Knowing Afghanistan: The Images of Peter Bussian

Afghanistan 26 by Peter Bussian
Afghanistan 26 by Peter Bussian

Photographer and filmmaker Peter Bussian first visited Afghanistan in June 2001, traveling with per’mission, rarely granted, from the Tal’iban. Bussian had been documenting the plight of refugees for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organization that had a working relationship with the Mus’lim fundamentalist group. Just three months earlier, Taliban fighters had dynamited two ancient massive stone Buddhas, prompting an inter’national outcry. The Taliban, in turn, hoped that Bussian could ‘show the world the real Afghanistan,’ in the words of one powerful Talib.   Thirty of the photographs Bussian took during that visit and many return trips in the decade that followed will be on display at Sharq, a private gallery in Pacific Palisades, beginning Saturday, September 10.   The images in the exhibit, ‘The Afghans: Pictures of Resilience, 2001-2011,’ focus on the daily life of the Afghan people during years of war, destruction and displacement. Many bear witness to the harsh conditions and limited resources of the population. Others give a sense that life goes on regardless’a boy smiles at the camera, a girl studies diligently. For Bussian, the theme of the show is ‘the incredible resilience of the Afghan people, who have known nothing but war for 30 years.’   His work also includes some images that offer surprisingly picturesque views of the countryside, in’cluding a gorgeous shot of what is now Band-e-Amir National Park (‘Afghanistan 20,’ photo below).   ’It is stunningly beautiful,’ Buss’ian said. ‘I think that was the first thing that hit me when I went there. Especially if you like a kind of rugged environment.’ He says the landscape reminds him of parts of the American West, including Colorado, where he went to college. After graduating from the University of Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Bussian stud’ied film at the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico and, several years later, moved to New York where he still lives with his wife, Elizabeth.   Four months after September 11, he returned to Afghanistan.   ’After 9/11, I just decided I wanted to spend more time in the field,’ Bussian said. ‘I wanted to understand what was going on. I felt like this was a place I wanted to real’ly get to know instead of going in and taking pictures and leaving, the way I had done in many other coun’tries. I just wanted to go deeper.’ He stayed for three months during that 2002 trip and has returned nearly every year since, spending roughly three to four years in total over the last decade.   ’The way we view the individual versus the tribe or the bigger community’ is one key cultural differ’ence, Bussian told the Pali’sa’dian- Post. ‘Everything [in America] is based on the individual . . . and I think this country, more than any in the world, has just taken it to an extreme. We can create our own reality. There, everything has to do with what is good for the group, the tribe. People don’t really make individual decisions based on what they want to do.’ So, he argues, our efforts to impose structure based on our indi’vidualistic, Western, democratic point of view is unlikely to succeed.   There are other important ways in which Americans misunderstand Afghan culture, Bussian said.   ’I’m not going to defend the burqa, I’m not going to say that I think it’s a good thing, but the main reason it exists is not necessarily to subjugate women. It’s a defense in an insecure environment. The most vulnerable part of that environment wants to remain anonymous. So, a lot of the rural areas where there is no security, women are using it for defense, because they don’t want to be recognized.’   Bussian has spent most of the last 25 years photographing refugees around the world, beginning with trips to Southeast Asia. Much of his work has been on behalf of the Unit’ed Nations and aid organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, CARE and Action Con’tre la Faim (Action Against Hunger).   He has also worked as a media ad’visor to the UN as well as to the U.S., British and Afghan governments, helping to craft effective messages, about voting in the 2005 parliamen’tary provincial council elections in Afghanistan, for example.   His first Los Angeles show was at Gallery 169 in Santa Monica Canyon, which is owned by his old college friend, Frank Langen. Na’hid Massoud, who runs Sharq gal’lery with her husband Robert Ros’enstone, came to that opening.   ’As an Afghan living in the Palisades,’ Massoud said, ‘I find that the powerful images of Bussian’s photos bring back to me the bravery and strength of my amazing countrymen who have endured war and loss for decades.’   Bussian has developed a strong attachment of his own to Afghan’is’tan. ‘There’s a way it grabs you on a primal, visceral level that seems like no place else,’ he said. ‘It just tapped into something way down in my gut more than any other place I’ve ever been and I think that’s a combination of the landscape and the people. As you see, the people are so beautiful also.’   He wants to share that beauty with others and notes that his 16- by 24-inch prints have been priced to ‘keep them quite affordable.’ He found a Moroccan Berber in Los Angeles who helped him print the images. ‘They are gicl’e prints on rice paper, so they kind of bleed out a little bit and there’s this kind of texture to them.’   Bussian is also at work on a feature film, ‘Scarlet Poppy,’ set in Afghanistan. His script has been ac’cepted as one of 30 to be considered at the Asian Project Market, which serves as a marketplace for promising new projects and runs in conjunction with the Busan Inter’national Film Festival in Korea. Golden Globe-winning Afghan director Sid’diq Barmak has joined Bussian, who will direct ‘Scarlet Poppy,’ as a producer. Barmak’s ‘Opium War,’ which featured Bussian in a lead role, was Afghanistan’s 2008 Acad’emy Award submission.   ’Scarlet Poppy’ tells the story of a U.S. contractor, hired to negotiate the destruction of Afghan poppy fields, who falls in love with an Afghan widow promised to her late husband’s brother, the drug lord who controls the fields.   Though Bussian plans to shoot some of the film in Afghanistan, security issues will likely force him to have India stand in for rural Afghanistan.   He remembers back to his first trip to Kabul. ‘I was being trailed by a pickup truck full of Talibs the whole way. It was a bit scary. On the other hand, it was probably the most secure trip I’ve had because I knew nothing would happen to me.’   Now things have changed. ‘Security under the Taliban was much better than it is now, and that’s unfortunately why a lot of the rural areas are turning back to the Taliban. Even if their rule of law is quite brutal, at least there’s some sense of security.’   Bussian, who is planning to move to Los Angeles, will answer questions about his experiences during a reception from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The event at Sharq gallery is open to the public. Contact: (310) 459-6041 or sharqart@verizon.net for the address or to see the show by appointment through September 24.   Sharq means East in both Farsi and Arabic and the gallery has hosted exhibitions, readings, concerts and other events dealing with Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Armenia, Afghanistan, Mauritania and the Kurdish region of Iraq.