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Afghanistan, July 2012: Faces of Hope

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This month, we present a view of Afghanistan seen from the perspective of a single photographer, Martin Middlebrook. He has spent much of the last three years documenting the real lives of ordinary people across Afghanistan, for a project called 'Faces of Hope'. In 2010 this project exhibited at the Kabul International Conference, and in 2011 it exhibited at the British Museum in London to support their installation on the cultural history of this extraordinary country. Middlebrook writes "'Faces of Hope' is now being turned into a book, an uplifting repositioning of humanity, putting the goodness in people back to the forefront. Afghanistan is a misunderstood and misrepresented country, a place and people devastated by 32 years of continual conflict. And at the heart of this destruction are the souls of 34 million ordinary people trying to survive in this land of 'blood and dust'." This entry is part of an ongoing series here on Afghanistan. All photographs and caption text by Martin Middlebrook. [28 photos]

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A young girl pictured in a classroom in Herat, Afghanistan, in June of 2010. If there ever was a face of hope for the future, the new educated generation of young girls. They comprehend the chance they have been given more than we can ever imagine, they know it was a chance denied their mother's. (© Martin Middlebrook)
A young girl pictured in a classroom in Herat, Afghanistan, in June of 2010. If there ever was a face of hope for the future, the new educated generation of young girls. They comprehend the chance they have been given more than we can ever imagine, they know it was a chance denied their mother's. (© Martin Middlebrook)
A young boy at the entrance to Herat mosque, Afghanistan, June 2010. I spent two afternoons in this mosque, chatting with the Mullah and people attending to pray. It has been a privilege to share ideas and thoughts on religion, religious differences, and yet I have learned so much form these encounters. Ideologically we are closer than we imagine, and extremism is not rife. I cannot tell you how welcomed I was -- two of the best afternoons of my life. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
A shopkeeper pictured in the Ka Farushi Bazzar, Kabul. They say Afghanistan is a nation of traders, and it is never more so than in the bazaars of the major cities. They are the life-blood of the economy, and they add a bustle and vigor to daily life that no longer exists in the sanitized shopping malls we have become accustomed to in the west. Many lament the decline of 'local retail', but in Afghanistan it is all you have -- a place to meet and drink tea -- people 'know' each other. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Children play in the old Russian swimming pool, built by the Soviets on a hill overlooking Kabul. A place of Taliban executions, children bathe in summer heat in a construction pitted with bullet holes -- a stark reminder of darker days. The pool has since been renovated by the Government of Afghanistan, an attempt to flush the memories of past atrocities. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Taken in Kabul in 2010, nothing encapsulates a country more than this. The Afghan people are a nation of traders, small business people, blacksmiths and farmers. The sense of happiness amongst most you meet belies the deteriorating security situation. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Afghanistan was cut down over 30 years of conflict, like the once rich environment that covered much of the country. Nothing resonates more precisely the devastation witnessed across 30 years of war, than old man standing by a woodpile -- a neat and mindful metaphor. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
The innocent fun of childhood still exists, in abundance. Somehow that childhood desire that we all remember is robust and hopes and aspirations abound, regardless of the truth of their days. Poverty is all pervasive, and as such it is normality for most -- it realigns the human condition -- the simple things still hold value, things that we in the west have somehow lost sight of. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
A man leaps across a puddle in a pot-holed Kabul road. A leap of hope, a spring in the step, Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment -- this is where Afghanistan is right now, on the brink, and the next two years are critical. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
The savage remains of internecine war still provide the backdrop to the existence of millions of families. Many live in old destroyed traditional mud compounds, a crumbling dirt bath from which aspirations for a better life must be maintained. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Hazaras are the backbone of the economy, they are the cart-horses, the foundations. They are the labor and the effort, and they do it all with a smile. There are five major ethnicities in Afghanistan, but If there is a dirty job to be done, or heavy work to be carried out, it will most often be the Hazaras who get it done! (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Nearly all children across Afghanistan now receive a basic education, with increasing numbers going on to University. They grab this opportunity, one so often denied to previous generations, with an enthusiasm you rarely see in so called 'developed' nations. Education is a chance for a better life and it is embraced accordingly. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Brothers in arms -- in the best possible way. Life is infectious it seems, regardless of income and career paths, old-fashioned values still remain. No one would deny that Afghanistan faces a complex and grave future, of course political and security issues are significant -- but the great majority of its 30 million population, are just simple people, happy families and communities who long for a return to peace. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
