Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Paula Lerner's passion for photographing people has taken her from the Amazon to Afghanistan. Since 1985 she has been commissioned by a wide variety of national and international clients in addition to pursuing her own projects. Her editorial roster includes Smithsonian, People, Time, Newsweek, and Business Week among others, plus a host of European and Asian magazines. Among her corporate and advertising clients are Agfa, Bright Horizons, Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Children's Hospital Boston, The Annie E. Casey Foundation and The Commonwealth Fund. Her personal work has been shown in venues throughout the northeast and has been part of national traveling exhibits.
During 2005 and 2006, Paula traveled to Afghanistan three times to document the programs of the Business Council for Peace (a.k.a. Bpeace), an organization that helps women in post-conflict countries set up self-sustaining businesses. Her work earned her a VERA (Volunteer Excellence Recognition Award) from Bpeace in 2006. A multimedia feature of this body of work titled The Women of Kabul was published on The Washington Post web site in November of 2006, and was a Webby Award honoree. In 2007 and 2009 she traveled to Kandahar, the capital of southern Afghanistan, to work on a long-term project on women there. Her feature The Life and Death of Sitara Achakzai, about a prominent female Kandahari politician, was a Webby Award Honoree in 2010. Later that year she collaborated with the Toronto Globe and Mail to produce Behind The Veil, an Emmy-award winning multimedia feature about women in Kandahar, which was also a Webby Award Nominee and winner of a prestigious EPPY Award. In 2010 Paula, won EMMY Award for her work “Behind the veil” in collaboration with Toronto- based Globe and Mail.
SB. How did you become interested in the story, that later led you to the Emmy Award for your work "Behind the Veil"?
PL. Women's issues have been a theme in my work throughout my 25-year career. I began doing work in Afghanistan as a volunteer for a group called the Business Council for Peace, also known as Bpeace (www.bpeace.org), in 2005. My job was to document their programs, which help women establish and grow businesses in Afghanistan. The women's stories were very poignant, and I wanted to help bring them to a wider audience. Through Bpeace I met Rangina Hamidi, an Afghan-American woman who lives and works in Kandahar, capital of southern Afghanistan, and the Taliban homeland. She approached me to collaborate on a book about women in that city, and I was eager to agree. After making two trips to Kandahar in 2007 and 2009 to document women's lives there, I was approached by the Toronto Globe and Mail to collaborate on their multimedia feature about women in Kandahar titled, "Behind the Veil," which later won the Emmy Award for News and Documentary Programming.
SB. You went to Kandahar from a western culture. Did you find it difficult as a woman professional in Afghanistan?
PL. Afghanistan is a challenging place to work for many reasons. Since my topic was women's issues there, being a woman was an advantage, and allowed me access to places and people my male colleagues did not have. Men and women do not socialize together in Afghanistan, so being an outsider and a foreign woman put me in a unique position. A foreign woman in Afghanistan is something like being a third gender: as a woman, its okay for me to talk with Afghan men. As I am "outside" their culture the rules that apply to Afghan women don't apply to me in the same way. And, that I am middle-aged, married and the mother of two children gave me a place of respect and honor, which also helped. In addition, as a woman I am also free to talk to and spend time with women in Afghanistan in a way that foreign men are not. So being female per se was not difficult, but traveling there was certainly a different situation than traveling in other parts of the world.
SB. How did you relate to the Afghan woman? How were you able to get as close as you did to their private lives?
PL. It may not be obvious, but as women we had a lot in common. The first question out of their mouths when they met me was, "Are you married?" And the second question was "do you have children?" Marrying and being part of a family is a crucial way your status as a person is expressed in Afghanistan. Since I am both a wife and mother, we could relate to each other via this shared experience.
As for getting close to these women, one thing I've found in all my work documenting women's issues, whether it was with welfare mothers, breast cancer patients, or Afghan women, is that having someone come from far away sit down with you and attentively listen to your life story, is in and of itself a very validating experience for the one telling her story. The women in Afghanistan couldn't believe that I would travel halfway around the planet to sit on their living room floors to patiently and attentively listen to them talk about their lives. They suddenly realized that their story was *worth* listening to, and they themselves had more value than perhaps they realized. If I did nothing else by doing this work, just being able to give these women that sense of validation was valuable and made it all worthwhile.
SB. How did you meet Sitara Achakzai and how did you become friends?
PL. Sitara Achakzai was a Kandahari female politician who was one of only four women members of the Kandahar Provincial Council (an elected body not unlike state government here in the US). She was politically outspoken and a champion of her all constituents' rights, be they man, woman or child. Tragically, she was murdered by the Taliban on April 12, 2009.
