Joel van Houdt, an independent Dutch photojournalist, who lived in Afghanistan for several years, has recently returned to Kabul to exhibit his photography on Afghan migration. The exhibition, entitled “Kuja meri? – Where are you going?”, comprises a series of about 50 photos that focus entirely on Afghanistan’s refugees and is displayed on the outer walls of the Ministry of Telecommunications compound in Kabul. Van Houdt chatted with AAN’s Jelena Bjelica about several highlights of his photo documentation project on Afghan migration.
Joel van Houdt’s interest and commitment is to document refugees and migrants, and this constitutes a significant part of his body of work. (1) Between 2007 and 2010 he worked on an independent project entitled “Entering Europe,” which documented Moroccans illegally entering Spain.
In 2012, while working on a story for the New York Times Magazine about Nimroz province, which borders Iran, van Houdt started documenting Afghan migration. Then, in 2013, he photographed Afghan and Iranian migrants crossing the Indian Ocean on their way to Australia. This exceptional undercover work was also published in the New York Times Magazine in November 2013 (more on this below). Following the Afghan exodus to Europe in 2015, van Houdt continued documenting Afghan refugees and migrants, including in Turkey, Europe and the United States. He successfully captured some historic moments, such as the closure of the Jungle camp in Calais in October 2016 (more on this below). “It felt right to continue following the Afghan story once I left the country,” he explained.
Van Houdt chose black and white photography as his medium of expression for the Kuja Meri? project because of the dramatic contrast he envisaged occurring between his black and white pictures and Kabul’s colourful streets, where he hoped to exhibit them. He was spot on. The Kabul exhibition was implemented with the support of the ArtLords, a local artistic group that creates street art or, as they put it, seizes “the opportunity for converting the negative psychological impact of blast walls on the people of Kabul into a positive visual experience.” The ArtLords helped van Houdt to place the 3.3 metre by 2.2 metre prints, which he produced in the Netherlands, on the blast walls around the Ministry of Telecommunications. His exhibition attracted the attention of the Minister of Refugees and Repatriation, Sayed Hussain Alimi Balkhi, who gave van Houdt an award for his exceptional coverage of Afghan migration at a ceremony held on 12 November 2017 at the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University.
- Turkey, Istanbul
An audience of mostly Afghans watches a wrestling match in Sahil Park. Matches take place every Sunday in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district, where many Afghan refugees and migrants live, often awaiting a chance to travel onwards to the European Union. (9 July 2017). Photo: Joel van Houdt
I knew that there would be a lot of Afghans in the Zeytinburnu area. I walked around and after a couple of days I found this giant circle of Afghans watching a wrestling match in the middle of the park near the sea. Every Sunday Afghans gather in the Zeytinburnu area to watch wrestling matches. They also frequent the park in that area to have picnics. I would say that almost 80 per cent of the people in the park are Afghans.
I had help from an Afghan guy who showed me around Istanbul. He had just arrived in Turkey when I met him. He was trying to find a way of continuing [his journey onwards from] from Turkey. He was a former interpreter for the United States military. He had worked for them for five or six years. He said he was blacklisted, because he had a corruption charge. He denied it. So, he was there in Turkey and he was trying to get to Germany. He hoped that from Germany at some point he would be able to go to the US… He was on a long journey. He emailed me maybe two weeks after I took this picture to say that he had crossed the border into Greece.
You can see in the picture that behind the crowd there is a road, and it’s here that a lot of Afghans live in Turkey. The guy that was showing me around lived there with four other Afghans. It is kind of the area where they hang around, some of them live there for several years or even longer – like an Afghan man I met, who has been in Turkey for 14 years. He did not have any plans to leave Turkey.
When I took this picture, I thought these two high-rises in the background were quite interesting. They reminded me of the World Trade Centre, but maybe that is just me… maybe I am pushing it a bit for other people. It did cross my mind, however. I felt there was a connection between the beginning of the war in Afghanistan and these people 16 years later in Turkey, trying to move on. It was symbolic.
(See also this AAN analysis about the situation for Afghan migrants in Turkey).
- Greece, Lesbos
Afghan teenager Mortaza swims in the Aegean Sea in the port of Mitilini. The coast of Turkey, from where he arrived, can be seen in the background. He is staying with other Afghan minors in a house in Mitilini waiting for the Greek government to decide on his asylum request. (14 June 2017) – Photo: Joel van Houdt
This picture was taken at the port in Lesbos from which ferries to the mainland depart. It was also the place where many Afghans gathered in the hope that they would catch the ferry to the mainland, while, in reality, they are not allowed to leave the island of Lesbos. I was at the port and found this group of Afghan minors swimming. They were just killing time.
I chose this moment, of a boy swimming, because there is a moment of reflection in it. He is kind of helpless… For me that moment corresponds with his situation because he is waiting for the Greek government to decide on his future. He does not know what will happen to him, whether he will be sent to Afghanistan when he turns 18 years old. He does not have any security. He can only wait on the island. I felt that this picture tells that story the best. Also, because he floats motionless on the water, it is a metaphor of all of the people who have drowned crossing the sea. You can see in the background of the photo the Turkish coast, and just think how many people have died crossing that narrow stretch between the Turkish mainland and the Greek island.