A metal worker in Afghanistan. This is what you get from most Afghans; a deep embracing smile that sucks you in and warms your soul. This man sat all day with his colleague, beating metal into pots for cooking. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
The release of childhood, the innocence of ignorance, the undimmed hope of a generation. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Reconstruction continues apace, despite concerns for future security. I first visited Afghanistan in 2003, and it was a bomb-site, it was dust, it was gone. And yet the structural landscape has changed dramatically and swiftly, investment flows in -- but profits flow out as insecurity blights the confidence of many. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
What future, what chance a generation of girls? Many simply wait and breathe, these are critical times for millions who desire and deserve a fairer future, a more equal role. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Glassblowing in Herat, the old way of things is in charge in many areas of the country, tradition and heritage and culture imbue each and every waking moment. But change is afoot and with new technology and the internet, many are looking to western influences as a new future for Afghanistan. Melding the old and the new is a great challenge for many. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Children are of course the future of Afghanistan, but it is going to take a generational shift, a long term commitment to provide an environment for them to bring their joyful optimism to bear fruit for a country subsumed by 32 years of conflict. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
A dust storm dance on a summer's day. A dust devil had just come down a Kabul street and a crowd of children ran out and just started dancing. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Afghanistan is a tough place of brutal climate and a complex history, and it is written in the faces of most. It is etched as little creases of personal history that tell a broader story, 30 million canvasses painted with too many stories. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Images like this are rarer and rarer, so much has been done to rebuild a past shot though with conflict. But on most street corners you can still find the patina of war, the drilling attention of AK-47s and the shatter of an RPG. It is a reminder of a past, and a warning for the future. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Under the Taliban, all girls were denied education, but over the last 11 years of the occupation this has been reversed. The great fear of many, with a resurgence in Taliban fundamentalism, the drawdown of coalition troops and the upcoming elections, is that future generations of young women will once again be denied access to this basic right. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
While education facilities are rudimentary at best, and badly under-resourced, classrooms across Afghanistan are packed. If Afghanistan is going to have a secure and prosperous future, it is those educated since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 who provide the greatest hope for achieving stability. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
A young boy presses his face against the window of a car in Afghanistan. A third of the population in Afghanistan live under the poverty line. One in six children die before their fifth birthday, and the average life expectancy is 44. But people there are still full of hope. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Kabul was destroyed by too many years of civil war, the west of this old city particularly assaulted. But investment has seen a boom in reconstruction, with old buildings renovated in the traditional vernacular, while new-build relies upon imported Pakistani style. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Old sensitivities are hard to dispel. A former Soviet helicopter operated by the Afghan Army flies low overhead, stoking fear and aggression in equal measure, as some boys flee and others throw stones. For children who have known nothing but conflict, moments such as these bring a response that those from peaceful nations can never comprehend. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
Afghanistan is a culture of 5,000 years, and it remains stuck in the past, intransigent in the face of change. (© Martin Middlebrook) #
There is a darker side to life -- the oppression of women. It is rife and pernicious, and it begins at a certain age, an age when women become possessions of men -- no more and no less. Nothing is more pitiable than this control, from a certain age, nothing could compromise the future of Afghanistan than the lack of women's rights. And yet there are grounds for optimism, many young men and women alike are trying hard to change the approach of their fathers -- but much more needs to be done. (© Martin Middlebrook) #

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