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August 1, 2010

Beyond the Cover: Further Thoughts on TIME’s “Women of Afghanistan”

Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME
Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

Beyond the controversial cover, I’ve been looking at the rest of Jodi Bieber’s photos for TIME of the “Women of Afghanistan” — especially this image of Zohal Sagar.  The caption reads:

Sagar lost her father and two brothers in the war. Her mother hopes they can leave Afghanistan and find a new life in Canada.

I believe what Bieber is doing is emphasizing a little girl’s longing for fancy — which could only take root and flourish if she were free from the tyranny of war and the soul-crushing (if not physically annihilating) asceticism of the Taliban. If that’s what Bieber is going for with the ethereal light, the party girl outfit, the flamboyant shoes and the forest having its way with the man-made pathway, then Zohal’s not-so-happy expression and the fantastical quality of the setting certainly emphasizes the difference, driving home how much Zohal, oppressed by Afghanistan, suffers from her own  imagination.

Here’s where I’m skeptical about, however.

I’m wondering how much the wildness and sensuality in a photo like this serves to foster empathy for a child in today’s Afghanistan versus how much it lifts Zohal from the world she occupies and splices her into a stylish, Westernized fantasy scene that hip and media-sophisticated consumers would not only find more familiar, but could also take possession of — as if Zohal has been rescued by Anna Wintour and transported onto the runway of a “disaster chic” fashion show.

I should emphasize, I’m more than happy to entertain Zohal’s fancy.  I’m just afraid of doing it more on our terms than hers.

Women of Afghanistan slide show.

  • black dog barking

    A hundred years ago Frank Baum’s Dorothy hiked a yellow brick road (possibly gold) to the Emerald City. Twenty-first century Dorothy’s road looks like a horizontal blast wall, ill maintained. Destination: Heart of Darkness.

    Nothing in this photo says Afghanistan to me except the caption.

  • robert e

    While I agree with the thesis of this post, it needs to be said that the cover shot and this particular photo are not typical of Bieber’s series, at least what I can see of it on While all her shots seem carefully composed and posed, most of the photos are exemplary environmental portraits, often finding a way to express both individual spirit and the power of society and circumstances to shape lives, without trying to glamorize or dramatize the situation.

    Bieber and Steve McCurry share the same talent and curse: they take on difficult stories and produce gorgeous, thoughtful photographs, but do so with western eyes, western sensibilities, and for western patrons and editors who serve western audiences. Time’s cover may be a clumsy and sleazy attempt to exploit the sociological dynamics of National Geographic’s “Afghan Girl” cover, but it shows an understanding of at least the crude outline of those dynamics. Would the original have had such an impact if it did not exemplify western notions of physical and aesthetic beauty?

    Is it wrong to try to appeal to one culture’s norms in trying to tell a story about another? To some extent, it can’t be helped and is necessary, but obviously it can go too far. Bieber’s series in Time straddles that line.

    But the more important and worrisome story is how these photographs were used by Time. As comments on Time’s site rightly point out, the story paints the Taliban as the only villains, ignoring other powerful groups within Afghanistan that harshly oppress women but happen to be US allies. To that I would add that the story also ignores the well-documented tendency of war–indeed it is a tradition of war–to unleash violence especially against women.

  • cmac

    Even in Afghanistan, little girls have dreams. They only lose them when they reach puberty.

    Culturally, women have always struggled there, and more so in the remote villages. Their lives became much harder under the Taliban, and were relatively better when the Taliban were removed from power. As one of the women in Bieber’s collection says, you can’t compare women’s lives in Afghanistan to women’s lives in Europe or the US. You have to compare their lives in 2000 to their lives in 2010; they made gains which will be lost if the Taliban regain their hold on the government.

  • vortexgods

    Let me say:

    1. If it were possible to turn Afghanistan into Canada with some level of effort that was not “impossible” or “Destroy your own civilization while doing it” or “kill 90% of the Afghani’s first” I might say “go for it.” However, we can’t turn Afghanistan into Canada, and if that’s what we are trying to do we won’t succeed.

    2. Actually, we are pursing the narrow interests of politically connected people in Afghanistan. I refuse to even call it national interest since the U. S. Government hasn’t operated in the National Interests in decades. We are not over there to save children, or even to pursue the somewhat narrow goal of rolling up Al Qaeda. We are there because some already rich people can gain even more wealth from the enterprise, the main purpose of the U. S. Government in the modern era.

    3. I hope this girl is able to escape to civilization. Yes, I am agreeing that Afghanistan is uncivilized and that it’s culture is inferior to Canada’s culture.

    • cmac

      Why should we turn Afghanistan into Canada? Afghanistan would be happy to be the Afghanistan that existed before the Taliban took over. Once upon a time it had a vibrant culture of its own. Yes, our western sensibilities will always be offended by the extreme authoritarian-paternalism which seems to lurk at the heart of most Arab and Persian cultures, but whether or not Afghanistan becomes a clone of Canada should be up to the Afghan people. The most we should hope to do is set them back on their pre-Soviet-invasion feet and let them work out their own future.

      I’m not saying that hope is realistic. I’m saying it’s as far as our goals for the country should go.

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