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Jamie Goldenberg: Nina Berman’s Under Taliban, A Decade Later

January 10, 2011

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By **Jamie Goldenberg**

Nina Berman’s project Under Taliban was shot in in Kabul in 1998 and Kandahar in 2000 when the Taliban was Afghanistan’s official government. I came across her photographs while researching images for J. Malcom Garcia’s most recent piece in Guernica, “Bed 18.” I contacted Nina to discuss her project.

—Jamie Goldenberg for Guernica

**Guernica** : What is going on in the first photograph? It shows a woman in a head-to-toe burqa holding a large document with a photograph attached.

**Nina Berman:** In the first photograph, a woman is holding her diploma from a vocational school (with an ID photo of her attached to the certificate) as evidence of who she was prior to the Taliban seizure of power. Under Taliban rule, her education and career goals stopped and she became faceless, hidden under the burqa, which she had not worn before.

**Guernica** : These photographs were taken over ten years ago, just before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. How do you see these photographs in the context of present day Afghanistan?

**Nina Berman:** Considering the enormity of the billions spent and lives lost in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, it’s a bit ironic, in a kind of tragic way, that my photographs, taken before September 11, 2001, would seem so familiar and are often mistaken for contemporaneous images. I suppose it speaks to the failure of military solutions in forcing progress on basic economic, cultural and gender issues. It also shows how hard it is to recover when a nation has been bombed to oblivion, generation after generation, and used as a kind of play thing by super powers and ideologues around the world. The subjects in my photographs were walking a precarious line, testing the boundaries of what was possible in a society under Taliban rule, where quite literally, the outside world was hostile, scary and male, and the inside world provided some normalcy, intimacy and identity. I am sure this type of navigation exists today, with varying degrees of success and despair.

**Guernica** : It seems that most of your work after this particular series is focused on the domestic (U.S.) side of the invasion. Your later series Homeland and Marine Wedding both focus on the domestic effects of war. What drew you back to the US?

**Nina Berman:** I spent the first decade of my career—the nineteen nineties—working both internationally and domestically. Internationally, I was interested in how women are used/violated to promote wider ideological agendas. This took me to Bosnia in late 1992 and early 1993 to cover the use of rape as a strategy of ethnic cleansing, and then to Afghanistan in 1998 and 2000. But during this time, I was also photographing in a consistent way the changing politics in the U.S., particularly the growth of the political and religious right and the militia movements. An early version of this work formed the basis for my thinking on Homeland. After September 11th, with the launch of two wars and the prospect of perpetual wars, I focused on evidence of war through the images of wounded veterans—Purple Hearts and Marine Wedding—and our fantasies and response to war—Homeland.

I imagine, I regret to say, that like my images from Afghanistan, people ten to fifteen years from now, will come across my images from Purple Hearts or Homeland, and imagine they were taken yesterday.

Copyright 2011 Jamie Goldenberg

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Nina Berman is a documentary photographer living in New York City. For more of her work, including Homeland and Marine Wedding check out her website and her blog.

Jamie Goldenberg is the assistant art editor at Guernica.

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One comment for Jamie Goldenberg: Nina Berman’s Under Taliban, A Decade Later

  1. Comment by James Young on January 12, 2011 at 9:38 am

    She blames the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. for Islamic fundamentalism and the oppression of women. How condescending towards Islamists.

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