Why Things Are Seen

While I've been taking photos I've been stewing on how to approach the painted component of this project. And the short answer might be: Go back to whence I came. Namely, working with patterns and negative space in conjunction with figuration. Some of my earliest concerns with figuration regarded the tension between illussionistic and flattened space but was an area of investigation I've moved away from over the last couple of years, partially out of the need to ask different questions. 

Those questions regarded the power of myth and the draw to violence, but as neither are all that evident on Op Attention, I've been thinking myself in little circles trying to move forward... when backwards might be the solution.

The images below also relate nicely to what I imagine will be a photographic component with the very loose working title of Sibling Rivalry.

But for now, painting, and for your (and my) consideration, the below:


Hadji Don't Surf

Looking down the egress behind the shacks here at Camp Phoenix it's easy to get lost. The sun is warm today and people walking this route can't help but kick rocks, sand and pebbles as they amble along.

In many ways, Phoenix and its ubiquitous yellow wooden beach umbrellas feels like an ad hoc island community. Sand, rocks, sun, umbrellas, folk in floppy hats, smoking or knocking back bottled water, these are all props in our grand illusion.

It is an island, and though almost everyone carries a firearm, the weapons become very easy to ignore, are just another element of apparel, sort of a fad – an item that seems necessary for the climate until you realize it isn't. The equivalent of a foam beer holder maybe.

We are locked out of time and place and so the name seems appropriate and the silty texture of pollution acts like a temporal binder, covering everything and rendering the transient as eternal. Burning haze hides the outside world (and for all we know, the outside world might have burnt away) and holds us in an atmospheric bubble, equidistant, but undefinable on all sides. It's a phantom distance that might be 500 metres or 5 light years. The noise of the air conditioners masks any sound from the world and even the choppers that circle appear only inside the haze.

Outside there is a war. Inside there are boardwalks and evening dance parties thrown by the Romanians. Blue skies and cigarettes, we walk the halls in shorts and flip-flops. And like any good beach culture, it takes all comers. soldiers arrive from around the world and over time, though they might not know it, they become surfers.


Like the sign says:

"The light, the light" (The horror, the horror)

I met Gary during my recent stay at Alamo and we enjoyed a few good chuckles over the US Republican primary race as well as a shared enjoyment of the late Bill Hicks. Gary, himself an American, went to school with Both Joyce DeWitt and David Letterman and so the quiet humour with which he delivered the following tale has a good pedigree.
* * *
A while back an award-winning AP Photographer came to Camp Alamo. He was taken around to see all the usual destinations: The Soviet tank park, the acre upon acre of ANA recruits, the massive amount of infrastructure investment as well as the views from the surrounding hills. As Gary tells it, the photographer was wont to stare up at the sun – doing its usual battle with the polluted haze – and laconically bemoan, “the light, the light… I can’t work with this.”
After his time at Alamo and, assumedly, other camps around Kabul, he went down south the the fighting. After some time down that way and trundling along with US soldiers in a HUMV he proclaimed that this was the most boring assignment he had ever been on. Shortly thereafter his leg was blown off by an IED.
* * *
It should be emphasized that I'm not mocking the photographer and the tragedy that befell him. I'm here with a similar goal (if lesser stature) so if anything I recount the tale with a sense of black humour, and caution and empathy.

While I hold a similar desire to head south (as, I suspect, do most of the fighting troops in Kabul) I’m quite fond of the hazy landscapes of Kabul, even if my pores and my camera are not. I also still have almost 2 weeks here, and like both my legs.


Heads and patches, deals and "the bug"

Day 5 of my stomach bug. Thankfully there ain't much going on here.

Today, however, I did pick up a few custom patches and a baseball cap. While I was there I picked out some extra patches for my YYZ show. It seemed important to give the embroiders their due so I mentioned I'd be showing them in Canada and asked for a few business cards. The guy responded by also throwing 10 extra patches for free.
So in total: 20 patches and a baseball camp (with a velco rectangle on front) cost me $15!

I'll take a few patch photos in the coming days, but for now, apropos of nothing above, a few portraits of late, including 2 gems: 3VP guys in sweats, smoking and an ANA guy guarding a bedframe.

Okay, back to bed with me.


Predictably, Christmas

The best compliment/hack I received today was, "What are you, the JTF2 Photographer?"

I'll try to avoid any overly predictable Christmas photos, and will preface them by saying Merry Christmas.
- Scottt

 The above was found in the Chapel at Blackhorse, amongst other cards from American Kids.


My Little Afghan tummy buddy

Leaving Blackhorse I picked up a lovely parting gift by way of an intestinal bug, but it's just part of the vacation package and more or less unavoidable.
So, here I am at Alamo, having spent my first couple of days laying pretty low.
Today though, I did a walk around the KMTC training area where the ANA recruits start from zero.
So until I'm a little peppier, here are a few photos from today.


Money and the draw to the shutter

Over thew last few days I've seen plenty, but one of the reoccurring topics of conversation is the staggering amount of money that the US is using the essentially create an army from scratch.

From a section of new recruits walking by, each with a brand new Barrett .50 cal sniper rifle, to parking yards filled with hundreds of brand new Hummers, brand new everything and anything, this army is awash with material. Unfortunately the soldiers sometimes go weeks or months without getting paid.

It should be mentioned though that it isn't all US gear. Much of the heavy gear - tanks and artillery is Russian, though I'm not sure where the money to purchase the larger weapon systems comes from.

