Life and Photography, Uliano Lucas

A photograph can live many lives. Depending on who sees it, how long ago it was taken and perhaps, above all, the way in which it is shown. That is what happens to these pictures, taken by Roberto Di Caro all of twenty years ago during his work as a correspondent journalist for L’Espresso from the hot-spots of the new millennium: Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Iraq, complex war zones that would redraw the geopolitical scenario for the years that followed. They were taken as notes by a reporter who loved photography and annotated his impressions of a distant, difficult world with his snapshots: meetings, sensations, contrasts, the realities of war and moments of daily life. They weren’t meant to be published: they can be viewed without contributing to a story, not linked to the news, not intended to cause a sensation, the way photographs from war zones are often required to do. They were occasionally used at the time to accompany the articles, and then never seen again, kept for years among the working materials of the journalist. Today they have found a new way to reach the world, new functions and reasons. They speak to us and question us in new ways. In 2019, an exhibition held in Bologna and a book wove them into fragments of articles and letters, painting a fresco of the reality of countries visited, through an intelligent mingling of words and pictures, allowing the viewers to see a common mode of narration made by brushstrokes, brief but intense descriptions of situations, meaningful, encompassing and free of rhetoric. The journalistic narrative becomes a literary story, accompanied by the visual counterpoint of photographs whose colors have begun to fade with time. The new video montage of the photographs on exhibition here takes us back to another plane of communication. It speaks to us with the language of empathy and immersion, opening the pictures to voyages of our imagination. What the story loses in information it gains in pathos. Through multiple exploration within each photograph, zooming in and out the way movie film editors used to do, and is now even easier with digital video-editing, we move within the image that reveals other photos in the photo, faces, expressions, landscapes and details. A skillful project of re-elaboration in film of the photograms, exploring all the spaces, lighting and actions depicted in an image, calling attention to the places and situations we might have overlooked, giving the photograph the gift of movement. It’s a reinvention of the photograph, a story that needs no text to be complete, but that has a life of its own, placing us alongside the photographer in the places he experienced, in the midst of harsh landscapes and people very distant from our culture, mentality, economy. The distance in time from what happened then, also enables us to redefine the function of the pictures: from historic documents and testimony to storytelling that is first literary and then cinematographic, with all the possible twists of meaning, the limits and potential that this repositioning implies.


