Paul Almasy

Travel in an enlightened kingdom

© Paul Almasy

Mohammed Zahir Shah was the last king of Afghanistan, reigning from 1933 to 1973. In 1959, he encouraged the schooling and emancipation of women and went on to ensure that a constitution inspired by that of the French Fifth Republic was adopted in 1964. During his reign, the country sought to open up to the outside world.

French photographer Paul Almasy, who died in 2003, had the opportunity to visit this nation that longed to leave its feudal system behind. Almasy was born in Budapest in 1906 to a Jewish father and an aristocratic mother. He visited every country in the world, except Mongolia. His career began in the 1930s and he covered the early days of the Second World War in Germany. Unlike most photojournalists of the time, Almasy was aware that the world was about more than just conflicts and violence, and that it was equally important to shine a light on social difficulties. In 1965, he published a detailed report about the lack of water on the planet long before such issues became central in the 21st century.

In the 1950s and 1960s, he spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, bringing back images that seem unreal to us now that the Taliban have retaken control of the country and proclaimed an Islamic emirate. A situation that contrasts starkly with the photographs in this exhibition, which show an Afghanistan that is free and fundamentally more modern (in the Western sense of the word) than it is today; a country where a little girl, the bright look of innocence on her face, can sit next to a little boy in the classroom. This scene is far removed from the images of Koranic schools we now receive from today’s Afghanistan where the Taliban have brutally reinstated strict Sharia laws that set women’s conditions back a hundred years. 

This is thus a historical, documentary-like look at Afghanistan. It is a nostalgic view, without a doubt, but one that helps us better understand the country’s past. These photographs also offer hope in the face of fatalism and indignity: more than merely reminiscing, they perhaps hint at a possible future for the country. A future free from the clutches of obscurantism.

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