While ogling all the gear I've met plenty of enthusiastic folk. Civilian contractors and Afghan soldiers, all ready for a smile, but of course like an unprovable equation those who are less than enthusiastic are unlikely to allow their photo to be taken. As I'm not a reporter I'm not going to try and sneak these things. Interestingly though, when asking the Afghan soldiers if I can take their portrait, like any new soldier, the smiles disappear and the stone-cold killer faces are turned on.

From Soviets to dogs and generosity of spirit

Habibi is an interpreter ('Terp) for the Canadians and today he accompanied us as we went out to range control. Truth is I was surprised he was willing and even enthusiastic to have his photo taken, but for the most part, the 'Terps are eager. There seems to be a crucial difference between living here versus down south in the Pashtun region (i.e. Kandahar). On the way back we stopped by an old Soviet FOB, left over from the 70's. (Coincidentally, earlier in the day we met with an ANA Colonel who ran the dog battalion for the Soviets in the 70's!)

Habibi stands as a counter to the cautionary tale of the previous post, and so after traveling with him for an hour or so, myself and the Canadian soldiers were invited to the 'Terp mess hall. While he was a little disappointed that I wasn't going to eat the goat, the meal was a lovely affair, devoid of the over-processed selections at the American mess. 

It was one of those moments when I felt very much like this project had some real merit. Specifically, I might have the ability to lessen the gap between our beliefs regarding Afghanistan and the contradictory, depressing but also life-affirming and giving reality of its people.
A side point about the US mess. All food comes with a list of its nutritional value and general merit. Certainly it's worthwhile to know what you're putting into your body, but such caution seems typically contradictory. Cookies, muffins, cakes and abound, as do ice cream bars and coolers filled with pop. No such sillyness occurs in the 'Terp mess. Sure there are French fries and a can of pop for each person at the tables, but at the same time the quantities consumed seem practical and also - crucially - the 'Terps seem less concerned with the minutia of managing their lives, of counting each calorie.


A Cautionary Tale

Down the line of shacks on the edge of Camp Blackhorse there's a small mod
structure with an aluminum exterior. It's equivalent to the portable offices you'd
find on construction sites. Above the door of this particular mod a fluorescent light
is kept on 24/7. Until a few months ago it acted the living quarters of a civilian
contractor working at the base.

Though information is thin, the basic facts are that he decided, on a day off, to go
into Kabul by himself. A while later his decapitated body was found. And so the light
remains on above the doorway as a small memorial to a life lost but also as a
cautionary tale to those who think Kabul is a place to go wondering around as a
tourist. It's a quiet, brutal reminder that there are people all around who may or
may not want to kill us.

And while quiet monuments to the fallen are taken as granted in this environment
this can easily be seen as a monument to folly.


Camp Blackhorse

Blackhorse is where my project really begins. In the first day: Roaming, super-friendly feral dogs, a Soviet Tank-park and Afghan recruit training.

As it turns out, both the dogs and the soldiers are pretty affable. The soldiers especially responded to the camera sort of like squirrels respond to nuts. That's a bit of a put down, unless you love squirrels.

Being a socially standoff-ish sort it was a real relief to find out how much the Afghans want to have their photos taken. It's then even more relevant to compare the relative disinterest of some of the Cdn. Soldiers to the camera. That's not to say the Canadians don't care, but the Afghans certainly prick up their ears and bust out the grins and hand signs when a camera swings in their direction. And maybe part of the contrast is that the Canadians are jealous, that, as I was told recently, they want to be down south with the fighting.

All of a sudden I feel much better about what's going to come of my deployment and it would be amiss to exclude thanks to the Canadian Officers and NCOs who have really made me feel welcome and helped me get going, especially considering I showed up in theatre missing some key documentation. 


Sunrise over Kabul

Just a short post as I'm about to leave Phoenix for Blackhorse (This is something I'm allowed to say).

Coming out of the PX from my morning Machiato I saw a ziplock bag with a set of false teeth (metal incisors) hanging on a cork-board.

It's pretty boring here, but I've been compensating by having the weirdest, most unsettling dreams.

But let us not speak of such things: Instead, a smoggy sunrise over Camp Phoenix (Plus some water bottles)


Honor First, Coffee Second

From the images I've posted so far, you'd think this place was abandoned. Besides the lovely, semi Brutalist-desert aesthetic that I find myself drawn to, there's the very practical issue of having to keep the privacy of the soldiers in mind. Folk in the background are fine and if I feel up to it I can ask individuals, but I have to be careful about placing humans in the frame without their permission. This is where the specifics of my project start to manifest themselves: namely, my reluctance to engage people who I don't know in conversation. This is repetition from earlier posts, but I think I'd make a lousy photojournalist.

However, I did ask the Mongolian band if I could take a couple of shots of them.

The most awesome uniforms so far are the Romanians when they wear their red and blue nylon PT gear. When I say that they look like armed football hooligans I assure you it's a compliment. I will do my best to take a shot of them, but cameras aren't allowed in the mess and that's the only place I've seen them.

Theatre Access

Today I received my ISAF ID and signed my embedded journalist documents.
With the new found ability to take photos on base I took a quick stroll around the back of my quarters.

When I leave here for the next base I think the shots will become more exciting, but I do like the ambiance of these images. It's too bad you can't smell the cigarette butts that accompany them.