Obscura Journal Contributor Danielle Ezzo recently interviewed Magnum photographer Lorenzo Meloni in advance of his Obscura Magnum Commission drop, The Kabuler. They discuss his approach to the commission, the role of photojournalism and the nuanced function of storytelling in times of crisis.
DE: Tell us about The Kabuler, your newest commission with Obscura?
LM: During Magnum's annual meeting, Cristina De Middel and I had a conversation about photography, especially about this sort of division between photography as an art form and photojournalism. Magnum has traditionally grouped these two souls within the same collective.
Reflecting on how art, beauty, journalism, truth and fiction can or cannot coexist together, we asked ourselves how we could unite our two visions and languages so that we could channel them into a single work representing a country we have never visited but about which we have both read a lot. From this conversation, the project Kabuler was born.
DE: For the last two decades, Afghanistan has been one of the most documented regions in the world, yet much of the Western world doesn’t have a clear idea about the nuance of the conflict there. Can you tell us more about what you’ve learned on the frontlines, and why you think Western media misses the point?
LM: The interesting part now is that the war in Afghanistan is actually over. I have been working on the aftermath of the war, but in fact this is one of the first stories in twenty years about Afghanistan in a time of peace, even if peace was not brought by a victory of the coalition of western forces.
DE: Because of this the project is two-fold, you tell a deeper story about a specific place and people, but also point to potential issues in the canon of photojournalism. Would you say that’s accurate? Expand on that.
LM: The problem is not photojournalism per se, but it is wider. The way of communication in general today runs at an impossible rate of assimilation. Everything has to be of immediate impact and everything has to happen in the time of a click or between one scroll and another. At the moment, even images seem to require too much concentration, so we have switched to short clips of just a few seconds to understand terribly complicated subjects.
When I chose this profession, I did it because I wanted to see the evolution of history in front of my eyes and not for the sake of seeing my pictures on an instagram account. History demands its time and tends to seek to analyze and rationalize the causes and effects of events, rather than an extemporaneous emotional vision of the immediate.
DE: Historically, much of your work has focused on war torn areas, including Gaddafi in Libya and the conflict in Syria. What led you to pursue this kind of work?
LM: When I started working in conflict zones in 2011 during the uprisings in Arab countries, one of the things that motivated me most was the idea of these young people who decided to fight for freedom. Some of them had lived for years under dictatorships or had experienced the trauma of conflicts imposed by foreign powers and just wanted a better future.
They were young rebels, and in my naivety I felt similar to them. They also reminded me of the stories of the partisans I read in history books or in Italian literature about the resistance against fascism in Italy. With time I discovered that in war everything is much more complex than my superficial first approach and this made my interest grow, otherwise there would have been no point in going all this way to find pre-packaged answers.
On the other hand, war also brings together the sometimes extreme pivotal points about humanity: love, hate, life and death, and I wonder how one can not be interested in them. Even many of the realities we experience today in peacetime exist in some sense thanks to or because of conflict. Speaking of photography, Magnum itself exists in the meeting of a number of photographers who found themselves documenting the Second World War and its aftermath.
DE: One thing that stands out to me in your images, is the layers of history: There are unoccupied or abandoned buildings that have become repurposed because of conflict. I feel like those images point to what you’re trying to get at with representing the complexity of a culture; a repurposed pool with tall diving boards turned lookout tower, as an example. There is a history here—multiple histories—there was a before. Can you speak to that multiplicity?
LM: At some point many of the images try to answer a question, or rather try to ask one. Many of the structures you see in the pictures are military structures built by the NATO coalition or during the time of Soviet occupation. To make an evaluation of the millions of dollars spent over the last 40 years between the various occupation military forces in Afghanistan seems almost impossible to me, but we are certainly talking about a huge amount of money. And for what purpose? Why? In the face of all this, can we still think that armies, bombings or any other kind of military intervention can be a resolution to international disputes?
DE: There’s an image of an older man, placed within a diorama. What’s the story there?
LM: The picture is taken in the Jihad Museum. The man is the museum keeper but also an old Mujahideen who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. The diorama behind him represents one of the battles he took part in against the Red Army. Despite having fought in Jihad, the old Mujahideen are not looked on favorably by the Taliban who have in fact scarred parts of the museum. History is complicated.
DE: Place is such a large part of how this project unfolds. War and conflict photography anonymizes place and turns it into somewhere, anywhere, that’s not where I live. We often see images that focus primarily on actions being taken on other people too. Other being the operative word—air strikes, buildings decimated, people in pain. An audience may become desensitized to images like that because they are not people or places that they recognize. What is especially compelling about The Kabuler is we do not see that, but instead, we have close-up portraits of real people; from which we can see their vulnerability. There are also sublime landscapes, familiar in their beauty. These components fly in the face of “otherness”, they aim to expose an inherent humanity. Tell me about this approach.
LM: The visual representation and imagination we have of conflict is linked to 'action'. Both cinema and photography, have mostly tried to exalt wars as something that happens 'quickly' and in an exciting way. On the other hand, reality is much more complex. When I started to look at all the pictures I had taken during my years working in the war, one of my first thoughts was 'War is really boring, repetitive'.
During my work on the field, I spent entire days hiding behind walls, months in the same street, reaching 'targets' that were nothing more than a pile of rubble. I have photographed the same scenes of suffering a million times, happening the same way.
When shooting or editing my images I try to avoid as much as possible images that contain easy answers and simplify the conflict in the 'act' itself but I always look for something that is somehow metaphorical or contains more and even opposed layers. I like the idea to create a kind of before and after imagery of the conflict.
DE: In that vein, many of your projects deem a certain amount of time to really capture the breadth of what transpires in a given area: It takes time to embed yourself in a situation, to get a clear look at what’s happening there, to establish trust with your subjects. I imagine that’s even more difficult when the pursuit of photography is secondary to the safety and lives of the people you’re documenting. How has it been to work in an expedited way for Obscura? Have you had to approach your subject differently when time is of the essence? Similarly, has your approach to making images for the blockchain changed the way or context in which you’ve worked?
LM: Previously most of my projects took me years of work. The desire to experience working in collaboration with another photographer like Cristina who usually works in a very different way from mine, to publish my work through NFTs and with Obscura has given me complete freedom to express my vision on a country that I only knew through the media. The final project will be the publication of a magazine with the work of both. In this case, I honestly didn't feel pertinent to start a long term project on Afghanistan because it would have been a life's work. The work we have done contains a particular period of Afghanistan in a historical moment because it photographs this transition of power and a fragile peace with the Taliban back at government.
DE: Two questions you posed in your artist statement for this project are: Is it possible to represent war in a different way? And does this dangerous work still make sense? Do you feel like you’re any closer to your answers?
I am writing this from a frontline in Ukraine where I am still asking myself the same identical questions. Probably the answer to these questions lies in the importance of continuing to ask yourself these questions constantly.
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