A Woman With A Voice
In 2004, Canadian photographer Lana Slezic was meant to go to Afghanistan for only six weeks on assignment for Canadian Geographic Magazine. She wound up staying two years, and in that time captured timeless, hauntingly beautiful and profound images on the plight of Afghan women. Her book, “Forsaken,” is an evocative and realistic portrayal into the lives of the millions of women who have no voice. The WILD interviewed the enigmatic and talented photographer from her home in New Delhi.
Currently working on a series of stories about the homeless, the infamous slums, and arranged marriages, Slezic has been based in India for over three years, with her projects keeping her there for at least three more years. Having come from a family of doctors, photographic journalism wasn’t the obvious career path for Slezic. But while traveling through Asia after university, with a little Pentax camera and dozen rolls of film her father had given her, Slezic felt she had “made an intense connection with the lens.” Sitting in an Internet café in India, she immediately started researching art schools in Canada. Graduating a mere year later from Loyalist College, Slezic went freelance after a couple of stints at the Globe and Toronto Star.
Slezic has spoken previously about her time in Afghanistan and on her decision to focus solely on women in her book, “Forsaken.” “Gradually I found my curiosity about women and girls growing. The stories I began to learn horrified me, made me angry, confused and ultimately gave fuel to the fire that was brewing somewhere between my conscience and center of gravity.
Because I am a woman, there was also a very natural gravitation toward wanting to document the plight of women in Afghanistan. Women understand each other, almost without having to say anything at all. It is something innate, warm, forgiving and otherwise indiscernible.”
The dangers facing a freelance journalist or photographer, particularly a female in Afghanistan, are many. Without the safety of a staying in a news bureau, Slezic had to go out in the field to interview the women she photographed, often with only her female translator.
“There were definitely times I was in danger, but I had luck on my side.” The time she spent in Afghanistan left a lasting impression on Slezic and she says that “so many of the women that I photographed I think about all the time. One of the women was assassinated by the Taliban. When she died, it was like I lost a member of my family. It makes you feel like despite everything, there is no justice.”
There are no simple solutions to improve women’s conditions in Afghanistan, and the role of NGOs, human rights organizations and the international community is convoluted at best. Slezic was exposed to a much more localized, intimate knowledge of the lives of many Afghan women, and witnessed shocking events unfolding before her, despite the Taliban being overthrown in 2001 and George W. Bush stating that the Afghan women were now ‘free’. Slezic says, “Most Afghan women and girls understand all too well the concept of fear and subservience. As human beings it is our responsibility to not only see and hear, but to listen and act. Every human being deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Her thoughts on the role of the international community are that we need to “support the people of Afghanistan, to help them to help themselves. In this region in particular, the biggest issue for everybody is security. People need to feel safe. As we know, in many parts, the lack of education and illiteracy, (over 90 percent of women in Afghanistan cannot read) means women don’t even know that life could be different. However, it’s a highly debated topic as to whether or not international intervention is actually helpful.”
As western women, we are incredibly blessed to live in countries where our rights are fiercely defended. Unfortunately, we often take our rights for granted and forget about the millions of women and children around the world who do not have those same freedoms. “We can read a story in the newspaper about a ten year old Indian child addicted to drinking shoe polish [a story Slezic is working on] and think, ‘that’s horrible, how sad’, but then put the newspaper down, go to work, take care of our families and just carry on with the day, because it’s not a reality for us. I’m surrounded by women and children who are the poorest in the world, and I cannot escape that reality. There is complacency for people to ignore what is in front of them. It’s not until someone sees something, does it become a reality. What I try to do is bring that image to them. If I can capture beautiful and palatable images, it brings a serious issue to the ground.” As a western woman, photographer, mother and wife, Slezic brings conflict and tragic beauty together in a way that people from every corner of the world can connect. When asked about where Afghanistan is headed now, and if the situation for Afghan women has improved, Slezic responded, “I was back in Afghanistan this past June, shooting a short film for an NGO. Even in Kabul, you can see the security has deteriorated. The situation has gotten worse. Afghanistan is only half a country, because only half its population is allowed to be free. Women need to take it upon themselves to make the changes, but when so many forces are against them, it’s hard to see how change will happen, even with international presence. The complication of the situation is immense. There needs to be a cultural change, and it needs to come from within. Afghanistan needs to evolve, but it has to happen very slowly.”
Lana Slezic has too many WILD wishes to count, but the most significant to her were these: ”I wish I could read the newspaper without getting upset. I wish people would care and love each other more, and behave in ways that would reflect that. And I wish it would snow in New Delhi. I miss the snow."
All images courtesy of Lana Slezic.