Darkness Visible - Seamus Murphy's Images Of Afghanistan At Asia House

By Marian Cleary | 01 July 2008
A black and white photograph of an Afghan woman wearing a white burqa

(Photo) Khwaja Bahauddin. Takhar Province: November 2000 - the burqa had long been traditional for women in Afghanistan before the arrival of the Taliban. © Seamus Murphy

Exhibition review: Marian Cleary talks to photographer Seamus Murphy at A Darkness Visible - showing at Asia House, London until September 13 2008.

The names of the places of Afghanistan are evocative – Khandaha, Helmund, Nangrahar. It could seem a place of dreams.

Yet the Afghan reality we think we know about is ever present in media coverage of the nightmare that war and occupation has brought to the country over the last 25 years.

It is both an exercise in education and appreciation then to absorb the images of Afghanistan from 1994 to 2007 captured by Seamus Murphy’s transfiguring lens in Asia House’s exhibition of his photographs - A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan.

On the one hand his stunning images reinforce that dream-like awareness, on the other they reveal with shocking clarity the horror of what has happened in this beautiful country.

Their real power however lies in his bringing something much richer and more tangible to our superficial understanding of Afghanistan – the people themselves.

A black and white photograph of an Afghan man holding his small child

Dasht-e-Qala, Tahar Province: 2000. © Seamus Murphy

Seamus Murphy says of the future: “I’m optimistic because of the nature of the Afghan people.” And this is what he wants us to take away from this exhibition – a better sense of them and a shared hope, despite the fear and horror they have experienced.

Walking into Asia House’s tranquil basement exhibition space, you are confronted straight away by his ability to capture this essence in the image of a father and daughter - he holding her so close, she, eyes shut, so ill.

Murphy recalls taking just one frame as he walked down that dim hallway at the Swedish clinic in Dast-e-Qala, Takhar Province in 2000 and encountered the two waiting there for her malaria treatment.

At the far end of the gallery, a woman carrying a child across the dusty plains of Khwaja Bahauddin, also in Takhar Province, also from 2000, proves that this was no one-off trick. This other-worldly, statuesque figure in the bleakness was captured in just two frames.

A black and white photograph of a miner

Gazastan. Takhar Province: November 2004 - a miner working in a coal mine. © Seamus Murphy

While these images are wordlessly evocative, Murphy also presents us with serendipitous symbolism. A snatched image of Osama Bin Laden on a banned TV speaks of defiance. The bird man releasing pigeons to the wind resonates of freedom and peace. A one-legged man walking past the gigantic empty rock ledges where the Buddahs of Bamiyan once rested before their destruction by the Taliban screams out to us on many levels – of pain, injury, the vacuum and absence left after yet another occupying ‘authority’ leaves these people to once more get on with their lives.

And in the world Murphy has captured, they do. While we have a record of the hardship and arduous toil painted on the body of a miner or etched on to the haggard face of an eight-year-old camel herder, there is also laughter, and shared moments of beauty.

A farmer lying in stooks of corn at the end of his harvest and two men bathing in light-filled water move us forward towards our better understanding of these lives and people.

These lives and people are however a battleground. This is brought vividly home in one corner of the exhibition space. Initially we encounter portraits of the legendary Mujahideen resistance fighter, Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated by suicide bombers in 2001.

In two contrasting portraits from 2000, Murphy distils the essence of the person he recalls as “the only man left standing” as the Taliban oppressed the population.

However, the images of that eventual ousting of the Taliban take us beyond the iconography of victor and vanquished. The juxtaposition of the faintly wary celebrants versus the last embrace of the defeated moves you to a place far beyond borders.

A black and white photograph of a horse rearing up

Hisarak. Balkh Province: November 2001 - horsemen of the village. © Seamus Murphy

Murphy recalls this latter moment. In documenting this magnificent country over the years, he would normally be more concerned about what or who was over his shoulder than through the lens of his camera. Often only in the developing of the pictures did their power emerge. Seeing and recording however the dead Taliban and foreign fighters on the road in the early dawn after the fall of Kabul he says “was chilling”.

In the aftermath, what of the future? An image of Hamid Karzai protected by a bulky American bodyguard contrasts with the gossamer screen hiding a voter. Murphy provides us with no answers – just hints of what is and what can be for Afghanistan.

He will return to this country and will continue to document the unknown future and hopes ‘we’ will not abandon the people of Afghanistan again. “The West needs to keep engaged," he says. "We have a history of intervening and then abandoning them. We get very interested and then leave. We are in another phase now. Again we are very interested. I hope we will stay engaged this time.”

Murphy and his pictures do not give us platitudes of a potentially harmonious world. Instead, his images and knowledge of the people of Afghanistan tells us that their world, beyond the trappings of the mountains and landlocked borders, is ours also. We just have to look and see to make that lasting connection.

To help put the images in context and explain more about Afghanistan and Murphy's work there, Asia house have lined up a series of four events: Meet the Artist - July 9; The Real Story of the British Army in Afghnistan by James Fergusson - July 23; View From a Grain of Sand - a film by Meena Nanji - August 6; Building Schools in Afghanistan a talk by Greg Mortenson - August 12. Contact Asia House for further details.

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