Listen to this article
In February, after winning the prestigious Prix Pictet Commission, the British photographer Simon Norfolk went to Bamyan Province in Afghanistan’s Central Highlands, where small farming communities battle against the harsh climate to eke out a living. His plan was to follow the cycle of the seasons for a year, from a frozen early spring through to the snows of winter, documenting the stages of flooding, irrigation, planting and harvest. These are his first cycles, taken from the same vantage points roughly six weeks apart. Below Norfolk writes about his relationship with the country, where he has worked for more than a decade, and with its people
It began with a casual remark: “Oh, if you’re in the Central Highlands in May, you’ll be there for the Disaster Season.” I stopped short. What a thought: a place that has winter, spring, summer, autumn and disaster. I’d heard of the “fighting season”. “No,” she said, “that’s different. But there, unfortunately, they often come at the same time.”
The snow is the problem, you see. In this part of Afghanistan, at about 2,500 metres, the snow sits deep and firm on the peaks until the spring melt sends it tearing down the valleys to rip out half a village. Little disasters, lots of them. Regular, predictable. Every year the beautiful, pristine blanket of white holds within it the possibilities of destruction and death.
The land is technically a desert and it is only through centuries of work organising water that human life and farming are possible here at all. The landscape affords a masterclass in small-scale, handmade, hydrological engineering: the earth constantly combed and worked over; water guided along irrigation channels high along the valley walls, and then “…on Tuesday water is let on to my fields, on Thursday it goes to yours…”
In Afghanistan, civilisation is the landscape itself, a kind of collective intelligence expressed in earth and stones. There is no equivalent idea in English, though French comes nearer with la France profonde.
I see Afghanistan as working on two wavelengths: the frequencies of the recent war; high-energy, high-intensity, disruptive, violent. But below that there is something transmitted at a longer, slower amplitude; an Afghanistan that was there before the war, before many wars, and will endure afterwards too. Afghanistan profonde. A friend once asked me, “Why are you English so interested in your British empire? We have had two thousand years of conquerors like these, washing across Afghanistan, right back to Iskander. They bring nothing new and leave little behind. The Americans say they own the clocks but we own the time. There is an Afghan proverb that says, ‘If you wait long enough by the river, one day, one day, you will see the body of your enemy floating past.’ ”
But this place is not untouched by war. When the Taliban smashed their way up here in the 1990s they massacred tens of thousands, and the fight against the Soviets was equally long and brutal. And the region was always poor and desperate. Afghanistan has the world’s highest infant mortality rate and the second-highest mortality rate for children under five. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is just 48 years.
So, a love letter to Afghanistan then – after all, I’ve been coming to this country for a dozen years. And with a lover’s awkward complicity, too, because if these people had a higher standard of living, the first thing they’d do is build houses of concrete and buy tractors and more plastic and soon my pictures wouldn’t look so idyllic. It’s not direct, but there is a connection.
Simon Norfolk was awarded the fourth Prix Pictet Commission in October 2012. This has allowed him to work in Bamyan Province, where Pictet & Cie are supporting the work of the Swiss charity Medair. The charity, which has worked in Afghanistan since 1996, helps communities survive disasters such as droughts, floods and landslides, and teaches disaster risk-reduction strategies so that communities can protect themselves from subsequent threats.
The first public preview of Simon Norfolk’s images will be at an evening screening at the Théâtre Antique in Arles, as part of the Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, on July 4. The theme of the fifth Prix Pictet will be announced at the screening, along with the finalists’ exhibition venue and the jury.
Simon Norfolk’s Prix Pictet Commission photographs will be exhibited at Somerset House, London, October 10-27 www.prixpictet.com
Get alerts on Simon Norfolk when a new story is published