Remembering Photojournalist Paula Lerner

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Paula Lerner was a photojournalist who took extraordinary images of women in Afghanistan. Women doing ordinary things -cooking, putting on makeup, laughing. We featured some of the photos. We've got them at theworld.org. Paula Lerner died of breast cancer earlier this month. She was a friend of this program, and a good friend of mine. Rangina Hamidi knew her too. Rangina's father, who was assassinated last July, was the mayor of Kandahar in Afghanistan. Kandahar was a place that Paula visited several times. Rangina and Paula braved the threat of kidnappings and assault to go to the homes of Afghan women to photograph them. One of Rangina's favorites, is a photo Paula took of women baking bread in a room only about three yards square.

Rangina Hamidi: If I can paint a picture with words, basically it's a three-sided mud wall with a roof on the top, but one side is open to the courtyard. And the women use that little space to bake their bread on this big round metal sheet that's covered with mud. It's quite a process to make bread or bake bread in Kandahar. So Paula wanted to take photographs, but because she was limited by just having this one opening, she just jumps inside the little one-and-a-half meter square area, which is all covered with the black soot of the fire, because this is the same place that they use every day. She just kind of climbs on the walls of the three other locations and she is taking photographs from the top down. So the young woman is squatting on the floor, making the bread on the floor, and Paula is climbing on the walls inside this little space and taking photographs. There's fire on one corner and there's this woman who is baking bread. She's also laughing as to what the heck is Paula doing. Her mother and her sisters ran in and they're standing beside me laughing at that -what is she doing? Paula was not paying attention to any of us because she was enjoying taking these photographs. And then when she was done, we had to clean her of the soot that she had touched on her arms and on her legs. She's like, well I do a lot of mountain climbing, and so climbing on these walls in this little tiny place was not a problem. Out of that some amazing photographs have come about. And I will always, always remember that incident.

Mullins: And it sounds like it was a wonderful few moments when it happened. What's the larger meaning, though, of our being able now to see images like that one?

Hamidi: I think especially today in the midst of the political chaos between Afghanistan and America, it is heartbreaking to hear and see how much Americans now see Afghans all in this -they're all terrorists; they've been killing each other and at war for centuries; let's leave them behind; let's get out and let Afghans kill each other. I believe that the photographs of Paula show the human side of what people really are like in Afghanistan on a day-to-day basis. And I hope that these pictures will help to educate Americans that -sure, we've been used and abused, but in a way we are still living in the old ages. We're not terrorists; we're simple people trying to make bread and have a life on a day-to-day basis; to just simply live and not be in the chaos that we currently are.

Mullins: You told a wonderful story in a eulogy that was read at Paula's funeral just two weeks ago, and it had to do with her saying goodbye and some of the women she had met in Kandahar, saying goodbye to her. Can you share that again?

Hamidi: Yes. I hope I'm not going to cry about this, but the last day before Paula was to leave, the women decided to throw her a singing party. And they danced and they played the traditional drums, round drums. Actually, the day before I told her this was going to happen, so then she's like, I know how to sing as well, and if I only had a guitar I would sing a song to them. So my husband and his friend actually go on an adventure -well, not an adventure but we don't have a guitar and we don't know many people in Kandahar who have a guitar. So they go asking their friends and finally they found a guitar for Paula. So when the ladies were done, Paula started singing a song. I cannot remember the name, but I know it was something about women. In Hebrew, actually -it was not even in English. And I look around and some of the women just had tears coming down their face. And I see more than one, more than two. There was a moment of silence and nobody said anything. And language didn't matter; your culture and your faith, even, didn't matter. Just knowing that someone is capable of doing that gives me hope. And I'm so proud to say that I had a friend named Paula Lerner who chose to look beyond the differences and connect with the people that were so different. So strange, yet she connected in a way that I have not scene anyone connect in the nine years of time that I spent in Kandahar.

Mullins: Rangina, thank you.

Hamidi: Thank you very much.

Mullins: Rangina Hamidi was a friend of Paula Lerner. The week that Paula died, a book of her photography, called Afghan Stories, was published. You can find a link and a slideshow of her work at theworld.org. This is PRI.