Photos from Afghanistan: Natural Beauty, Not War

by Claire O'Neill

"We have so much baggage about the Afghan people," photographer Benjamin Rasmussen bemoans, "that it is hard for us to think about them without immediately moving to the negative. Our minds go directly to the Taliban, American soldiers dying and the oppression of women."

Rasmussen's goal, in short, is to change that view. To do so, he spent some time in the remote areas of northeastern Afghanistan this year. Hidden in the hills of the Wakhan Corridor, in the easternmost province of Badakhshan, are not only rugged landscapes dotted with mud brick homes — but also people who live largely off the radar. In his travels, Rasmussen photographed Wakhi people as well as the Kyrgyz living high in the Pamir Mountains. He sent his narrative, below, in an e-mail.

By Benjamin Rasmussen

Although I am American by nationality, I have lived abroad most of my life, only returning as an adult. I grew up on a small island off the southern coast of the Philippines with a minority Muslim people group with whom my parents worked. I spent my childhood running around the jungle, chopping things with machetes and exploring the island's beaches and rivers.

When I left the Philippines after high school, I moved to the United States and went to a Christian college in northwestern Arkansas to study journalism. ... After college, I moved for a year to my father's hometown in the Faroe Islands, a protectorate of Denmark in the middle of the North Atlantic populated by the descendants of Vikings and Irish monks. It is a tiny collection of islands with only 45,000 inhabitants, with its own language and cultural history.

These three places are all drastically different from each other, but each one is full of people I love and respect. And when I discovered a photograph's power to capture the unique and beautiful aspects of these groups as well as their commonalities, I immediately fell for the medium. It allows me to explore what those different identities mean to me, and then to share those discoveries in a way that can communicate beauty and humanity.

When my wife and I decided to move back to the United States last year, I felt that I inherited the ongoing war in Afghanistan, along with the scars of Sept. 11. And when I thought about investing myself in America as a visual storyteller, I saw that this conversation about the conflict in Afghanistan was one of the most serious debates being held, and that I wanted to have a voice in it.

We have so much baggage about the Afghan people that it is hard for us to think about them without immediately moving to the negative. Our minds go directly to the Taliban, American soldiers dying and the oppression of women. While these are all pieces of the situation, it's hard to have an honest conversation about Afghanistan without first acknowledging Afghans as being valuable, beautiful and human.

With these images — which are the beginning of a much larger project — I want to show Afghans not as victims of war or as people we are fighting against, but just as people of value. I wanted to show these people and their lives beautifully to help break down the ugly stereotypes we have of Afghans. My goal for the project is to do my part to expand our cultural conversation about Afghanistan beyond whether or not to pull troops out, and instead give viewers a deeper perspective of the country and its people.

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