Afghanistan is where the East meets the West and the North meets the south of the greatest of the continents. This has made it a sort of no man’s land, a country that in many ways functions as an anti-state, with respect to what we are used to. According to the most recent data, if we can believe them, the nomadic culture is a small minority from the statistical standpoint. But that certainly is not true from the political standpoint. Still today, with the various forms of their movements, the Afghans directly express the character of the entire country, whose economic unity, even more than its political unity, is based just on the integration between the desert, the
steppe and the mountains. Unlike the Mongol culture, for example, the originality of Islam among the mobile civilizations is based on the ability to reconcile urban and nomadic culture. But in Afghanistan, Islam has simply strengthened mechanisms already in place, as can be seen from the antiquity and stability of the most important cities, all founded before the arrival of the Arabs and all bearing the name of the river on whose banks they stand. As a proverb says: “in Kabul, better that
there should be no gold than no snow”, as a sign of the immediately dependence of all Afghan life on water, just as in India the country is ruled by the monsoon, in the sense that the rain, and thus life itself, depends on its whims. It is no coincidence that the beginning of the Afghan year corresponds to the beginning of spring, March 21 on our calendar, about when the snows start to melt: almost abruptly, the land is covered with a bright green carpet, but before the end of May the party is over and it returns to the familiar gray, brown and yellow tints of all the other days. Those are the colors of the dasht, the flat, rocky plains, perennially windswept, where almost nothing grows: on the Iranian highlands (of which according to geographers, Afghanistan is the eastern section) it is impossible ever to really leave the mountains, for one is always treading on the rocks, eventually reduced to sand, that roll down them. And they are the grimmest mountains in the world, dominated toward the east by the orographic node of Hindukush, the Paropàmiso of the ancient Greeks, the complex of chains which is the nervous system of all Afghanistan. Hindukush means “death of the Hindus”. Like the contiguous chain of the Himalayas, it is a barrier that separates not only populations, but an entire portion of humanity from another: on this side, i.e. in Afghanistan, Mohammad, on the other, in India, Kali, Shiva and Vishnu; over here grain, fruit, sheep that, added to the goats, are equal in number to the twenty-five million inhabitants; over there, grass, cattle; on this side shepherds, and the social organization controlled by the tribes; on that side farmers, the ordained sedentaries of the caste system. Just is it divides the Mohammedans from the Hindus, and the growers of sheep, goats and horses from the herders of cattle, and the men with white or yellow skin from those with dark skin, the Hindukush also separates the camel species, one from the other: to the north the camels with two humps, known as Bactrian because they originated in that region; in the south the dromedary with just one hump. Now camels are being replaced by trucks, but the number of humps remains decisive to understand the highly complicated cultural Afghan mosaic. We could say that the Hindukush performs a role of ethnic divide which is similar in its peremptory sharpness, to the role of a watershed, with crests that direct the flow of the rivers in one direction or the other. Although there are only two official languages, Pashto and Dari, which is a Persian dialect, more than thirty-five languages are spoken in Afghanistan, twelve of which are unknown outside its borders. This too is a condition that originates in the context of the Asian mountain range. The two- hump camel is the preferred means of transportation of the Turks, nomads of the frigid steppes and continental mountains of central Asia. Its surefooted gait is well suited to the rocky soil, cold doesn’t bother it but it can’t stand the heat. Just the opposite of the dromedary, taller and more fragile of foot, it suffers greatly in cold climates. These differences were decisive in the history of Islam’s spread through Asia: the Turks systematically sought the mountains while the Arabs just as systematically avoided them, at most surrounding them. In a land like Afghanistan, where the mountains and highlands dominate, where the polar temperatures of the highest peaks contrast with those of some of the world’s driest deserts, and where almost half the cultivated land requires irrigation, the movement of men and beasts is a spontaneous and ancient, inevitable and uneliminable form of soil use. The differences concern the radius of such movements, within the relationship that exists between the different economic activities: agriculture, herding, trade and the movement of goods. It is with regard to the originality of the Afghan structure that the world has to view its exceptional character, founded on the evolution of semi-nomadism toward the great nomadism of tribes like the Pathani that, as soon as the snow began to melt, went up to the mountain pastures around Kabul from Qandahar in the west and Jalalabad in the east, but also from the Indo basin in Pakistani territory, in a sort of continuous symbiosis with the more stable economies. This is the most obvious remnant today of the process of actual Beduinization, i.e. nomadization, which began in Medieval times and culminated with the catastrophe of the Mongol invasion, and which only in the last half century has begun to show signs of tapering off. Once typical of the entire Turkish-Iranian world, in Afghanistan the process slowed much later than elsewhere, and has become the foundation of modern Afghanistan. The Afghan national state is configured, from the standpoint of western – but not only western – history, as an authentic paradox, because Beduinization means transformation of the population from sedentary to nomadic or, (as in the case of the Hazara) control by nomads over the agricultural activity, while the modern centralized territorial state implies stability, the stable residency of the citizens, i.e. sedentarity. In Afghanistan, land of the meeting between the nomads of central Asia and those of the Middle East, but also a country physio-graphically closed and semi-isolated, the modern Nation was born backwards, in reverse with respect to what happened elsewhere. This is the main reason, even more than its historic function of buffer state between Russia and the West, for the profound interest the country continues to arouse from the geopolitical standpoint, continuing implicitly, by its mere existence, i.e. by virtue of its material and cultural structure, to pose the question: is another nation genetically possible here? Or, and it is the same question: are the modern national bodies most faithful to the original territorial model destined to change? One thing is certain: the more time passes, the more the entire world is called upon to change its idea, once central for the construction of all modern culture and political structure, of the immobility of a country’s inhabitants. It is like saying that only when we are able to accept the existence of that which is the most different, indeed exotic, with respect to ourselves, will we be able to think about our future: if nothing else, that is the great interrogative lesson posed by the existence of Afghanistan. A truly precious thing at a time like this.


