AK Kimoto's series on cultural opium use in Afghanistan has been featured over at the the New York Times Lens blog today. A year after AK completed his work in Badakhshan province, one of the most remote and primitive locations on earth and three short months since his tragic death from unknown causes, AK's incredible work has been given a deserving showcase.
This was a story that AK was passionate about, that other photographers and mainstream news outlets overlooked in favor of the sensationalism of staid 'embedded' images and repetitive photos of Kabul's heroin den of iniquity, the Russian Cultural Centre.
AK felt this story said something real about the true state of Afghanistan and about the nature of the people's suffering there. In hindsight perhaps it said something true about himself. He said to me at the time that 'this was an important story' for him. The remoteness of the region and the deeply conservative nature of the people proved huge obstacles to completing this work there. In many ways this is one of the most difficult stories to photograph in Afghanistan.
In a country where the thrills of shootouts and the potential of danger are easy to access through established media channels and a place where reputations as conflict photographers are earned with the purchase of a flak jacket and helmet, shooting a story in Badakhshan is to go out on a limb; it's a region far away from the influence of Kabul and the western world, a place only accessible during the summer due to it's mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure.
I feel that AK thought this was an important story personally for him, that if it didn't get his name out there as a photographer he would have to reconsider what he was doing with his life and consider giving up something he was deeply passionate about. He seemed like he was, like we all are, searching for something original in his photography, searching for something to make his name with in an incredibly tough industry that is predicated by photographers going to incredible lengths for little rewards .
AK went to Badakhshan, I think, to earn some respect in the photography world and perhaps to prove something to himself. An email he wrote to James Whitlow Delano shortly before he died has also been reprinted on the blog and has been widely circulated in the aftermath of AK's death.
“I don’t care about being recognized, and I don’t care if I go through life with no fame to show for my efforts. When was the last time you saw a 4-year-old sucking down heroin? Is it not a tragedy? If I can’t do anything to bring attention to their plight, and if nobody cares, then what am I doing with my time and, in fact, my life? It was never about awards or anything like that. I thought it was about being out in the world, witnessing things that others don’t see, and sharing these stories with a larger audience. I always said that I do what I do because I only have two hands.”
While it is full of nobility and pathos, part of me believes that AK did want some recognition for his work and for his efforts. I worry that he lost hope and also lost sight of the fact that he was a great person and not just a great photographer between the time that I met him and the time of his death.
It's fantastic that AK is being remembered now through his photography but it brings sadness also that he felt unfulfilled by it. It reminds me that life is something to be enjoyed at all times and at all costs and that photographs, no matter how incredible, are not worth dying over, physically or spiritually.
All Photos copyright AK Kimoto 2010