Airline headed for its capital. Armed with a camera, she was determined to find out what life was like on the ground after the fall of the Taliban. She was greeted at the Hamid Karzai International Airport by the remnants of war.

“There was desert sand covering broken military equipment and burnt out planes around the airport,” Juvan said, noting it made her wonder what she was getting into.

Once among the people, Juvan said the stereotypes of the Afghani people melted away, as stereotypes so often do. What was left were stories of individuals and communities struggling to rebuild from the trauma. On her quest to understand the effects of conflict and the country itself, she toured various facilities, from a women’s prison to a mental health hospital. Her photos were later published in a book called Afghanistan: Unordinary Lives.

“The Western media was focused only on international troops, it really made me angry. Soon after I arrived I realized I knew nothing,” Juvan said, over the phone from her house in Ljubljana. “So I went back. I ended up going back about twice a year.”

The photos from her journeys are currently on display at The Gallery located on the upper level of the Maury Young Arts Centre. It’s part of an exhibit in partnership with the Embassy of the Republic of Slovenia, which will run until March 31.

Juvan’s photography earned her Photographer of the Year in Slovenia three years running —2006, 2007 and 2008. She was twice commended for her work in Afghanistan — 2005 and 2006 — and her work has been shown around the world from New York to Paris. In 2011, Juvan was chosen as one of three scholarship recipients for NYU/Magnum Foundation Photography and Human Rights Program.

Juvan said she hopes her work documenting the difficulty of people’s lives after war highlights its ripple effects. These invisible wounds take generations to heal, she noted. From pictures of mental health patients shackled together so they can’t escape the hospital to former fighters passed out on sedatives, Juvan’s photos delve into the lives of those trying to overcome the trauma they’ve experience.

“Even when the troops are gone the war is very much present,” she said.

The production and trade of narcotics is a big threat to Afghanistan’s stability and peace, Juvan noted. Afghan opium and heroin fuels more than 90 per cent of the world market.

Drug addiction is a growing problem in the war-torn country, she said, noting profits from the drugs fund the Taliban.

“I hope that when people see the show they will realize how hard it is for these people. I also want them to know that we are not that different anywhere in the world,” Juvan said. “There is something very similar to all of us. I hope that basically this project brings people together.”

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