Afghan boy with a plant: Reza Deghati on nurturing a culture of peace

Capturing the hopes of a nation...

Every photograph has a story behind it, if only we care to ask – or dig deep enough. In October 2007, I wrote about a now iconic photo showing an old Nepali man (Ram Bahadur Tamang) holding a video camera. That image is the logo of Film South Asia festival.

From Reza Deghati, the renowned Iranian-French photojournalist (who works under the name Reza) comes another story – this time from Afghanistan, where the above photo was taken in 1990.

Reza recalls how the photo was taken: “In 1990, the United Nations asked me to put aside my cameras in order to run a humanitarian program in an Afghanistan recently freed from Russian occupation. I had to open a route for wheat shipments needed to feed the population in the Northern Provinces. Eleven years of war against the Soviet Army had devastated the country. Fields lay fallow, roads were impassable, mined or destroyed, and buildings like hospitals and schools were nothing but ruins. I could have given away the wheat. Instead, I decided to barter it for work so as to avoid one of the unfortunate consequences of some humanitarian programs that foster dependence rather than offer new ways to live. Throughout the Province, a new army took shape. This time, men did not carry rifles but shovels.”

“I remember seeing a young Afghan boy coming out of school one day, holding a plant in his hand. He had been watering it carefully. A shoot had sprouted out. I took a picture of him, and asked: ‘What are you going to do with this plant?’ His answer….’I am going to make a tree with it’.

Reza Deghati, photo by Ali Khaligh

Looking back, Reza thinks this may have provided part of the inspiration for setting up Aina, a third-generation humanitarian association that he founded in 2001 in Taliban-free Afghanistan.

Aina now works in Afghanistan, “contributing to the emergence of civil society through actions in the area of education (particularly focusing on women and children), information and communication.” It promotes independent media development and cultural expression as a foundation of democracy.

Reflecting further on the power of images, Reza says on Aina website: “In the early 80s, I discovered wars and the harshest moments of the world as a young photojournalist. I could not just stay there as a mere witness. I was led into thinking over conflicts, repressions, exodus and their burden of known pain, answers as well. As canon roars fade, urgency requires tangible reconstruction. An army of shovel-carrying men starts marching, determined to erase any remaining sign of ruin. Others take care of suffering bodies. Yet, there is an invisible destruction, only known to wounded dignities, that can ruin physical rebuilding efforts in a country and keep it from recovering.

“Those who are not given any intellectual and cultural weapons will go back to their unique reference. The culture of war fosters war. That is how Aina was founded. A third-generation association, Aina has been working on independent media development and culture, everywhere freedom of speech has remained a fragile value. It provides logistical support, state-of-the art technology access and local media and cultural actor training.”

Reza adds, optimistrically: “Today, Aina is like that plant. I hope that it will become a tree of culture, peace and freedom in Afghanistan…”

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