I met Sitara through our mutual friend Rangina Hamidi. Since Rangina and I are doing a book project about women in Kandahar, we wanted to document women in all walks of life, and as an outspoken elected official Sitara represented an unusual part of the spectrum of women's experience. Rangina was a good friend of Sitara's, and when we asked her to participate in our project, Sitara agreed. I was in Kandahar for most of March of 2009, and spent a number of days with Sitara, documenting her life, and recording a two hour audio interview of her telling the story of her life. It was an intimate experience and we developed a close bond very quickly. I was horrified to learn only a month later that she was gunned down by the Taliban.
SB. Peter Howe, in his foreword for a "Moments of Time" by Dirck Halstead, calls photographer's work a moral and ethical minefield. Did you ever cross this field in Afghanistan?
PL. Yes. The main thing I had to be very careful and conscientious about was to avoid putting women at risk by photographing them or documenting them. Some women could be beaten or even killed for participating in our project. For that reason Rangina and I screened them very carefully, and we only approached those who we felt we would not endanger. And, if someone we approached did not want to be photographed or participate, we respected that and moved on. The result was that the only ones who could participate were women who had very open-minded men folk in their household who did not object to our project. Or, they were women who were widowed and had no man to stand in the way of their participation.
SB. We know very little about Afghan women. Do you feel as a mediator between cultures? Are your images a missing piece of information, which will help politicians to make better decisions about Afghanistan?
PL. Part of my personal mission with this work is to shine a light on Afghan women by telling their stories which are too often underreported in the mainstream Western media. Women in Afghanistan are in many ways invisible in their own country; they are even more of a black hole to us in the West. If we in the west are going to make policy that impacts people half way around the world in Afghanistan, then it is our duty to know something about them. If we know their names and their stories, these people are much harder to dismiss as nameless, faceless statistics to whom we have no personal connection. So yes, I do hope that my work will foster a better understanding about Afghan women in particular and Afghanistan in general, and that this will enable politicians to make better, more informed decisions about policy with regard to Afghanistan.
SB. During one of your presentations for this project you used the phrase: "A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one broken." What were you referring to?
PL. That is a quote from Zainularab Miri, a woman beekeeper and entrepreneur in Ghazni province, who has trained dozens of other women to be beekeepers. I interviewed her and did a multimedia feature about her called "Bee Business: Women Beekeepers in Afghanistan," which can be viewed online at this link:
She was quite poetic in her interview, and the whole quote is as follows:
"When opportunities are given to women, men also benefit and society improves. Men and women are like two wings of the same bird. With two wings, the bird can fly. But if one wing is hurt, then of course it cannot fly. Society needs the bird to have two wings." It was her beautiful, metaphorical way of saying that both women and men are important to Afghan society.
SB. Did you start this project as an investment in your career or was it a citizen reaction with no tolerance to abuse of women's dignity?
PL. I started this project as a photojournalist and multimedia producer with a passion for storytelling and for documenting women's issues. I was interested in Afghanistan because of the unique challenges women face in that country, and because so little work was being done on the full range of women's experience there. In the end it did turn out to also be an investment in my career, but that part was not the driving force behind it. It has been my repeated experience throughout my career that if I do a project because I am passionate about it, then somehow it does come back to help me professionally. However, I can never predict beforehand specifically how that may play out. But the initiative comes from the passion, not in the career investment.
SB. Why did you approach this project using multimedia? Is still photography not explicit enough?
PL. My first love is still images, and the beauty of that medium is what drew me to photography in the first place. But as a storyteller I find that still images alone are not enough to convey the full experience. It is very powerful to hear the audio of a woman telling her story in her own voice, accompanied by recordings of the ambient natural sound in a place. Seeing the images and hearing the sound together puts you in that location in a way that nothing else does, not even video. The combination of stills and sound creates a synergy that is far more powerful than either medium alone.
SB. Did doing this work change you?
PL. I think all our experiences have an impact on us and change us. The women's stories moved me profoundly. It would be impossible to do this work and not be changed by it. If nothing else I am more aware of their life experiences, and how we are more alike than we are different from one another.
After an event at the Governor's Palace commemorating International Women's Day, hundreds of women press in while waiting to receive gifts sponsored by USAID in honor of International Women's Day in Kandahar City. Unlike in the US where Women's Day passes with little notice, the date is celebrated widely in Afghanistan.