Forgotten faces of Afghanistan
In 1953, Yvonne von Schweinitz set off from Switzerland for Afghanistan. She took hundreds of pictures that show how rich and multi-faceted the country is. They are currently on show for the
first time in Berlin.
People stand, calmly observing, as if frozen in time. Even the children are calm as they stare at a foreigner, a blonde woman in a summer dress, who has made her way into their midst to photograph the square in front of the superb fortress in Gardez in eastern Afghanistan.
Surprised faces, a self-confident little boy, a donkey standing behind a man and a bicycle in the background - all caught on a photograph taken by Yvonne von Schweinitz over 50 years ago.
The young woman started her journey in Zurich in a comfortable station wagon accompanied by the Swiss photographer Hans v. Meiss-Teufen and a Rolleiflex, a Leica M3 and a Polaroid.
They spent seven months travelling through Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Iran and finally Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Yvonne von Schweinitz's photos were never exhibited before. Upon her return, they were stored in the archive of photographer Willy Prager with whom she had worked during her studies in Freiburg/Breisgau.
After his death, they became part of his photo collection at the state archives of Baden-Württemberg.
And then fate came into play. One of von Schweinitz's cousins told journalist and curator Claus Friede about the photos. His curiosity was aroused and he managed to get access to the archive where he found hundreds of photos and negatives, which had been carefully cataloged by country and stored in thick brown envelopes.
Friede and his colleague Mathias von Marcard were impressed with von Schweinitz's pictures. It showed a different Afghanistan - not one that was not dominated by war, troops and attacks, but a peaceful one with a vast richness and variety in culture.
At the time of Schweinitz's trip, it was easier to access remote regions - travelling on dirt roads and camping out in the open air was safe. The people she came across were open and curious. She communicated with them in smatterings of the local language, improvising with sign language. And she photographed them.
Depicting richness and variety.
Her pictures capture proud nomads, men selling water in the streets of Kabul, scribes, veiled women, swordsmen, markets, people drinking tea, cemeteries, areas for washing horses and carts, ruins, the desert, vineyards and giant statues carved into a cliff - the Buddhas of Bamiyan - that would be destroyed by the Taliban almost 50 years later.
They show how multi-faceted Afghanistan is with its different peoples, traditions, customs, monuments, cities and villages.
They also capture the scars left on the country throughout its turbulent history - traces of wars, conquerors and earthquakes - and relics left behind by various occupiers and traders passing through such as Indian musical instruments, a Russian samovar and a Singer sewing machine.
There are pictures too of the Kajaki Dam - an early example of development aid - that helps provide water to a large stretch of desert.
In the end, the viewer gets an impression of how rich and varied Afghanistan is - a distant cry from the images that have now dominated the news for years.
The Freundeskreis Willy-Brandt-Haus is presenting some 120 photos in their "Yvonne von Schweinitz: Faces of Afghanistan" exhibition that is on in Berlin until the end of May.