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LONGER READ: Highland-based photojournalist Nick Sidle's prejudice-challenging Faces of Kabul presentation set for major online RSA showcase

By Hector MacKenzie

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Nick Sidle at his exhibition of Faces of Kabul at Eden Court. It is now poised for an online showcase. Picture Gary Anthony.
Nick Sidle at his exhibition of Faces of Kabul at Eden Court. It is now poised for an online showcase. Picture Gary Anthony.

THE inspiring work of a Highland-based photojournalist previously exhibited in one of the region's major art hubs is set for a prestigious online showcase.

Faces of Kabul, a powerful and thought-provoking photodocumentary by Nick Sidle, is the theme of an RSA online event on January 19.

The photostory was presented as an exhibition at Eden Court in Inverness in 2021 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It was opened by Kate Forbes MSP and was then shown at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery before touring across Scotland in smaller-scale installations.

It tells the human story of the people of Kabul and the surrounding areas of Afghanistan in the early months of 2002, shortly after the Taliban regime had fallen.

'Faces of Kabul' by Nick Sidle
'Faces of Kabul' by Nick Sidle

The story includes girls going back to school for the first time and the return of women in professional roles following the collapse of the regime making it particularly poignant and relevant now.

Following an introduction by Chief Imam Dr Sayed Razawi, director-general of the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society, Nick Sidle will reveal how the assignment was undertaken and the stories behind some of the images.

Special guests include Lt Col Helen Wildman, the highest ranking female officer in ISAF, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and whose special interest was the position of women. She is featured in some of the images.

Also contributing is Dr Zalmai Nishat. He was a schoolboy in Kabul at the time of the photostory and is now programme lead for Central and South Asia at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. He will bring a personal perspective to the story.

'Faces of Kabul' by Nick Sidle
'Faces of Kabul' by Nick Sidle

In March 2002, six months after 9/11, Sidle was one of the few western photojournalists given special access to tell a visual story of the world of Afghanistan at this historic period, just after the Taliban regime had ended. He was embedded with the soldiers of 1 Royal Anglian, who formed the British contingent of ISAF, the peacekeeping mission to support the country in the post-Taliban era.

The story he brought back was visually powerful and he was invited to tell it given the integrity of his approach as a photojournalist - not manipulating or staging images but telling a story with honesty and truth as it happens. During the period he was there, in following the soldiers in their day-to-day role and in contact with the Afghan people, he was able to capture ordinary life for the men, women and children in a period of intense social change as well as the work of the western forces.

This included, for example, the rebuilding of homes and de-mining the landscape.

Nick Sidle's photojournalism also charted the return to school of girls.
Nick Sidle's photojournalism also charted the return to school of girls.

Particularly relevant, was capturing images of girls going to school for the first time in years, and women returning to professional roles such as teachers. It was a story of hope, resilience and reflected an optimism about the future. The collision between east and west had influenced the pace of change which could be seen and felt.

The unique portrayal won international recognition and was presented at locations including the British Library in London, House of Commons, European Parliament in Brussels and prestige venues across the UK.

It has been credited with a significant role in challenging perceptions, particularly Islamophobia, noted to have increased significantly in the months post 9/11.

In 2020, Creative Scotland provided funding for Nick, as the individual artist, to produce a new exhibition, re-visiting this story with the purpose of presenting this in 2021, the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

It opens with New York, to set the scene for what was to happen next, the world of Kabul and surrounding areas and the interface of local people with the soldiers of ISAF.

No-one could have foreseen the historic events which unfolded in Afghanistan in August 2021 and the most recent changes affecting girls and women which has made this exhibition so timely and relevant now from a new angle.

It is a story of Afghanistan from a different perspective, with a reminder that beyond the politics and conflict, we must never forget the lives of ordinary people – lives not that dissimilar from our own. It is a moving story told through the power of images, and one which will take you into a world we have all seen through media coverage but will help you see it with new eyes.

Viewing Afghanistan from the relatively recent historical setting of 2002 is regarded by many as offering a route to help us explore, understand and empathise further with the same world today, particularly in the context of girls and women.

In this event, Sidle and the other guests will speak of the challenges of this photo assignment, the world of Afghanistan so close after 9/11 and the photostory’s continuing messages and relevance now.

The event will examine how images can impact on and change perceptions and the importance of telling a story with integrity and honesty.

Faces of Kabul, the exhibition, has been funded by Creative Scotland and sponsored by Dingwall-based charity, Heartstone. It is being supported by Glasgow Life, High Life Highland, Glasgow Afghan United, Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society and Interfaith Scotland.

Eamonn McCabe former picture editor of The Guardian and presenter of Britain in Focus, a history of photography, said about Faces of Kabul: "Documentary photographers are not after glamour but truth. What is happening in schools, with housing, with relationships? The photographs are not as stark as bombed towers and tanks on the streets, the tension may have gone from the faces of the locals.

"These pictures are hard to get published, the story has often moved on to another continent but the real story is the remarkable strength of people trying to rebuild their cities, their towns, their families.

"And this is where photographers like Nick Sidle come into their own."

Sitakumari at a reading circle event at Dingwall Library. Picture: Gary Anthony.
Sitakumari at a reading circle event at Dingwall Library. Picture: Gary Anthony.

Sitakumari, director of Heartstone, said: "Faces of Kabul is in keeping with everything we do in Heartstone which is why we are supporting it. It is about seeing people, not prejudice but in this case, Faces of Kabul has a further purpose, reminding us all of the events from which it all started 20 years ago, the sadness, tragedies and loss but also the hopes and dreams that were there at that time, especially for girls and women, allowing us, through the power of photojournalism, to step into the shoes of people who we may perceive as so different from ourselves, but in fact to come to the understanding that they are not."

RELATED: Dingwall story circle opens a new chapter

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