Hey guys, Andy here. As my project to publicise the plight of Afghan interpreters fleeing Afghanistan and their resettlement in the UK nears its conclusion I believe now is an appropriate time to talk about the portraits and why I am presenting the final portraits in the manner that I am.
When I started the project some months ago, entitled ‘We Are Here Because You Were There’ conducted with Sara de Jong, with support from the University of York, who completed the interviews while I took the portraits, there was already a potential risk of life to the interpreters due to their service with the British Army and other NATO forces; thus the need to evacuate them from their homeland and resettle them in the UK. While they may not have officially served in the British, or any other, Army the interpreters wore the uniforms of the countries they worked for and unlike British soldiers who completed six month tours of duty, the interpreters were often in post for years. Many interpreters suffered injury though gunshot wounds or IED bombings with few given compensation and were forced to spend their earnings on medical treatment on these wounds sustained while serving with the British. As such it is only fitting this is recognised as service.
The interpreter positions were originally seen as prestigious as they required education and were financially well compensated. As the NATO presence in Afghanistan continued this opinion changed with neighbours informing on their fellow Afghans to the Taliban and calling the wages ‘dirty money’. The Taliban often called the interpreters ‘the eyes and ears of the British Army’ and deliberately targeted them in combat in order to reduce the effectiveness of the NATO troops. This betrayal by their fellow countrymen was later exacerbated by the lengthy and, often, incompetent evacuation efforts with many interpreters left behind in Afghanistan.
Certificates were awarded to the interpreters by every unit they worked with and considered proof of duty and highly prized. Since gaining power the Taliban have started house searches looking for documents, such as these certificates, and photographs as evidence of collusion with Western powers. Families found with such documents potentially face daughters forcibly married and the males of the family beaten, stabbed and sometimes killed, leaving the family with no breadwinners. Thus these certificates and photographs have been burned. When the interpreters came to the UK they travelled with their families which, according to the UK, included their wives and children. However the definition of family, according to Afghan interpretation, includes parents and siblings. All of the interpreters I met still have family in Afghanistan, many of whom are living in hiding, thus with the situation in Afghanistan clearly being risky, there is an impact as to how I present the portraits of the interpreters and to protect the identities of those who I have photographed as it may impact on the lives of loved ones unable to escape.
My standard portrait session takes two hours and I pride myself on clean and emotive portraits. I start with conversation to build a relationship and rapport in order to aid a person show emotional honesty in the image. This process was accelerated for my portraits of the interpreters as I explained, when first meeting them, that I had served in Afghanistan, that I speak (now broken) Farsi and that my mother was also a war refugee; she and her family had fled to the USA at the end of the Vietnam War. This combined with the portraiture coming after the interviews meant there was a certain amount of trust and empathy with the interpreters who were already mentally and emotionally situated.
In technical terms I carried a flash and umbrella in order to try and get as much right ‘in camera’. It was impossible for me to achieve the images I wanted relying solely on ambient light. With some portraits taking place at 1800 hours in winter, some using doors and doorways to achieve a white background, flash lighting was the only way I could be consistent with the portraiture.
The portraits themselves are composites of up to a dozen individual frames. I go through my standard process with each frame to ensure the clean look I want. Do I need to, knowing that any defects will be hidden during the composite process? No, however I am a perfectionist and I would know if the layers had any unresolved faults or mistakes. The range of emotions in these individual frames is clear and show hope in one second to despair in the next; unfortunately, due to reasons already stated, I am unable to show these frames.
I then anonymise each frame using five different blurring techniques and a pixelation technique for a total of six processes. These processes destroy any fine detail in the faces and can be seen as inflicting trauma onto the portraits in acknowledgement to the trauma experienced by the interpreters during their service, their evacuation from Afghanistan and often by their current resettlement situation which is a post code lottery in regard to support. However even without the fine detail the interpreters are still recognisable in the individual frames; it is only when combined that anonymity is achieved.
These 12 frames which combine to make the final portraits offer variety of angle, direction and scale and are then imperfectly overlaid in Photoshop at different opacities to either enhance or decrease features. Adjustments in curve, levels, brightness and exposure were then the final touches. Take similar looking portraits or overlay them well and the interpreters were clearly identifiable. Conduct the overlay badly and the final portrait was a mess. Thus there was a significant time investment in each portrait; time to edit each frame and then time to bring them altogether and fine tune the myriad of variables some of which caused a significant difference and sometimes no visible difference at all.
When I first tried this technique it was as an experiment and I initially excluded one element of a face, be it an eye, cheek, or an ear, from the blurring process leading to a Frankenstein- esque result. The following iteration included overlaying the composite on top of a portrait that had not been blurred at all. In both instances I was keen to acknowledge trauma but equally wanted the interpreter to be identifiable with the process adding a certain visual depth to the portraits as, during this stage of the project, I eschewed the anonymous results. It is important to note that during this time the Taliban had not yet started their house searches so anonymity was not as important as it later became. When the issue became vital it was clear which path the portraits should take however up until then I did not have the confidence in myself and thought the rationale behind the process was pretentious. It was only during the final interviews that I came to opinion that inflicting trauma onto the frames offered an appropriate and accurate portrait of those represented. Ultimately it was key to process the images thus in order to gain permission to photograph the interpreters with one asking for the blurring process to be increased.
Anonymising a portrait is not something I undertake lightly but the old school, pre digital method, of drawing a thick black line across a face does not cut the mustard in an age of facial recognition and biometrics. Like a lot of photography there is a balance to achieve an effect; in this case between personality, emotion and identification.
I’d like to thank Sara de Jong for being an invaluable partner in crime for this project; I can not imagine doing this solo. I’d also like to thank the Department of Politics at the University of York for their financial support.