Paula Bronstein first traveled to Afghanistan for Getty Images in 2001, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and has gone back many times since then, on assignment and on her own. The images she made have been collected in Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear, published this month by University of Texas Press, which documents some of the fundamental changes that have taken place there during 15 years of U.S. and NATO involvement in the country, for better and for worse, as well as what has remained the same. Her motivation, she writes, has been to show the range experience in Afghanistan, including but not limited to the effects of war and poverty. “I want to tell these stories in a way that will make the outside world take a second look and see beyond the suicide bombs,” she writes in the book.
Bronstein focuses especially on the lives of women and children, a subject that as female photojournalist she could access in ways her male colleagues could not, photographing the places where women live and pray. The period she covers has been especially significant for Afghan women, as they have begun to play a larger role in public life, but the backlash against the changes has sometimes been severe. In Bronstein’s images, women wearing blue burqas cast their first votes in elections, and girls raise their hands in an English class held a UNICEF tent—they even rides skateboards in a middle class neighborhood. But there are also gruesome images of survivors of self-immolation suicide attempts, made by women trying to escape domestic abuse, images from the funeral of a woman killed by a mob, and many images of women struggling to take care of their children with few resources.
Despite the dark reality, Bronstein is careful to include images of the joy Afghans manage to find—she documents a wedding day and tender moments between mothers and children; other images highlight the austere but undeniable beauty of the landscape. Together, the images describe a world that is both familiar and distant. Writes Kim Baker in the foreword to the book, “the country is so different from what we know, so foreign, that words can do it little justice. Photographs are almost the only way to prove the reality of life there.”