I met photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson outside her exhibition, the Skate Girls of Kabul, in London’s swish Saatchi Gallery. Like many other skateboarders, I had been inspired by the Skateistan project which has been introducing skating to groups of young people in Afghanistan since 2007. Eight years later, their story finally made it in the mainstream spotlight thanks to Jessica’s emotive images of the Skateistan girls as they proudly wield their decks.
I attended the opening night of the exhibition where Fulford-Dobson’s rugged photographs were placed in the surreal surroundings of the spotless Saatchi Gallery. The faces of these normal, down to earth Afghan girls, who had been photographed by Jessica as they lived their day to day lives, were suddenly surrounded by the likes of actors from Game of Thrones as well as high profile politicians and diplomats. I wondered, how did Jessica manage to bridge such distant cultures with her art?
There are no technical shots of tricks using off-camera-flash – these are not pictures taken by a skateboarder. They are however, images that can be appreciated by everybody, everywhere. Now, the Skate Girls of Kabul exhibition is about to embark on a global tour. The skate girls will gracefully face up to the world to become symbols of a new, inspiring generation of young Afghan women in a country usually associated with social restriction and oppression.
“These are just little girls who are playing and having fun but it ends up being quite an important play for them. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve done, and to come back from Afghanistan inspired by young girls out there from what they’re doing is a reminder to all of us back here.”
What was it about the Skateistan project that captured you so much?
In 2012 I was reading a Sunday supplement and I saw this little article that caught my eye it said “Afghanistan”, “girls” and “skateboarding” and in my mind I could instantly just visualise these amazing Afghan dresses and skateboards.
I wrote to them in 2012 and what I really respected was the fact that they weren’t falling over themselves, they were very protective. I said to them that I wasn’t coming from a journalism background, but from an artistic one. Some of my bread and butter was working with corporate people, it meant that I had a base where I could take this out to a different arena other than the skate arena. The skate world is a very tight community and everyone will already know about Skateistan within. Also, because I’m not a skater I could see it with fresh eyes and just capture something a bit different.
“In the past I’ve never been a keen feminist or suffragette because I felt that they all did it for us, but I saw some portraits of Afghan women who had acid thrown in their faces, and I remember thinking it’s outrageous for these women to be treated like this. That spurred me on to use my skills to make a difference in my own way.”
What was it like to go to Afghanistan alone for the first time?
It’s not for the faint hearted as a woman going alone. I’ve already been in quite extreme travel situations and was good at travelling independently, but I’d never been to this sort of environment and I was aware that I wasn’t just heading to a normal situation.
Once I was there, I saw that Kabul was actually a very vibrant city; life’s going on. It was like arriving in heaven at first actually, there were mangoes, hundreds of them, and I love mangoes! The weather was lovely and I thought; this is great I’ll just sit here by a mango wheelbarrow all day!
Did you come into contact with any violence while you were there?
My second day was a rude awakening, I was going for an early morning photography shoot just around the city and I woke up to what I thought was thunder. I was staying with some archeologists who were kindly keeping an eye on me, and I got a message saying not to move because they were bombing the airport. I remember thinking ‘Jess you idiot of course it isn’t thunder, it’s bombing!’
On the fourth day, I got back from the school and as I put all my bags down I heard my first suicide bomb. I was just there by myself and it was very eery, I thought ‘that doesn’t just sound like someone dropping concrete, that sounds like a bomb.’ I later learnt that a suicide bomber had gone into a bus and killed seventeen people not very far from where I was.
How did you manage to stay safe?
I was discreet, I would dress appropriately and hop into a very small car and disappear, taking different routes each time. I was aware that I just had my cameras and myself and I didn’t have to worry about others, so I was prepared to take that risk. Though I do I think wherever we are in the world now the status is that we’re all at risk, but the one big risk is that you mustn’t not live.
Is photography with a social message what you’re most interested in creating?
In the past I’ve never been a keen feminist or suffragette because I felt that they all did it for us, but I saw some portraits of Afghan women who had acid thrown in their faces, and I remember thinking, it’s outrageous for these women to be treated like this. That spurred me on to use my skills to make a difference in my own way.
I was always doing a lot of portraits and I’ve always been trying to find an area where what I do isn’t celebrity obsessed. I like interesting, well-known people, but I don’t want that to be all I photograph. So when I read about Skateistan, it came at the right time for me. To now have found something that’s capturing celebrities’ attention, it’s interesting how that’s worked the other way around.
What was your approach to create these images?
When I take portraits I want expression, I want to get to the real person. I was there for some weeks so I had time for them to get comfortable with me. It was just the girls and me, no entourage, no lights, it was very natural. I wanted to get some poetry and movement, something artistic and I didn’t want to use freeze frame.
