When Toronto (Ontario-Canada) based photographer and filmmaker Lana Slezic left free and liberal Canada for Kabul for an assignment for Canadian Geographic magazine, it was supposed to be a six-week work project. Weeks turned into months and months to years as Slezic stayed on in Afghanistan, letting her shutter speak, documenting lives of Aghans, particularly women and children through her lens.
Says Slezic, “When I left Canada, I was on assignment for Canadian Geographic magazine. I was covering the Canadian military role in Kabul for six weeks. I was living at Camp Julien and covering the different facets of their role. When the six weeks were over, I decided to stay, and that turned into two years. I decided to stay and start documenting the plight of Afghan women.
This body of work represents a very emotional journey that hasallowed me to learn about Afghan women’s lives in an intimatesetting. At the worst of times the stories are horrific and at best they are consistent.” Asked if she knew that a short, time-bound assignment would start meaning so much more, Slezic said in an e-mail interview from Toronto, “No. I think in the beginning, the motivation was just that I wanted to document something that was under documented, something that was misrepresented in the media. I was so moved by the work and the women that I met that I just kept going.
Towards the end of 18 months, I remember sitting and looking at this body of work and thinking it was a book. Eventually, it became an exhibition that has gone to so many places — all over Europe, Japan, New York, Canada of course and now, India. It has been global in the literal sense.” Slezic explains that the images are from a book she has of this work, but there are a total of 22 images in the exhibit. Answering a question about the challenges of working in a foreign environment and communication problems, Slezic says, “I hired a young woman who was a photography student at the time and who has grown to be a photographer in her own right since then. For 18 months, she was my assistant, my translator and somany other things. She became a little sister to me.
I actually organized a scholarship for her to study photography in Canada, which she did for two years. … I was so thrilled when we were able to organize the funds for her to study photography. There are so many photographers and journalists who rely on people like her, it would be impossible to do the work otherwise.
It is a vital part of documentary work in foreign cultures.” While the subject of her work is women and girls, asked if she, as a woman, faced challenges because of her gender, to the specific question that as a Westerner and white woman did she face any problems Slezic says, “There were a couple of times, definitely, but nothing earth shattering, nothing obviously life threatening. There were times that there were rocks and stones thrown at me. At other times, I thought I was being followed, but probably never was. There were a few times when I was driving through some really dangerous areas in the southern part of Afghanistan and even though I was well guarded, it was daunting to be in the back of an SUV with a guy holding a handgun over your head in one direction and M16 in the other direction because he’s worried that you might get attacked.”
With her work fraught with danger, there was another side to living in Afghanistan too. Slezic says, “The Afghans are the most amazingly generous, warm, loving, open people, especially the women. There was never even once any animosity. I was always welcomed into their houses. They would always try to give me more than they ever had. It was a humbling and beautiful experience.” While Slezic’s pictures capture the fear and subservience, “emotions that women in Afghanistan know so well,” she says, the exhibit gives a typical/stereotypical view of life in Aghanistan.
When asked if there is another side of life there, rich women or people generally enjoying life there, avenues of entertainment which are not usually documented because it does not fit the romanticised image of a country with its heart ripped out by conflict, Slezic says, “When I was there I didn’t meet any wealthy Afghan women, not to say that they don’t exist, the wives of very wealthy Afghan warlords for example. But even that would have been rare and I don’t think it would mean necessarily that they were treated much differently. These issues that plague Afghan women are cultural and they are not related to money or even religion, as far as I’m concerned. They are deeply rooted in culture and they have been rooted from centuries.
The documentation that I did and that so many others have done is an accurate portrayal of the way Afghan women are living today in so far as the majority is concerned.” Incidentally, Slezic also maintains a strong connection to India, where she lived and worked on several projects. She worked on documentaries with The Globe and Mail newspaper about the Prerna School of Girls — a school for Dalit girls belonging to the Mushahar community in Bihar. Currently, she is working on a film in Ukraine.
FORSAKEN, a photo exhibit by Canadian photographer Lana Slezic, on the daily lives of Afghan girls and women, is hosted by the Consulate General of Canada in Mumbai along with Cymroza Art Gallery (Bhulabhai Desai Rd, Mumbai-26 ) from November 19 to November 30, 2013 from 11am to 7pm (except Sunday).