Story Publication logo February 20, 2015

Drawing in Afghanistan


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What happens when after 13 years a foreign fighting force pulls out of a country and the world turns...

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Farhad was a military policeman tasked with guarding this road that ran to the new parliament building in Kabul. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

I am always asked whether I believe drawing is better than photography. Despite the enthusiasm from the interviewer for that to be the case. The answer is no, one is not better than the other. In the right hands the camera as a mechanical tool cannot be out-performed. It's brilliant for sports, human likeness, accuracy, expression. It's widely available and immediate. Detail and convenience also cannot be matched.

And yet paintings and drawings are the images we find nailed to our mantelpieces, displayed in our museums and fetching the largest prices in auction houses. That's not to say that photography and film can't achieve this. Or indeed that all painting and all drawing is any good. Below are some of the reasons I find drawing from life so rewarding.

I was sitting on the floor drawing of an International Red Cross (ICRC) gymnasium in Kabul, Afghanistan, and a 22-year-old girl limps over to me. Nilofar, as she introduces herself, has just finished a game of wheelchair basketball and is interested in seeing what I was drawing. She sat on the floor beside me and looked over my shoulder commenting on something in the picture. After a few minutes we began to talk. Twenty years ago she had been caught in an explosion that killed her 18-year-old brother and injured her so badly that she could no longer walk. The ICRC has since fitted her with two orthotics and she explained whereas before she was depressed and found life difficult, she now plays basketball several times a week. Nilofar was in the ladies first team and studied law at the university across the road. She spoke passionately about wanting to fight for women's rights in Afghanistan. In addition to that the ICRC had employed her as a data entry operator for the same project that gave her so much hope.

Of course this story is available to any one who asks Nilofar because she is one of those wonderful friendly people, but there is something about sitting down and drawing with a blank piece of paper that introduces these situations. It's open and unthreatening. The passing of time in one place is vital.

Very often this way of working has given me access to views I would have otherwise missed. Like drawing Farhad, the military policeman outside the Darulaman Palace. While I drew the palace from a distance the policemen came up to look, they laughed and talked a bit. It wasn't the beginning of a life-long friendship, far from it, but it did mean I could then wander over to them and ask them to sit with the door open. If at the very least it was only a way of passing the time for them at a checkpoint, then that suits me too.

It is not the job of the illustrator to copy the scene like for like, but interpret the parts that tell the story. Including bits that help communicate the idea and more importantly leaving certain distracting things out.

In the case of Sohrab a 10-year-lad in Bird Street, Kabul, it was he and his pair of pigeons that inspired me, not the incredibly busy background.

It is the job of artists to describe their experience and the experience of the people around them. I often found in Afghanistan that my marks were influenced by the scene as it unfolded. It is not just the snap of the shutter but an hour of making visual notes on a place. I don't always know what the end result will be when I start and that in itself is exciting.

There is something about the characters and situations in Afghanistan at this time that suits this immediate and uncertain way of drawing and I hope that shows off the best of the places I was lucky enough to witness.


war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict

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