Jens Umbach's portraits show Afghans against a stark white background
He wanted to keep the focus on the people and not the environment around them
Three young men in jeans and sneakers stare back fiercely, holding the cues they were playing with in the pool hall.
Nasima, an elementary school student dressed in a traditional black-and-white uniform, looks ahead soberly with her hands clasped together.
Mr. Saifudin, with a shemagh casually draped around his shoulders, holds up a stack of fresh bills and sports a mischievous grin on his face. He works in the currency business, exchanging money on his city’s street corners.
They are the Afghans in Jens Umbach’s latest project, which the photographer hopes to turn into an 11-chapter book.
In a series of portraits, Umbach depicts people who live in and around Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s third-largest city and a key location for US-led military action in the country. The portraits are set against a plain white background, omitting any context of the subjects’ surroundings.
“The photojournalistic approach is to get right in there and give you an idea of where people live and what they endure,” Umbach said. “I wanted to look at the people only and not have the environment of what’s going on there.”
“The Afghans” was inspired by Umbach’s previous work, “Afghanistan.” In 2010, Umbach explored Germany’s engagement in the country, documenting the German forces stationed there as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping effort.
Once “Afghanistan” was published in 2014, Umbach immediately wanted to go back to the country.
“I figured it was time to take a look at the other side that was supposed to receive help from the international community,” Umbach said.
At the time Umbach was in Afghanistan, about a decade since US-backed forces captured Mazar-e-Sharif, most people’s lives had regained some sense of normalcy. Men were back to their jobs as farmers or factory workers, and girls could go to school.
“In general, even though the security situation was not so stable, everyone seemed like their lives had improved,” Umbach said. “Everyone was really warm and welcoming. People were able to build their businesses, and girls had access to education again.”
It wasn’t always this way, though.
Before Mazar-e-Sharif fell to US-led forces in November 2001, it had been controlled by the Taliban since 1998.
One of the people Umbach photographed was a man named Khan Mohammed. Mohammed lost his wife and an eye when a bomb hit his house. The incident not only devastated him personally, but economically – Umbach said Mohammed had to sell his son to the Taliban. Eventually, however, he was able to purchase his son back, and together they opened a sewing business.
Such a story was not unique among the people Umbach interviewed. In times of political and economic distress, many Afghans struck deals with the Taliban or took up arms themselves. A young man named Nasro lost both his parents in a bombing and ended up joining the Taliban, although he eventually disassociated himself from them once he was economically stable again.
“If someone offers you $300 to pick up a Kalashnikov and that will feed your children, that was a big incentive at the time,” Umbach said. “And it probably would be again if the situation got to that point.”
For years after 2001, Mazar-e-Sharif has been considered a model of economic prosperity and stability in the country. But with the Taliban’s recent attacks in the nearby city of Kunduz and the city’s unshaky transition back to local Afghan forces, life in Mazar-e-Sharif doesn’t seem as stable as it once was.
It’s quite different than the situation Umbach said he experienced during his time there.
“What we did then, we couldn’t do now,” Umbach said. “Now, I have a permanent record of what it was and what it could be and also some proof that it would be wrong to leave Afghanistan to itself now after having promised to help rebuild it.”
Jens Umbach is a photographer based in New York and Hamburg, Germany. He is raising funds on Kickstarter to turn “The Afghans” into a photo book. You can follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.