Afghanistan in flux

Half a century of a struggling nation

I eagerly looked through this book of images shot by Magnum agency photographers in Afghanistan, having just spent time in the region myself.

One of the attractions of "Arms Against Fury," published by Powerhouse Books ($49.95), is its epic time span. It starts in 1955 with Magnum photographer Marc Riboud. Some of the shots, such as a man with his wife in full burqa, could have been shot yesterday. After Wayne Miller's photos of President Eisenhower's official visit in 1959, we jump to 1969, an ever-so-brief period during the reign of King Zahir Shah, covered by photographer Eve Arnold. Arnold catches a glint of modernity in a sea of tradition: a woman in a beauty salon; a married couple, the man in a business suit and his wife with her head uncovered; a female student.

Notable is a 1971 image by Elliott Erwitt of girls working in a field without burqas and wearing skirts that let their calves show, an odd scene for recent travelers in Afghanistan.

Fast-forward to 1979 and the Soviet invasion, covered eloquently by Raymond Depardon and Steve McCurry, and the aftermath, photographed by McCurry and Stuart Franklin. Ironically, during the Soviet repression, the burqa recedes and one sees the beginnings of national industry, with men and women working in factories.

The jihad period of the 1980s, in reaction to the Soviet presence, shows scenes that are not for the squeamish, such as McCurry's double-page photo of a soldier's corpse floating in rainwater. But after the Soviets depart, we see Afghanistan's darkest period: the civil war of the 1990s. There are lots of weapons, tanks, and fighting; people being led to execution, taking cover, and coping with mine injuries.

Editor Robert Dannin can't include much from the Taliban's five-year regime because of the ban on photography. But after Sept. 11, we see photo coverage by Thomas Dworzak that depicts an Afghanistan covered for the first time on deadline with digital cameras and satellite phones. At the end of the book, there are some surreal portraits taken by Dworzak of Afghans bearing Kalashnikovs and posing in front of a Swiss chalet mural. Afghans must love the Swiss Alps. I saw the same mural in several places when traveling in Afghanistan.

A short text by the photographers offers some insight and perspective. On the whole, the book presents an Afghanistan in crisis, showing a lot of the dark side but with enough cultural snippets, such as Luc Delahaye's coquettish sequence of schoolgirls peeking through head scarves. Using so many photographers, with so many viewpoints and styles, adds interest at the cost of some loss of visual continuity.

Robert Harbison is a staff photographer.

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