Photos give Afghan women a voice

January 10, 2008 (Boston Globe Correspondent): Most of the homes in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, have no street-side windows. It's too risky. Someone who is not a husband, brother, or father might catch a glimpse of the faces of women living inside - something strictly forbidden in the strict Muslim region.

Belmont photojournalist Paula Lerner, however, managed to peer behind the dusty mud-brick walls of the homes. In four trips to Afghanistan, she captured images of life in the landlocked, war-torn country, photographs that she hopes will help Americans understand a people who appear to be utterly remote and exotic.

Twenty-four of her photos are on display through Feb. 5 at the Belmont Gallery of Art. They include a shot of girls in white scarves, clasping hands on a Kabul street. There's a boy and his kite, with white-capped mountains rising behind him. There are women doing intricate embroidery called khamak, one of the few avenues of work for money open to Afghan women.

Lerner says she hopes her photos of ordinary people trying to find joy after decades of conflict will be a counterweight to the images of death and destruction found in more mainstream reports of Afghanistan.

"There is plenty of coverage of that. There isn't enough coverage of this," she said, gesturing at a shot of a balloon vendor riding a bike down a dusty Kabul street, a splash of color in an almost lunar landscape.

The exhibit of Lerner's Afghanistan photos (including an additional six in the Belmont Public Library) is being held in conjunction with the library's "One Book One Belmont" townwide reading program, which will focus on "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, a book set in Afghanistan.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Lerner will speak about her work. Accompanying her will be Rangina Hamidi, an Afghan woman who has been spearheading business programs for women in Kandahar and who helped introduce Lerner to Afghan women.

Lerner, a magazine and commercial photographer, became interested in Afghanistan through her volunteer work for the Business Council for Peace, or Bpeace, which helps women establish businesses in post-conflict regions.

In 2005, Lerner took her first trip to Afghanistan to help document the work of women supported by Bpeace. "Their goal was rebuilding their lives, but they were also rebuilding their country," she said.

Lerner, a married mother of two and a breast cancer survivor, was soon enthralled by and sometimes aghast at the life of women in the country. In Kandahar, "they live the society that the Taliban was trying to impose" throughout Afghanistan, she said. "There may be places where women are equally disadvantaged, but none more so than in Afghanistan."

While in Afghanistan, security was always an issue, but with the help of her local "fixer," Lerner tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible. She wore the local garb of baggy pants and a head scarf; her curly dark hair and olive complexion helped her blend in. Kandahar was, however, far more conservative than the relatively cosmopolitan Kabul, and there she had to conceal most of her face with a black chaderi when she ventured outside. Her feet, she acknowledged, with their urban Tevas, were a dead giveaway.

Her photos, as well as video and audio recordings that focused on the lives of five Afghan women, eventually were put together for a multimedia project on The Washington Post's website. Lerner sees herself as both a journalist and an advocate. "I make no bones about it," she said. "I think it's more interesting to take a point of view."

Afghanistan's fate has become closely intertwined with the foreign policy of the United States and yet, Lerner noted, "it's hard for us Americans to wrap our heads around the culture," but "it's vital for us to have a connection with that place."

One of her photos shows Afghan children - too young to know about Taliban or Russian rule - playing in a yard. While taking the photos, Lerner could see the impact of their innocent laughter on the face of her Afghan guide.

"It made a difference; it was healing. I could see it in front of me. That's what's so compelling about being in a place like that and telling those stories. It's not just living through all that but coming out the other end and being human again.

"Change the clothes and these could be our kids."