James Longley
Kabul, Afghanistan
Power Plant Gallery
Through Feb. 20

Internationally recognized filmmaker James Longley is a master of contrasts: a bundle of candy-color balloons blares against beige, crumbling buildings; bright blue diving boards grow magnificently upwards in a battered land; portraits of a young boy and an old man hang side by side.

Longley’s feature films include Gaza Strip (2002) and Iraq in Fragments (2006). His work has received Sundance Film Festival awards as well as Emmy and Academy Award nominations. Now, the MacArthur Fellow turns his focus to one war-torn neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan, an exhibition in its final days at Durham’s Power Plant Gallery.

That neighborhood, Jada-e-Maiwand, in the heart of Kabul, is steeped in a history of destruction and distress. Twenty years ago, Afghanistan was enveloped by a bloody civil war. Fast forward to the present and you’ll find seeds of a new beginning sneaking into the landscape of the past. Longley’s photographs catch these fleeting hints of the future as splashes of hope inside weary frames.

Longley is first and foremost a documentary filmmaker. So, understandably, his photographs convey the depth and expansion of a flashback film sequence. He is partial to the panorama, and for good reason. What better way to catch the feel of a shaken space than its horizon and all that lies before it?

I was drawn to one particular shot: the lengthened perspective of what appears to be a typical playground. Visible behind kids swinging on a jungle gym is a series of short houses, and behind them sit hills, or perhaps giant mounds of rubble. Trash litters the ground. A few scraggly trees border the scene. The children form bubbles of lighthearted, intimate interaction. A mother steadies her standing baby. These are just people living their lives, growing older and growing up, in a formerly uninhabitable setting. This appears to be a theme across the collection: Modern-day Jada-e-Maiwand is ravaged and a bit eerie. However, it is populated by average people going about the mundanity of daily life.

My favorite piece by far is a frame of two very young girls standing in front of a bread shop. Loaves of flat, oblong bread hang in the window. The girls are positioned in the center, one facing the camera, the other with her back to it, showing off a knee-length robe of pink roses. They seem unaware of the camera’s presence, engrossed in their conversation.

They stand there, one facing behind (to the past) and the other forward (to the future). The old building stands nearby, a symbol of the past, and inside the structure is the means of their survival, their daily bread. In this photo and the collection as a whole, Longley seems to capture Afghans’ current reality: In the aftermath of war, all you can do is keep moving forward.