[published: November 27, 2011]
An optimistic generation of liberal, open-minded Afghans is betting big on their country’s future.
When Lauren Lancaster started taking pictures of young people in Kabul, things were a bit safer than they are now. It was the spring of 2008 – before the crash, when Dubai’s property bubble was still swelling and with it, the fortunes of people like Dubai-based Afghan banker Mirwais Azizi, founder of the Kabul-based Azizi Bank and widely regarded as the richest man in Afghanistan.
Lancaster’s assignment was a profile of Azizi for The National, and English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi, where she was a staff photographer. But what she found — first in the bank and then through a community of young, creative Afghans who regard the country’s future with surprising optimism — piqued her interest and inspired a longer-term project she began in April of 2010.
“I saw a lot of things that didn’t sort of fit with my perception of what Kabul might be like,” she said. “In the bank, there were all these young men and women working together. The guys had these Euro mullet haircuts and shiny, sharkskin-y suits, and they were talking to the women. It was so much more normal seeming than what you would expect if you just read the headlines.”
If not quite sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, there was at least surprising social mingling between the sexes, hidden liquor at parties and indie rock that could hold its own on an international stage.
Her first glimpse was at a wedding, which, in Afghanistan, typically consists of separate parties for men and women.
“I was on the guy’s side of the wedding, because that was the only way I could take pictures,” she said. “All of these guys were dancing and drinking this mysterious clear liquid that they kept on the floor. One guy gave me his card, and said that he had been living out of the country and had just moved back because it seemed like everything was going so well.”
One connection fostered another. Each visit inspired the next: 2008, 2010, 2011. War always hovered in the background, in the barricades around buildings, but was secondary to the things her subjects were trying to do – run puppet theaters, play in bands, get their business degrees.
Even during Lancaster’s last visit, which followed a spike in violence and a year of polls showing that Afghans felt increasingly unsafe, she found her subjects filled with optimism about the country’s future.
The flow of development money has indirectly created opportunities for business strivers and creative types alike – practice spaces for the puppet theater, performance opportunities for the band, Kabul Dreams.
“There are a lot of young Afghanis paying a lot of money to go to business school,” she said.
Their outlook remains something of a puzzle, given the political situation, one that Lancaster chalks up to a growing sense of national identity.
“I think maybe part of it is a lot of them have already experienced, not in a good way, life outside Afghanistan,” she said. “For a lot of them growing up as refugees outside Afghanistan, even if their families had good jobs, they were foreigners who weren’t really well received. Even if where they are now is much worse than where they were before, they have a lot of national pride and want to do stuff and make a difference and have that perspective of, ‘If we don’t do it, who will?’”— Keach Hagey
- #1 Rock 'n Real Estate
- #2 Farm/Land
- #3 Showbiz
- #4 Violence & Conflict
- #5 Islands
- #6 Animals
- #7 The Subterraneans
- #8 After the Deluge
- #9 Boredom
- #10 Fear and Loathing
- #11 Medicine
- #12 Obsession
- #13 Migration
- #14 Revolution
- #15 Hidden In Plain Sight
- #16 Independence
- #17 Exploration
- #18 Education
- #19 Walls and Borders