2010 professional winner
This project will examine the cultural, historical and contemporary significance of Kandahar and its people within the region and the current Afghan state.
Pashtuns are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and dominate the province and city of Kandahar, which is the spiritual and former political capital of the Taliban movement lead by Mullah Mohammad Omar. Kandahar has always been at the center of all crossroads through this region of Asia for centuries. Ahmad Shah Durrani is credited with establishing the modern nation state of Afghanistan in 1747 and made Kandahar the first capitol of what would eventually become the Afghan state we know today.
Alexander the Great founded Kandahar around 330 BC and ever since it has been at the center of conflict for centuries, as various empires have fought over its strategic location within Asia. Almost every major empire has fought to control or tame Kandahar including Ghengis Khan and his Mongol army, the British Empire, Soviet Russia and now a US lead NATO force. Looking at the region from another view, it was here that a group of religious students formed a militia in the 1990’s and within a short period of time took over almost the entire country calling themselves the Taliban. It is also here that Osama Bin Laden set up his headquarters and training camp at Tarnak Farms where the attacks of 9/11 were believed to have originated. Kandahar has many lush green zones and was once known as the breadbasket of Afghanistan for it’s agricultural production around the Arghandab River. It is in the summer during what many call “the Fighting Season” in these green zones that some of the most violent and bitter fighting takes place in the country.
Flash forward to the past several years and it is here in 2006 that the insurgency attempted to launch an assault on Kandahar City signaling the beginning of a new and reborn insurgency. Ever since, the insurgency has spread. It is here that I believe the world must focus to understand the people, their hopes and needs to find a path to end this conflict. There is no single place in the world that can equal or share the unfortunate timeline of war and destruction that Afghanistan has experienced for so long. Afghanistan is one of the few and only countries in the world that has never had a rail line. The majority of the people draw water from wells and rivers and have no electricity or running water. Most Afghans live in mud walled compounds that look like scenes from biblical times. Few Afghans know their age as record keeping has been virtually destroyed by decades of fighting.
I began my journey to document the situation in Kandahar in 2006 and have been going back every year since. I believe the answers to finding a path to a stable Afghanistan is in understanding the land and it’s people first, not only the insurgency and their methods of warfare. This project will seek to go further into many distant districts to document the cultural and social fabric of villages centuries old and their tribal and ethnic affiliations. Many villages I have been to have never met a journalist and don’t even understand what a journalist does. I have come to know the region well and have all the contacts to work independently from the military. As a balance, I will also explore the current NATO military mission and system to see if their manner is helping or harming the region as a continuous cycle of century old foreign interference. Is it possible to “fix” Afghanistan is one of the questions I will explore in contrast to “winning” in Afghanistan as most foreign governments involved in the conflict have focused on.
Many have called Afghanistan “the graveyard of empires”, but perhaps it more the graveyard of predictions and commitment to rebuilding on the part of the rest of the world. As the birthplace of the country and many of the country's current ills, Kandahar is where I believe many of our questions can be answered or at least explained and understood. This is where I propose to make a series of new pictures beyond just the war so we can actually understand the people most of the world is attempting to help and, in some cases, fight at the same time.
Louie Palu's work has appeared in numerous books, catalogues, festivals and exhibitions internationally, which includes being selected for the photojournalism festival Visa Pour L'Image in Perpignan, France eight times (2004-11), Internationale Fototage in Mannheim/Ludwigshafen in Germany, George Eastman House, Ping Yao Festival in China, Fotografia International Festival of Rome, Centrum for Fotografi in Stockholm, Sweden, The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and was selected for the 2009 New York Photo Festival and CONTACT Photography Festival.
Louie is the recipient of numerous awards including a National Magazine Award, Critical Mass Book Award, Hasselblad Master Award, Best of Photojournalism Award from the NPPA, Silver Medal from the Society of Newspaper Design and multiple awards from the White House News Photographers Association. In 2009 he was awarded an Aftermath Grant for a project on veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Hearst Photography Biennial Award and Canadian Photojournalist of the Year. In 2010, Louie was awarded the Alexia Foundation Photography Grant for World Peace and Cultural Understanding for a project on Kandahar, Afghanistan and is a 2011 Bernard L Schwartz fellow with the New America Foundation.
Q.List your accomplishments, awards and interests since the Alexia grant.
