Kite flying and mortality inspire prize-winning art

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Kite flying and mortality inspire prize-winning art

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Jean Chung, second from right, in Shohada district with an Afghan police escort in September 2007. By Jean Chung/WPN

Jean Chung was appalled when she heard from her local source in Afghanistan that Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, was irritated after she had asked him a string of questions about the 23 Korean missionaries who were kidnapped in Ghazni Province in July.
Chung, 36, a Korean photographer, had been freelancing in Afghanistan since the summer of 2006. But on July 19, a day after she left Kabul for summer vacation, the news broke that the missionaries had been abducted at gunpoint as their chartered bus traveled through eastern Afghanistan.
Chung flew back to Kabul. When she arrived, the Taliban had already killed their first Korean hostage, the group’s leader, pastor Bae Hyeong-gyu.
During a number of phone calls with Ahmadi, Chung asked where the hostages were, why they were kidnapped and whether anyone in the group was ill. She asked the same questions in different ways to get at the truth. Ahmadi’s reaction was icy. He told Chung’s local source that he did not want to hear from her again.
“Does she think I would tell her where the hostages are?” he complained to Chung’s source. The photographer felt helpless. But several days later, she woke up and called Ahmadi again, as if she hadn’t heard anything.
After living in Afghanistan for over a year, fear had become a way of life.
“What can you do? It’s Allah’s will,” she shrugs.
On the streets, she has been groped by Afghan men who mistook her for a Chinese prostitute ― since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 many prostitutes have begun working in Kabul, operating out of Chinese restaurants. The safety of the Asian community in Kabul hit a nadir after the Korean missionaries were abducted, and the local radio stations updated their risk assessments every hour. Asians in Afghanistan have become a target of moral and religious condemnation by Islamic radicals.
By early August, the Korean government ordered all Korean nationals in Afghanistan to evacuate. That was when Chung also packed her stuff and came home.
“You just become more alert on street when the local men approach you and ask where you’re from,” says Chung, who was fashionably dressed in jeans and a silk blouse at her home in Seoul.
During her time in Afghanistan, Chung photographed a range of subjects from suicide bombings to men in a Kabul body building competition.
She recently won this year’s CARE International Humanitarianism Photographic Award for her series on maternal mortality in Afghanistan, which has the second highest rate in the world after Sierra Leone and is one of the toughest countries anywhere for taking pictures of women.
Some of her competitors for the award included Ed Kashi, who submitted his series from a National Geographic assignment on laborers in the Niger Delta, which has one of the world’s richest oil deposits, and Zann Huizhen Huang for her series on pre-teen Cambodian glue sniffers.
“Jean’s work did not strike us just because of her subject matter,” says Daphne Angles, the picture editor for the New York Times in Paris and one of the jurors for the CARE award. “She treated her subject with a very mature photographic eye and a true journalistic storytelling talent. Her pictures showed a variety of situations and portraits ― the suffering mother, men carrying a mother’s coffin across the Afghan landscape, the mourning family, the orphaned baby lying alone which, put together, told an eloquent story. With her beautifully lit scenes, Jean told this story with sensitivity and respect for her subject, which touched the jury.”
The photographs in Chung’s series were shot in Shohada District and the provincial hospital in Faizabad, the capital of Badakshan, in the northeast of the country, which has the world’s highest rate of maternal mortality, according to a joint study by Unicef and the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the maternity ward, she saw four delivery beds, three nurses and six female doctors. This was a town where there was only one provincial hospital with 10 trained midwives for a population of 50,000. The lives of many pregnant women were put at risk because the patriarchs of the families didn’t want their women to be seen by people outside their families, including doctors.
On the second day of her visit to the maternity ward at Faizabad, Chung was introduced to Qamar, a 26-year-old woman who had just delivered a boy through Caesarean section. She had already lost her first child f two years previously.
A little over a week later, when Chung returned to the hospital, she found Qamar suffering from postpartum complications including meningitis and hypothermia.
Two weeks after her delivery, she was transferred to intensive care. Qamar died that evening.
The next day, Chung accompanied the family to Qamar’s hometown of Shohada in Badakshan, where the funeral was to be held.
In the photograph, at the top of this page, of weeping women surround the dead body of Qamar, who is lying on a beautifully quilted sheet with a white linen shroud covering her body.
Shot in available light, the picture poignantly captures the dense atmosphere of the room where the mourners are overwhelmed with grief.
Their emotions are partly reflected through the mysterious contrast of light between the white veils on the women’s heads and the dark shadows on the wall.
There are other photographs by Chung from the same series, like the one in which Qamar lies on her deathbed wearing an oxygen mask. It is one of Chung’s most precious images from the series, possibly because it was her first experience of watching a person die, especially one she had only known for 10 days.
Though Chung has seen many dead bodies before, to witness the final moments of life was a different experience.
“I kept asking, ‘Why did she have to die? I asked the same question over and over, and I became very angry about the conditions in Afghanistan,” she says.
There is a tinge of hope running through Chung’s other images of the country’s landscape, like her series on Afghan kite-makers that she did for London’s Daily Telegraph.
In the series, Chung focused on Noor Agha, a renowned kite maker whose works will be shown in the film “The Kite Runner,” based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel about the country’s political turmoil, told through the story of two childhood friends.
The photographs depict Agha’s two wives and their 11 children engaged in making kites at their house and playing with them on a hill.
The subject is laced with irony, because the Taliban regime had once banned kite flying in the belief that the practice was un-Islamic.
Perhaps the it was more than just kite flying the Taliban wanted to ban ― they also wanted to suppress the feeling of freedom and joy it creates.
Shining through in Chung’s photographs are the faces of happy children who, from a long distance, fix their eyes on kites that streak across the sky.
In fact, freedom was what Chung says she missed most when she lived in Afghanistan, not food or friends back home.
That perhaps includes freedom from the shackles that she imposes on herself.
“Talk to any photographer,” she says. “One of the stupidest questions you ask them is ‘Are you happy with your pictures today?’ Nobody is ever happy.”

[See photos]


By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]
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