Light in the darkness of Afghanistan
Ton Koene from the Netherlands reports regularly from Afghanistan for de Volkskrant, a leading Dutch newspaper.
For his portrait series depicting new recruits in a police training center in Kunduz, he won second prize in the 2012 World Press Awards. For the Camera Lens Blog, Koene used the high-speed Planar T* 1,4/85 to take a series of portraits in a refugee camp in Kabul.
“The situation in Afghanistan is still very unstable,” says Koene. “People’s faces are marked by their worries about their families and about the future. With these images, I wanted to show how these men cope and master daily challenges, despite the difficult circumstances.”
Koene’s work is dangerous. He regularly travels to areas that are not protected by police or the military. He takes these risks in order to obtain a more realistic picture of day-to-day life in Afghanistan. To create his images, he works closely with the locals, who know the country and its people well and help him to minimize the risks as much as possible. For example, in order to avoid attracting attention, he never spends more than 10-15 minutes in a public place. Also, his team never works at night. These security measures force Koene to work fast and efficiently. And there is a further photographic challenge: he must take the light as it is. “I can’t afford the luxury of working at the golden hour; that would simply be too dangerous.”
The men fled from their homes in the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Oruzgan after fighting broke out between the Taliban and US forces, and turned up at a refugee camp in Kabul. They are agricultural workers with little money and education. Most of them belong to the Pashtun tribe, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Others are from the Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen tribe.
Because of the typical features of the Afghan daylight — it is extremely bright and casts hard shows — and the need to observe strict security measures, almost all of Koene’s portraits are shot indoors. Whenever he approaches a person on the street, he always already has a secure place in mind to take the photograph. He especially likes to use the protected entrance of a house as a background, not only because he loves the special light typically found in corridors but also because he knows he can always get results quickly and safely. “A hallway allows me to work with light-dark contrasts in a wonderful way,” he says. “I use the daylight that shines through the front door to isolate the person’s face from the almost-black background of the room. I can create very expressive images this way, not least because of the excellent features of the high-speed Planar T* 1,4/85.”
Whether a person is blind, has a broken nose, deep lines in the face or has a beard – such details fascinate Koene. Faces do not have to be perfect. He believes that even if someone is good-looking, there has to be something else — something surprising — that resonates beyond the norm so that the portrait becomes interesting. “The face must tell its own story,” says Ton Koene.
Koene normally takes pictures in color, but this series was intentionally shot in black and white in order to impart more expression and dignity. The men’s long, snow-white beards form a striking contrast to their dark, sun-drenched skin and the deep-black background.
Koene describes himself as a autodidact photographer. He believes the most important ingredients for success are a sharp eye, a passion for photography, and knowing how to deal with people.
About Ton Koene
Ton Koene, 50, worked for many years as a social worker for Doctors Without Borders in war-torn and crisis regions such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Angola and Sudan. He has been a freelance photographer since 2006. His photo documentaries cover the problems and controversies in conflict areas. Since 2010, he has focused on Afghanistan. Through his images, Koene aims to inform the public about the state of affairs in Afghanistan and the day-to-day life of its inhabitants. In 2012 he won second prize in the World Press Awards for Photo Series.