Drawn-Out Conflict

The Chahar Suq, the main market in the west Afghan city of Herat. This is one of the few places in Herat where you can find some of the original buildings in the old city. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

An angry policeman started scolding the group of children that had gathered around me whilst I drew Chahar Suq. They were dispersed momentarily before crowding back round laughing at him in the way only children can. After the third time a smile broke out on his face and Aziz, as he then introduced himself as, brought out tea with his officer and then let me draw him. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Butcher Street, Flower Street, Chicken Street and Music Street are all familiar names in Kabul. None is more popular than Bird Street for its hustle and bustle and it’s narrow, dusty splendor. You knew you were there by the sound alone. Birds of all varieties are displayed in cages of all kinds. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Shah-e-Doh Shamshira Masjid Among the buildings that haven’t been destroyed by the fighting over the last 30 years have been the mosques. The Shah-e-Doh Shamshira Masjid (Mosque of the King of Two Swords) is one of the most recognisable, right on the edge of the filthy Kabul River and covered in pigeons which are fed on the street. It is quite a spectacular sight when in their hundreds they circle the minarets. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Outdoor Exams. This morning the girls were doing their end of year exams together outside at Bibi Ayisha High School for Girls in Worsaj. It was a wonderful sight with them all hunched over their exam papers. Occasionally a girl would try and copy her friend and would be reprimanded by the teachers. It reminded me very much of exam rooms in England. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Double Amputee. It wasn’t clear how this man had lost his right arm and his right leg, but he sat very peacefully waiting in the corner of the room. The patients were taking it in turns to have their new limbs checked and adjusted before practicing their walking. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Pakani, Worsaj. Villages are often built up the sides of steep valleys in Worsaj to save on valuable farming land. This part of Afghanistan has been relatively peaceful over the last thirty years. One of the reasons for this is that the ethnic make-up of the people in Worsaj District is mainly from just one ethnic group, the Tajiks, so there is little tension. The war and the relevance of international troops seemed a very long way away up here, far from Helmand Province down in the south. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Checkpoint. I had been given permission by the Chief of Police of Kabul’s District 10 to draw at one of their checkpoints. These have become commonplace due to the heightened security risk. With this in the back of my mind I drew quickly and this was all I finished before deciding it was time to leave. Westerners and the police force were high up on the list of targets and the two together would have at some stage attracted unwanted attention. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

As a thoughtful exhibition on images of war opens at Tate Modern in London, Monocle visits artist George Butler. His ink-and-watercolour scenes bring a new depth to reportage more often the preserve of combat photographers.

We have never been closer to, nor further away from, the reality of war. Since Vietnam became the first conflict to be televised, technology has shrunk the gap between those fighting and dying and the rest of us, in whose name they do so. Images and videos from the battlefield reach smartphones at the same time as situation rooms. And yet most of the images that find their way into our living rooms only hint at the brutality. We saw the “shock and awe” of the bombardment of Iraq from a distance.

In this context George Butler’s drawings from Afghanistan—seen for the first time here—appear like a throwback to a time when our understanding of war was based on dispatches that arrived in newspapers a week after the battle.

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