Award-winning photojournalist Paula Bronstein was first sent to Afghanistan in 2001, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. She has returned to the country countless times since then, amassing a huge body of work on the nation and its people. In her new book, “Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear,” Bronstein explores such prominent issues as girls’ education, heroin addiction and violence against women, providing a full picture of daily life in Afghanistan, beyond the frontlines.
“When you cover one place a lot you get to know it very well,” she said. “I’m constantly looking at story possibilities and trying to come up with something different, compelling and interesting to show.
“When I choose what to cover, I always I try to choose the stories where I think I can make a difference.”
While the situation for women in Afghanistan has improved since the fall of the Taliban, there are still major issues that make it the most dangerous country in the world for women according to a 2011 Thomson Reuter Foundation poll. Women’s literacy within the country is only about 14% and according to a Global Rights report, 87% of women in Afghanistan experience physical, sexual or psychological violence during their lifetime
Many of the topics Bronstein covers are related to women’s issues, not only because she is personally drawn to the subject matter, but also because, as a female photojournalist, she has a level of access to Afghan women that a male photojournalist would not.
“As female photographer I can work on a lot of female issues that mean a lot to me,” Bronstein said. “The Afghan women talk to me because I’m a woman and they feel that the story that I’m trying to tell is important.”
Covering Afghanistan for so many years has given her a unique perspective on how these issues have evolved over time.
“Some things have improved for women in the country — but it’s baby steps,” she said. “I think a lot of the issues are reoccurring, evergreen stories that don’t go away. The women wish things would change but they can’t empower themselves because of the conservative culture and the fact that women don’t have the same rights that men do in the country. They are bought and sold and are married off as child brides and quite a few of them are illiterate. Yes, there are some girls going to school, but that’s mostly in Kabul. All these issues bring to light the harsh reality that some things have changed in the country with women, but a lot still hasn’t.”
Michael Sheldrick, Global Director of Policy and Advocacy at Global Citizen, agrees that while there has been significant change in the country, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Perhaps the greatest progress achieved points to girls’ education,” he said. “In 2001, less than a million children were in school, and the large majority were boys. Today, more than 8.3 million students are enrolled in schools across the country, and an estimated 40% of them are girls,” he said. “Although a huge leap forward, this is only the beginning. Afghanistan must continue to empower girls and women through education and advance gender equality by addressing the health, economic and legal barriers that currently hold them back.”
Bronstein hopes her imagery can make an impact on the lives of Afghan women, but recognizes the challenges.
“It would be ideal if my images could make a major change, but I think that’s optimistic,” Bronstein said. “My images definitely bring more awareness to the issues but it’s very hard in a conservative Islamic culture to make a huge impact. Women’s stories always receive a lot of attention overseas, it’s just making the attention resonate back in Afghanistan — that’s the difficult part.”
Hassina Safi, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Network knows how difficult implementing change can be. Her organization maintains an active presence throughout Afghanistan, supporting projects related to issues such as gender-based violence and education for girls.
“People need to realize the gains we have made are fragile and we still need help,” she said. “What we’re seeing in Afghanistan today is two opposite faces. On one side we’re seeing promotion of women to key positions as a result of our advocacy over the last years, but at the same time there is no security for women, and we’re seeing the systematic killing of women working outside.”
Bronstein refuses to lose hope. She continually returns to Afghanistan to document the lives and issues of the Afghan people because she feels an obligation to share these important stories.
“It’s upsetting that a lot of these issues don’t get better—the core issues don’t change,” she said. “There are a lot of problems in Afghanistan that are worth delving into but I think people want to push them aside and not think about them anymore. Hopefully this book will raise the issues again and make people pay more attention.”
Explore more of photojournalist Paula Bronstein’s moving imagery at Getty Images and learn more about her upcoming talk and book screening