I had a very small area where I had this natural pool of light to work with. There were still some that were reticent to have their photograph taken, but it was really sweet when I would see the little ones suddenly thinking, ‘Well actually, perhaps I do want to have a picture. I want my board, and I want to hold it like this!’ You can see in the images one girl is hugging her skateboard like she’s protecting it.
“They’re so authentic, they’re not looking in mirrors, they’re not reading magazines, they don’t really have time for that, yet they are still be able to show that it’s cool to be dressed in those clothes.”
The girls are so stylish in the photographs, where do think they get their sense of style?
They’ve got their own innate sense of style, or are developing it. They’re so authentic, they’re not looking in mirrors, they’re not reading magazines, they don’t really have time for that, yet they are still be able to show that it’s cool to be dressed in those clothes. They go skating in their party dresses! They don’t know anything else, it’s their day out so they go really dressed up and it’s lovely to think, of course, why can’t you go in a skirt or a dress and a headscarf to skateboard? How cool is that! I think that’s a good example for anything in life, anything is possible, just put your own slant on it.
When did you start to realise that you were on to something good?
I was also photographing other projects out there involving girls like stilt walkers, a circus school and girls playing instruments, but I always felt like funnily enough, the skateboards made them quite symbolic. They represent girls everywhere, people everywhere that want to do whatever it is they want. A sense of freedom and liberation.
How did your images come from a developing Kabul to the top high-art galleries in London?
I always I wanted to use my skills as a photographer to bring this story out to the world on a bigger stage. I was aware of all the good that has been done in Afghanistan and projects like Skateistan mustn’t be forgotten about now that we’ve left. I think it is still quite surreal to have them here in the Saatchi, but I always wanted that. I had it in my mind that the Saatchi would be the perfect place for it to be launched. This is one of the top five contemporary art galleries in the world and the Skate Girls of Kabul are in it.
It is such a contrast, but I felt very strongly as a modern woman that I’ve been lucky to get on with my life and do what I want. I’m mature enough to look at things I’ve really taken for granted, and these girls might not necessarily have that chance and they deserve that. Obviously the exhibition is a world away from their environment, but I feel that the images can transport you to their world. People can have a flavour that despite the obvious fragile situation there, their world isn’t a huge difference, they want to laugh, they want to smile, the sun is out on the streets in Kabul and they want to buy an ice cream from time to time.
You succeeded in getting funding from Afghan telecom company, Roshan. How did that come about?
What was also very important, which I think is what the Saatchi saw, is that in the light of all the things that happened in Paris, that this is Afghans presenting their Afghan girls.
While I was out in Afghanistan I was on Roshan telecoms and they kept me in touch with the world. Companies like them in Afghanistan are making a difference and are doing very good business. I discovered that they had actually supported Skateistan since 2006, it was perfect. Here was Skateistan that started in Afghanistan and is now reaching beyond the borders helping girls and boys in Cambodia and South Africa now and Roshan too is an example of Afghanistan reaching beyond it’s borders. So that’s also very positive for the world to see that there are a progressive companies in Afghanistan supporting their girls and boys.
“I felt very strongly as a modern woman that I’ve been lucky to get on with my life and do what I want. I’m mature enough to look at things I’ve really taken for granted, and these girls might not necessarily have that chance and they deserve that.”
Why do you think these photographs have been so successful? What is it about them that captures people’s imagination?
Here in the west everyone thinks ‘oh skateboarding, thats a bit subversive’, like in Mexico you’ve got all of those boy gangs doing it. So it’s refreshing to be in a place where it’s just a skateboard. I think its an example of cultures working together and fitting into each other. It makes them so symbolic on many levels which I think is touching a lot of people all over the world.
Your photographs have been presented in the political arena to represent relations between Afghanistan and the UK, do you think photography can impact social change through politics?
Yes, absolutely. It is the power of the image. I’m not a political animal, I’m very much an artistic soul but for me it’s very important to see that with all the sacrifice that went on for the last thirteen years, whether people think we should have been there or not, all I know is that it’s nice to see something positive come out. That might not have been possible if people hadn’t have had to made the sacrifices that they did.
What effect do you think your pictures have made and will continue to make?
My natural temperament is positive, which is the kind of work I like to produce. There is some hard hitting photography out there that makes a difference and I feel like this is the more soft underbelly side. But you can see the world is hungry for the softer upbeat news, it’s almost quite scary how the world can look sometimes and you wonder if there is any hope. That’s what I hope people can leave the exhibition feeling, that they can relate to the children in some way but also feel uplifted by them.
These are just little girls who are playing and having fun but it ends up being quite an important play for them in Skateistan they get to have some semblance of a childhood that normally they wouldn’t necessarily have. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve done, and to come back from Afghanistan inspired by young girls out there and what they’re doing is a reminder to all of us back here.
What did you learn personally from doing the project?
As well as it being the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, I also think it’s that classic example in life that when something’s a passion project you really put your all into it. What’s changed me is the power of knowing that if you want something bad enough it can happen.