“Invasion Drama” is a photographic exhibition curated by Laura Andreini, in collaboration with Forma Edizioni. A story told through images, taken by journalist Roberto Di Caro, of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 to 2009, a travel diary of hope, anger, resignation, through images from the front, writings, artefacts and music. An everyday life that is hard to imagine flows through the shots: an Afghanistan that has been without peace for decades, the mujaheddin at the front, the surrender of the Taliban stronghold of Kunduz, the fighting against Al Qaeda in Kurdistan, the frenzy of the return to normality in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, the attacks in Baghdad. Behind every face there is a story, a wound, a redemption. The attempt is also to show the other face of conflicts made not only of kalashnikovs and tanks, but of people, ordinary life, children, women and men in territories destroyed by bombs in wars that seem to have no end. Comparing two realities, Afghanistan and Iraq, making them dialogue on various themes, nomadism, war, cities, archaeology and others. In order to bring an account of the complexities and contradictions of conflicts whose coordinates, reasons and possible ways out are all too often overlooked. Unrepeatable situations experienced by the reporter, a work of almost a decade dissected and enclosed in the space of Rifugio Digitale.


It is an attitude of the body and a state of mind: you can read it in the faces of the refugees who return on camel back to their villages, in the features of the mujahideen who go mocking the battle, in the gait of women and children in the light of the desert.


At the Kunduz front the mujahideen shoot, kill, die, but it is Ramadan, no one eats, drinks, smokes until sunset. The surrender of the mullah and six hundred Taliban is a simple changed sides. Von Clausewitz would turn in his grave, but this is their war, not his.


Prisoners, the last who chose to fight: but no revenge from the crowd, no lynching attempt. Killed, the foreigners of Al Qaeda: but even for them there is respect, looks without hatred, a blanket to hide their bodies.


When you are born inside an endless war there is no distinction with the everyday. You play on a tank carcass, murals show you mines to avoid, on the front line little girls shell rice put out to dry on the road.


Prisoners, the last who chose to fight: but no revenge from the crowd, no lynching attempt. Killed, the foreigners of Al Qaeda: but even for them there is respect, looks without hatred, a blanket to hide their bodies.


At the fall of the Taliban, a chaotic metropolis of two million inhabitants close to the mountains, rows of yellow taxis, the tingling of commerce, booksellers among the signs of destruction, beggars, bazaars on the shores of smelly waters. In 2005, first elections, women in parliament.


Musalla minarets, the Friday Mosque, the fortified Citadel whose origins date back to Alexander the Great. Repeatedly sacked, destroyed by Tamerlane, it was his son Shah Rukh who made the city of Herat “the Florence of the East,” capital of arts and commerce.


A correspondent of the weekly magazine L’Espresso, winner of the Ecole Instrument de Paix ‘for information in defence of human rights’, he has followed some of the main international crises of the past decades, Iran, Russia, Ukraina, Caucasus, Turkey, Pakistan, Sudan, Haiti. In 2001 the conflict in Afghanistan on the Northern Alliance front, in 2003 the war in Iraq and the convulsive post-war period. He teaches Reportage at the master’s degree in journalism at the Alma Mater in Bologna.


A people, first of all: language, traditions, customs, clothes. Fierce and proud. Respectful of women. Tolerant. Combative. Internally quarrelsome, it is true. Mocked by history, oppressed by enemies, betrayed by friends, even today. And never recognised by anyone.


Fratricide. Sectarian. Of invasion. Between foreign powers on Iraqi soil. To overthrow a tyrant, of course, but without knowing what to do next, how to move in a complex society, how to build an acceptable democracy, in short how to win the peace.


Saddam Hussein, the father of the fatherland, the leader, the victorious, hailed on walls, in stone mausoleums, even on fashionable clothes. In one day, shot down, obliterated, mocked: a devil in earrings, the ace of spades in the deck of the wanted.


Iraqi dinars are worthless, they are exchanged by weight. Six dollars for 20 litres of petrol, 100 for a Kalashnikov, the stock exchange closed for a year. In the streets people live, demonstrate, die in attacks. Between controls and barbed wire.


Of boys precociously indoctrinated into jihad. Of women protesting and others fighting. Of girls celebrating the liberation of Kirkuk. Of fathers and sons and venerable elders. And of actresses playing Camus in the stricken and still smouldering Rashid Theatre.


Deserted, in the early days of the American occupation. Suddenly chaotic again, swarming with trade and commerce from the Tigris River to the “thieves market”. The queues for cards and subsidies. And the distribution of drinking water, which the mullah claims is “poisoned by infidels”.


Artefacts at the mercy of thieves in Baghdad museum. Plundered by marauders Ur, the birthplace of civilisation. Blown up by Isis, temples and walls of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and of the Seleucid Hatra. In Samarra, the golden dome of the Shiite mosque of Al Askari was destroyed by sunni terrorists.