Life in Kabul: Portraits by a Photojournalist

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

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: If Guantanamo conjures thoughts of a war in Afghanistan, here is something to remind us that the country is much more than that. David Gill has lived in the Afghan capital for more than three years. He's director of a multi-media company there. And he's made it his mission, through photos and videos, to profile Kabul's everyday characters, the people who keep the city going. His project is called "Kabul, a city at work." Gill says he took inspiration from the book Working by Studs Terkel. Gill has documented the daily routines of more than a hundred people, everyone from the postman to the candy maker at the local sweet shop.

David Gill: The sweet maker himself, when you walk in there, it's like it's been lit by Hollywood. There's a massive hole in the roof, there's a beautiful burning furnace, and the dirt all over his face, the fire and the smoke and the children – it's almost cinematic. So you almost don't have to do anything, just film the guy. He's melting boiling pots of sugar and it's like, "Come here and have a cup of tea" and watch this guy working.

Werman: His headline, the quote is brilliant: "Life under the Taliban was much better. There were no Snickers bars."  Is he saying that he has more competition now and he doesn't like that?

Gill: Well, it was more about the price of sugar and cheap imports and everything else. I think if you ask anybody, there's always some that think that life was better under the Taliban. I don't think anybody wanted the Taliban to return, it's just he is now in competition with the rest of the world. Before, it was kind of like an isolated country.

Werman: What is is for you about common workers? I think a lot of people here in the U.S. think of the people in Kabul may work as politicians or soldiers or aid workers. For you it seems like a completely different paradigm.

Gill: The paradigm came from convincing the rest of my family, mainly. My grandma – she's 94 years old and she's like, why are you living in a war zone? What are you doing there? It must be so dangerous. And I'm going, It's not dangerous at all. It's just a city that has violence, there are random explosions, but day-to-day life in Kabul is very normal. I pitched this story to Esquire magazine and they basically said give us some characters. Tell us who you want to write about. I started doing this list and it just got bigger and bigger.

Werman: Tell us about a couple of more people you spoke with, David, that you met.

Gill: WE divided the city into ten different areas. We've got a new dynamic, the new kids on the block, the filmmakers, the graffiti artists, the do-metal merchants. There's all these kind of young people finding their own way. We've got the civil servants. We've got a postman here, a guy who delivers post every day and we don't even have street addresses. My own house is known as Mad Dog House — Red Door, and that's how you identify it to taxi companies. So you've got all these different areas and different categories.

Werman: There's also the ice cream salesman who goes around Kabul with his rolling red plastic cart. It kind of looks like a giant stroller. What's he like? What's his job like?

Gill: I think it's the sound of Kabul and if you were going to cover Kabul as a video maker or film maker, there are noises that you get in Kabul and it's usually the sound of military helicopters or building. Or in the background of very single shot is "Cut!" because there's an ice cream van going past and he's playing the sound of Titanic on his portable ice cream machine. So you have to be in the project because he's almost in every single video I've ever made.

Werman: Well, here's the sound of his cart. Let's have a listen.

Gill: Oh no, don't do this to me.

Werman: Alright, it may not be so evident, but it is "My Heart Will Go On" from the movie Titanic. David, let's end by talking about Qasem Foushanji, , who is a rock musician. He started a band in a style he describes as Afghanized metal. His music is pretty dark. Let's take a listen.

Musician: The fear of sudden death is always there. From suicide ____ bombs. It's like you go to some ministry or some embassy around 8 o'clock in the morning and you don't know what's going to happen.

Gill: Qasem Foushanji, he's the lead singer for this metal band called District Unknown. He was massively affected by the 2008 Indian embassy bombing because he was in the queue outside. He saw many people die. So he decided to try to express himself through music, through art. Which he would never have been able to do during the Taliban.

Werman: It's interesting, with the case of Qasem we come full circle after hearing the stories about people with these regular jobs that we kind of don't think about. Here we are with somebody who was clearly affected by what is going on with the violence all over Afghanistan.

Gill: I think everybody is affected by it. Thirty years of war – it's a cliche. Thirty years of instability. There's a huge amount of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is not even recognized really. Everyone has a tale to tell.Qasem himself, who is a refugee, and pretty much all of the young population here, had to flee the country.And now they're returning and trying to rediscover themselves and rediscover the city, just by telling the tale of the city. Trying to bring some history, bring some pride back to the place.

Werman: Photojournalist, videographer and blogger David Gill in Kabul. Thanks for telling us about these residents of Kabul who you've met.

Gill: It's my pleasure.

Werman: You can see some of David Gill's photos and videos of "Kabul a city at work." They're at