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Images of a fight for freedom

By Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday March 29, 2002

To look into the faces of the Afghan and Pakistan people in Patricia Monaco’s photographs — wide-eyed orphans in tattered clothes, gaunt-faced refugees waiting in ration lines, freedom fighters with their AK-47s — one can see that confidence comes from carrying a gun. 

“Everybody carried a gun,” said Monaco, an Oakland-based photographer whose exhibit, “Portraits of the Afghan People: 1984-1992,” is now being shown at Photolab Gallery in West Berkeley. Her photojournalism trips to the Middle East hotspot brought her into a Pakistani machine shop where people can make their own rifles and pistols. The difference between the hopeful glint in the eyes of armed Mujahideen (freedom fighters) and the haggard droop of thin refugees seems to bring truth to John Lennon’s lyric “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” 

Monaco first stepped into Afghanistan in 1963 as a recent UC Berkeley graduate during her post-grad global wanderings. She returned, in 1984, with a camera, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a mission to document the Afghan people during the Soviet invasion. She headed for Peshawar, about 30 miles across the border in Pakistan, where journalists and photographers were then herded. Crossing into Afghanistan was dangerous, often impossible. 

In Peshawar, said Monaco, she met with the Mujahideen, a conglomeration of Afghan tribes who fought the Soviets for 10 years. They brought her in a closed truck to secret locations inside Afghanistan. She still is not exactly sure where she was when she took photos of the Mujahideen cradling their automatic rifles and standing proudly on top of captured Soviet tanks. 

She returned in 1992 after the Soviets retreated out of the area, before the Taliban came to power. It was a period of internal skirmishes and unrest among the Kabul government and regional tribes. Monaco said she saw no significant changes in the way the people lived. 

Many of her black-and-white photos are as carefully composed as formal portraiture, often using the hazy, high-altitude light of the mountain region to bring out the subjects standing against the stark landscape. Her color photos add a note of vibrancy to the otherwise monochrome environment: the deep blue of tea canisters arranged on the dirt floor of the tea shop, the red meat in an open-air butcher shop, and the stretch of crisp blue sky hovering above an old bus trundling across a dusty mountain road. 


The exhibit, which had been hanging at the Oakland Museum’s Collector’s Gallery in January, is, with a few exceptions, portraiture. "It was very hard to get action shots," said Monaco. Although she was at the war zone, she was not allowed to the front lines or into the camps. Her sojourns into "secret locations" were guarded excursions with the Mujahideen who did not let her out of the truck until she arrived at the camp. She said she saw a lot of great shots pass her by outside the moving truck. 


One of the reasons she was not allowed to go around Afghanistan on her own was the Afghan culture’s disapproval of unescorted women. "It sounds like the Taliban invented this," said Monaco with hindsight, "but it’s not true. The Afghan culture has a rule about women alone." 


Monaco said she has not been back to Afghanistan since 1992. She said she is afraid of the Taliban, which had ruled the country from 1994 until very recently when U.S. forces and freedom fighters defeated it. The Taliban, Monaco said, had banned photography.