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The Best View Of Heaven Is From Hell

Photographer Bran Symondson talks to us about capturing intimate images of an opium-loving police force in war-torn Afghanistan

Bran Symondson is a photographer and ex-soldier who returned to Afghanistan after serving there in The British Army in order to capture incredibly intimate images of the Afghan National Police. These stunning pictures get their first public outing this week at Idea Generation Galley in The Best View Of Heaven Is From Hell, and they shine a light on the idiosyncrasies of a culture almost entirely alien to the western paradigm – one with its roots very much in opium, religion and open homosexuality. On the eve of the much-anticipated show we talked to the ever-more celebrated image-maker about the largely hidden world he captured in the candid eye of his lens upon his return.

Dazed Digital: What made you want to take these pictures of the Afghan National Police?
Bran Symondson:
Well, I was into photography before I was a serving soldier, and it was always my intention to take a camera out there even as a soldier because I knew I was going to an amazing place. When I was actually serving, I was generally taking photos of day-to-day life and the guys I was working with, and I can’t stress to you enough how professional the British Army is out there. After a couple of months of doing that, I started picking up on the nature of the ANP, and this kind of tribe within a tribe. I found it really interesting.

Dazed Digital: What sort of things did you start to notice that interested you?
Bran Symondson:
There was an intimacy about the way they groomed each other that was very effeminate, despite the fact they lived in a very harsh environment. I almost warmed to it because it was a culturally creative element in what was a very simplistic lifestyle. The society they live in is very basic. They don’t want for much more than a cooking stove, a bucket, a couple of pots, their clothes and normally, a little radio. It was these vast cultural differences that made me what to return as a civilian photographer.

Dazed Digital: What did you hope to convey in the pictures you took when you returned?
Bran Symondson:
I really just wanted to convey the softer side of a war zone. I mean, to most people Afghanistan conjures images of troops jumping out of helicopters, but it is a very beautiful country and there is an underside to the conflict that no one here ever sees. I mean, you can really understand why there was a hippie trail through the country in the 1960s: fields of flowering poppies, pomegranate trees, snow-capped mountains... It’s stunning, and when you are there it takes your breath away.

Dazed Digital: Do you think this softer side comes from the fact that opium use is so prevalent?
Bran Symondson:
Yeah, I think so. They are all stoned and there is no getting away from that. When I was actually serving, it would sometimes be hard to put a patrol together because lots of them were wasted on hash or opium. It’s changing slowly, though. Maybe in a few generations they could become a police force as we understand it, but our concept of policing and their concept of policing are completely different. What people don’t realise is that bribery out there is a completely open thing. We are a bit arrogant to think that we don’t live around bribery and that everything here is above the law, because it’s basically bullshit – you only have to scratch below the surface to see how the government, banks and corporations work; it’s all backhanders. And yet, we go over there, and because the bribery is obvious, we claim it’s outrageous.

Dazed Digital: Why do you think homosexuality and the subjugation of women are so prevalent in the Afghani culture?
Bran Symondson:
I think the men find solace in each other because of the lack of women. I mean, men there don’t even socialise with women. It’s very bizarre. Most of the women are actually kept in compounds. I think the oldest girl I saw who wasn’t in a burka was probably about twelve years old. Women used to secretly ask us for pens and stuff, but if they were caught with them they would get a serious beating. There are two sides to that though, and there is a photograph in the exhibition that deals with it called Rude To A Woman. It shows a policeman with his feet chained up and another policeman holding the chains. The reason I am showing that image is that it really epitomises the segregation between men and women.

Dazed Digital: In what sense?
Bran Symondson:
Well, the guy in chains was at a roadblock and a woman turned up on the back of a motorbike in a burka. He wanted to pat her down, knowing the Taliban use women as mules to carry weapons. Because his colleagues felt he had been rude to her they put him in chains for a week. In a way, I think it’s a bit like having a beautiful pet bird you so much that you keep it in a cage. Women are like that out there. People forget that this behaviour is only a few decades old though. Afghanistan was a very cosmopolitan country in the 1900s. At the end of the day, what we have now this is just one man in hiding who is the leader a bunch of guys who are afraid of women. They hide behind the mask of religion, but that’s what it all really comes down to. 

The Best View Of Heaven Is From Hell exhibits at Idea Generation Gallery from January 28 – February 20