I just found this podcast in Magnum Photos archive that shows a collection of portraits of young Taliban men and boys that photographer Thomas Dworzak discovered in a photo studio in Afghanistan in 2001. As journalist Ahmed Rashid explains in the commentary, these photos are brilliant because photography was banned under the Taliban regime, and these young men display their desire to be made up and photographed. A desire that was repressed by the strict Taliban regime.
Rashid also mentions Afghan homosexuality and an old tradition where older men adopted younger boys as their apprentices and sort of lovers. That tradition is something you see hinted at in the works of sufis and saints of the region as well as in tales about their relationships with their most favored disciples. Lining eyes with kohl is another popular ancient tradition of South Asia followed by men and women alike, which is perceived as a solely feminine custom by people from other cultures.
Whether it is a complicated form of male camaraderie or a more complex idea of gender identity, however you view it, the photos are beautiful with a very retro quality to them. The makeup, plastic flowers, guns and painted backgrounds show the intricacies of cultural traditions, religion and gender identity. Something we all fail to pay much attention to when we talk about how the Taliban are a physical manifestation of evil. I can’t help but wonder how the layers of images and narratives once repressed by oppressors get hidden a second time when we see people in terms of flat, uni-dimensional identities.
I don’t have too much to add to these images except that I keep viewing them over and over again, and continue to be fascinated by the deep human desire for recognition, need for representation and a wish to be a part of the spectacle.