A.New America Foundation, Bernard L. Schwartz Fellowship for a study on Mexico
Awards from the White House News Photographers Association
Finalist for the Sondheim and Aperture Prizes
Q.How has the Alexia grant influenced your career?
A.It influenced my career greatly. It allowed me the time and energy to focus on my Kandahar project at a critical point of covering the conflict and building my body of work on the subject. Many people site the Alexia Foundation as a respected and well known organization that supports unique projects and independent photographers who work mostly off the radar of well known and popular publications and photo agencies.
Q.How did your project lead to greater exposure or solutions for your issue of focus?
A.The project combined with the Alexia Grant combined to give further exposure to a place, a people and an aspect of the conflict in Afghanistan that had pretty much been overlooked in a critical area of the region bridging the Middle-East and Asia. The resulting body of work was published extensively, including in the Atlantic and by the BBC.
Q.Tell us about a moment from the project that you will never forget.
A.Stepping on or very near a land mine that did not explode until after I had walked past it.
Q.Have you, or do you plan on expanding your project? How so?
A.Yes I hope to find more money to go back to Kandahar next year to document the draw down and exit of western armies from the region and what that means for the Afghan civilians and soldiers there.
Q.How has being a part of the Alexia community changed the way you view the world?
A.It has given me the privilege of being associated with and learning from some of the brightest minds in the world hoping as a collective community to inform and create dialogue on world pressing issues that involve cultural understanding and world peace.
An Afghan man sleeps by the final check point manned by Afghan Border Police (ABP) by the border between the city of Chaman, Pakistan and Wesh, Afghanistan located in Spin Boldak District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. The route through Spin Boldak is a significant ancient trade route and one of the most significant economic corridors in the country as it leads south to the Port of Karachi. This controversial modern border was created in 1893 by the British Empire and reflects what is known as the Durand Line which split the ethnic Pashtun Lands. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
Afghan children swim, bath and play in a canal in the heart of Kandahar City, Afghanistan. Most residents of Kandahar have no running water and rely on canals and wells for their water needs. Many residents in Kandahar have very little access to basic utilities as the infrastructure of the city has collapsed under the weight of years of conflict and poverty. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
US soldiers prepare to search a karez in Maywand (Maiwand) District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. A karez is an underwater irrigation canal system that is widely used throughout Kandahar to irrigate the many lush green zones. The farmland of Kandahar is best known for it. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
Afghan boys play on swings in Dand District South of Kandahar City, Afghanistan. In 2009, this district teetered on the verge of collapse as insurgents operated freely, intimidating and terrorizing the local population and government officials. Although it is not completely secure, a long term counterinsurgency (COIN) operation implemented by Canadians turned the area around. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
Flying over the harsh landscape of Panjwaii (Panjwa'i) District south of Kandahar City, Afghanistan. The harsh landscape of Kandahar has made living and fighting in this region more difficult than in almost any other place in the world. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
Young boys memorize the Qur'an (Koran) and bob their heads back and forth as they recite passages in Arabic in a Madrasah (Madrassa), which means school in Arabic. In the west, a Madrasah usually refers to an Islamic religious school often misunderstood as a place that produces religious extrememists. A Madrasah is a place where mostly young men go to learn the Qur'an and many go on to become Imam's, which are spiritual leaders in mosques and communities. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
Afghans bake bread aka Nan-e Afghani in a bakery in Kandahar City, Afghanistan. This oval shaped bread is baked in a tandoor, which is a cyndrical clay oven. Bread is a staple food for all Afghans and the center piece of each meal. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
Canadian soldiers question young fighting age males and search for improvised explosive devices in the volatile village of Chalghowr located in Panjwaii District, an insurgent haven Southwest of Kandahar City, Afghanistan. The US lead NATO troops have a difficult time trying to identify insurgents from civilians as the Taliban operate amongst the population. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
A woman in a burqa walks amongst vendors stalls in one of the many bazaars in the sprawl of Kandahar City, Afghanistan. Kandahar City is the second largest city in the country and one of the main economic engines of the country. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation
Looking Northeast over Kandahar City from the "Forty Steps" aka the "Chehl Zeena." The site is a small room carved out of the top of a mountain by Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire of India, who captured Kandahar in the 16th century. On the walls there is a Persian inscription paying tribute to the conquests of Babur. Babur is one of many foreign invaders, including Alexander The Great, who captured and then lost Kandahar over centuries. © Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/Alexia Foundation