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In 1983, I was a photographer for TIME and LIFE magazines. At the time, Afghanistan was occupied by the Russian army and was closed to the media. There were all these refugees, and the terrain was so difficult. My first assignment was in Kabul, and it took me three weeks just to get there on foot, which is only 150 miles from the border. Then I realized immediately how important that story was, and how little the foreign correspondents could do to cover it. The country is huge — if you have to go on foot, it would take three months to reach the other part of the country. I also realized there would be no media that would accept a correspondent being there for six months on foot to do the story. TIME, CBS, and other media were giving a couple days to a couple weeks maximum.
When I came back from Afghanistan, I thought to myself, the only way to cover the whole thing would be for Afghans to do it themselves. I thought, so let’s train some photographers. I went to refugee camps, explained my idea, and started training people and giving them cameras. This was all on my own. The following years I went to South Africa, under apartheid. Again, I realized how hard it was for foreign correspondents to cover, because the government was blocking entrance to journalists. So I thought the best way would be to train younger people living in the townships. I began training them, and the whole time I was also covering the story from the inside. It gave me a totally different perspective. Because usually when I went somewhere to cover a story, I was finding myself with the same group of photographers in the same hotels. The local people would be better storytellers.
The second thing, which was much deeper, came to my mind later, when I was in refugee camps especially. I realized there are two different destructions in wars. One is material destruction: buildings and bodies. That’s what we photograph. The houses that are destroyed and the people who are suffering the loss of part of their bodies. But the reality of wars and conflicts is that there is another trauma — the destruction of the human soul, of culture, and of human connection. One day, I was reading in a newspaper that there was a shooting in a school in the United States. And what really took my attention was that all the police went to the school immediately, and then the ambulances. Then a group of psychologists was sent because people had been traumatized by this shooting. And that was just one shooting. What are we doing in conflict zones? We are only helping to rebuild the material destruction. But we don’t care about the psychologists that are needed.
In humanitarian efforts, 99 percent are just for buildings. The United Nations and NGO’s help to build schools, roads, wells, and to make the artificial legs. But where is that group of psychologists for countries that have been in conflict for years and years. Where are the psychologists and who can they be? I realized, you can’t send American or French psychologists to talk to Afghans or Cambodians. It has to be from inside. But you also can’t send psychologists to talk to people one-on-one. So I thought maybe the best tools were media and communication tools. If they were used collectively, maybe they could replace these psychologists.
At that moment, I also saw there was no opportunity in these countries for a group of people, journalists or artists, to express themselves. We need to help them to express themselves. We need to train them and give them the tools, which are all the tools we use in the West: cameras, video cameras, and computers. They don’t have access to these. This was one main thing that brought me to Aina.