Local photographer James Lee captures daily life in Afghanistan

Marsham Khan cooks a goat head, February 15, 2010. Photo by James Lee.

James Lee spent three years stationed in Iraq, as a U.S. Marine. After his time there, Lee went to Afghanistan, but not in uniform.

He retired to become a photographer because he says he wanted to tell the stories of the Afghan people, stories of a culture and a country that he found fascinating.

KALW's Hana Baba met up with Lee at San Francisco City Hall, where his images are on display as part of an exhibit called “Afghanistan in Four Frames."

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HANA BABA: Okay whoa, what’s going on here, I know the title says fresh Zebah? And it has to do with lunch, so why don’t you describe what’s going on in this picture?

JAMES LEE: The image shoes an Afghan soldier preparing lunch, and he ended up buying a goat head from a local merchant, and he made a barbeque made out of an ammo can, and he spend several hours cleaning and cooling the goat head, and then ended up eating it for lunch.

I remember him telling me that the best meat – and he made sure he saved me a piece – was in the tongue, and he said the tongue is the sweetest meat. But the amount of labor that went into preparing the goat head was just incredible. It took forever to remove all the hair and to prep the meat but he was committed and a couple hours later we shared fresh zebah, which is Afghani for goat.

BABA: So here’s a photograph called “Durand Line.” So why don’t you describe it to me and what it means.

LEE: This photograph is a very tight portrait and the face that’s depicted is of an Afghan national board police officer. His face I think really speaks to the conditions that a lot of these young men face at some of the more remote checkpoints. They live in very simple living conditions and they are very exposed not only to attacks by other groups, but also to the weather. And I think you can see it on his face. He’s got a light dusting of sand on his face, on his eyelids and on his beret. And he just looks generally fatigued, but very focused on his job.

BABA: Kind of young, too.

LEE: He’s very young, a lot of the Afghans that are volunteering for the Afghan National Army and a lot of the other security positions are facing limited options in Afghanistan and I think you’re seeing a lot of people volunteering for these types of positions who might not otherwise have decided to serve.

BABA: You named your exhibit “Counter Narratives.” What do you mean by that?

LEE: I think if you look at the totality of the imagery that comes out of Afghanistan today, there seems to be a dominant pattern and that pattern tends to be the conflict told through the framework of foreign military forces, primarily U.S. forces. Those stories are important, those stories need to be told, but the Afghan people are the ones that are going to have to live with whatever is accomplished while the United States is in their country. They deserve the opportunity to provide testimony to what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced on a day to day basis.

In order for me to do that, I need to get as close to their daily routines as possible, which included moving away from U.S. forces and moving into mosques. As strange as that sounds, most Afghans spend several hours each day in the mosque, actively performing the daily prayer, the Salat, but also spending time socially before their prayers and after their prayers, and it’s a local hub, it’s a big part of their day. As a foreign photographer, if you exclude yourself from that, you are really excluding yourself from a huge part of their day.

So I approached the Imam at one of my first bases I was assigned to, and told him I was interested in becoming a student of Islam. He talked to me about my request for several hours and decided he would take me on as a student. And that education continued throughout my 4.5 months in Afghanistan. When I transferred from location to location to location, I would seek out the local Imam, explain what I had learned and what I still needed to study, and I continued to study the entire 4.5 months I was there.

BABA: Did you feel that that created a trust between you and the Afghani people you were going to take pictures of? Was that an in for you, that you were a student of the Koran and of Islam? And what difference did you see in the reactions of people?

LEE: The first Imam that I studied under gave me the name “Abdullah,” so I would no longer use my name, James Lee. So what would happen is when I would go out on patrols, whether it was with the Afghan National Army or Afghan Boarder Police, we’d enter a village and the soldiers would introduce me as Abdullah, and they would say that I was a photographer from the United States studying the Koran. And right away you would see that people were very disarmed by that fact, and they would want me to stay for lunch and to stay there for the prayer at their local mosque.

I think the important takeaway from me being a student of the Koran while I was in Afghanistan was the fact that for once it gave the Afghan people the opportunity to teach me something about their lives and about what’s most important to them.

BABA: Here’s a picture of what looks like two people, I can see their feet, and they are sitting on the ground and there is a game board in front of them, like board games that we play here. One person is kind of holding a cigarette and there is a cell phone somewhere. It looks like down time. So tell me about this picture, and then was a lot of your photography about the down time that the Afghan security forces had?

LEE: Down time was definitely my focus, and the reason is these are opportunities when these men don’t have to be soldiers or boarder patrol officers anymore, they just get to be themselves. For me, that type of information is what’s missing, and it’s really the core of my project here with “Counter Narratives,” to provide additional information. Letting people know that there is more than conflict in Afghanistan, and that our decision whether to support these people or not to support them isn’t just tactical, but there are human issues involved here.

But people rush to make those kind of tactical judgments if they don’t see the Afghan people as people themselves, but as just players in an armed conflict when that couldn’t be any further from the truth. These are people who have dimensions beyond conflict. They have, they're husbands, they're wives, they're sons, they're brothers, they're Muslim and sometimes they play board games, just like we do. But I think that's all critical information and I think it should really be considered when we think about long term foreign policy decisions in Afghanistan.

James Lee's photographs will be on display in San Francisco's City Hall until May 13, 2011.