Kabul and Philadelphia: Two cities through the lens of teenagers

A new photo exhibit pairs images of daily life in Kabul and Philadelphia snapped by local teens.

Courtesy of Sayed Madadi/Being "We the People"
This battlefront is being changed to a playground. A frozen depth in 'Qurgha' full of destroyed weapons from the civil war is now being used as a playground by local boys in Kabul.
Courtesy of Renee Jackson/Being "We the People"
'I took this photo in Ocean City, NJ. The boat is lying on the sand near the shore. I really like how even though the boat wasn’t in the water, the focus on the boat made the ocean look further away. The waves looked like they were coming toward the boat from far away.'

Both photographs show people playing in water. But the foregrounds offer a startling contrast: In one, a small white boat labeled “Ocean City, N.J.” calls up images of vacation; in the other, the tops of military tanks call up images of war.

Dozens of these thought-provoking pairings – created by American and Afghan high school students – are being featured in simultaneous exhibits at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.

“What I wanted to show ... is a change in the way that two generations think,” writes Sayed Madadi, a 12th-grade boy at Marefat High School in Kabul, who photographed the children playing by the tank. “This generation does not have the harsh experience of war as much as the last one. Now they have a new vision of life,” he says in an e-mail interview with the Monitor.

IN PICTURES: Afghan and American Students Compare Their Lives on Film

“Being ‘We the People’: Afghanistan, America and the Minority Imprint” runs from May 14 to Sept. 26. An online component which launches later this summer will also allow visitors to comment and make their own pairings of the photos (see

“You would never suspect when you’re looking at these photos that most of these kids had never held a camera in their life,” says David Eisner, the Constitution Center’s president and chief executive officer. But with a little technical training in their respective countries, and plenty of online exchanges starting last July, the 21 students began framing powerful images depicting freedom, religion, expression, and other civic themes.

“The dialogue between them was so sophisticated,” Mr. Eisner says, “[that] we in the museum ended up becoming more spectators than instructors.”

Sharifa Garvey, a sophomore at Constitution High School in Philadelphia, says she focused her lens on images of expression. “In Afghanistan, they have to present themselves and act in a certain way, whereas in America we have a lot of freedom to do certain things..., to wear whatever we want to ... to get tattoos and earrings and stuff like that.”

Sharifa also took the camera to church, where she’s active in a dance ministry. When the Afghan students traveled to Philadelphia in March to help curate the show, the group paired her picture of the exterior of the church at night with a photo of an Afghan worship ceremony.

“I hope people who see [the exhibit] will leave with a message that even though we have different customs ... overall we are the same,” Sharifa says.

Initial shyness gave way to great friendships during the six-day visit, says Eisner, who saw “differences burning off [because of] the desire to understand each other.” Girls in traditional Afghan dress walked arm in arm with the Philly girls wearing jeans and T-shirts.

After months of getting to know one another and critiquing photos through the website, when they finally met, “we were like family,” Sharifa says.

“What [the Americans] said inspired me,” writes Bismillah Alizada, a 10th-grade boy in Afghanistan, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “They told us that we are able to bring change in our society and that this was our mission and responsibility.”

In turn, “we want to display the real image of Afghanistan,” Sayed writes. The exhibit can help show Americans “what their government and troops are doing in Afghanistan and why they are spending their money here.”


Shredding war’s dark memories: Iraq war veterans release their angst by turning their uniforms into paper.

Back to Kabul with diplomas: A US-based scholarship program for Afghan women graduates its first students.

IN PICTURES: Afghan and American Students Compare Their Lives on Film

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.