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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.

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