The most difficult part of documenting the situation in Greece was the interaction with the Greek government. The Greek police have been horrible. There is not much press freedom in Greece these days. I was near the Idiomeni camp when the Greek government was trying to close it, and they were not allowing any journalists access to the area. Ten miles from Idiomeni there were some refugees protesting and the police even tried to stop me from taking pictures there. It was not easy to work in Greece, access to the camps has been limited by the government. It is extremely difficult to get permission for any official camp there. In terms of access, Greece was really difficult. But, more or less anywhere else in Europe, the situation is similar. For example, in Germany near Frankfurt there are former US military barracks, which have now been turned into a camp for refugees. I thought this was also an interesting place to photograph, because of Afghans fleeing the US-led war in their country only to end up in former US barracks in Germany. So I spent two weeks writing letters and making phone calls, and I never got permission to take pictures inside that camp in Germany. In that sense, Greece cannot be singled out.
But refugees have always been friendly and hospitable and they like to be photographed and to tell their stories. This obviously is not the case in every situation. Once I tried to take pictures of refugees illegally trying to board ferries going to Italy in the port of Patras in Greece. They were climbing over a fence in the port and they were not very happy to have me around with my camera. In their tents, where they cook and drink tea, they like to have me, but not when they were in action, ie trying to cross the border illegally. The same goes for the Greek police. In the port of Patras, one night I was trying to take a picture of 40-something refugees climbing over a fence – I was not even inside the port, but on the road. The police came and they interrogated me for half an hour, while the refugees kept jumping over the fence. My impression is that the Greek police were more nervous about a photographer than the refugees climbing the fence.
(See also this AAN dossier about Afghan migration to Europe; about crossing to Italy here and here; and about the smuggling routes in the Balkans here)
- Serbia, Belgrade
Afghan men try to wash Nabikhan, also known as Comando, from Afghanistan’s Nangrahar province. They say he lost his mind after the Croatian police hit him on the head with a stick one month ago and gave him electric shocks. Croatian and Hungarian police often force refugees and migrants back into Serbia when they try to cross the EU-border at night. Other Afghans are trying to find a way to bring Nabikhan back to Afghanistan because of his mental illness. An estimate of close to one thousand refugees and migrants stay here in sub-zero temperatures behind the central train and bus station in the Serbian capital Belgrade. Many have been stuck here for months while hoping to cross the closed borders with Hungary or Croatia. There are not enough government facilities but many also prefer not to apply for asylum in Serbia, and try to continue their journey to Northern Europe. (24 December 2016) – Photo: Joel van Houdt
I spent quite a bit of time in a Belgrade squat. It was one of the hardest places I visited, in terms of the conditions in which people lived. It was winter, temperatures were often below zero Celsius. They lived in a warehouse and had been burning plastic junk inside. The warehouse was full of smoke. They were balancing between dying of suffocation or dying from cold, and they lived in these conditions for months. (See AAN’s analysis about a Belgrade squat here)
For me that situation was quite disturbing. And this guy Comando, from the picture, he was really not well. His friends had been worried and they were trying to clean him up. They were also trying to figure out how to send him back to Afghanistan. There were no non-governmental or governmental organisations in the warehouse that would take care of him.
(The situation with aid providers in the Belgrade squat changed several months later, see this 2017 AAN analysis here).
- France, Calais
An Afghan refugee packs his belongings while a fire destroys his tent in “The Jungle” on the third day of a police operation. The French authorities are trying to close and demolish the makeshift refugee camp next to the highway leading to the port of Calais. An estimated 8,000 refugees and migrants have been staying here, trying to reach the UK. (26 October 2016) – Photo: Joel van Houdt
As a photographer, what I enjoy the most is capturing some surreal moments, like this one in Calais. This picture may not look clear at the first sight, it perhaps requires a more careful read, so to say. It takes time to interpret what is really going on there.
I had just arrived in Calais from Italy, when ten minutes later everything went up in flames in the Jungle camp. Although I spent several weeks during September and October 2016 in Calais, at the time it was still not clear when the French authorities would close it down, but it had been rumoured for a long time that it would be closed.
It was a kind of surreal place to be at that very moment. Many Afghans, but also the migrants of other nationalities, were forced to leave the Jungle camp. They were put on buses. But as they were leaving the camp, the tents or makeshift houses were disappearing in smoke. At one point I had seen some young guys, probably minors, on bicycles with torches in their hands, going around the camp. I guess people had mixed feelings… they had lived there for year(s), even though it was not a great place to live. Still they called it ‘home.’ I like this picture because I think it captures that surreal moment.
(See also these AAN dispatches about Afghan asylum seekers in Europe here and here)
- Australia, Indian Ocean, between Indonesia and Australia
Morning, the second day of a three-day boat journey from Indonesia to Australia, on the deck of a 30-foot long boat that is carrying 57 asylum seekers. They are all Iranian except for one Afghan man from Kunduz, Afghanistan, and two Indonesian crew members. Their destination is an Australian territory, more than 200 miles across the Indian Ocean, called Christmas Island. They had left southern Java, Indonesia, in the early hours of September 6th and were to be taken to Australian’s Christmas Island by the Navy on the morning of September 9th. Then they would be taken to the island’s detention centres from where all asylum seekers would be flown to Papua New Guinea or the tiny republic of Nauru. To discourage future asylum seekers on this route Australia eliminated, in 2013, the possibility of any boat person ever settling in Australia. Over the past decade, it is believed that more than a thousand asylum seekers have drowned along this route. (7 September 2013) – Photo: Joel van Houdt
When the 2014 exit date for foreign troops in the country drew nearer, a lot of Afghan friends started asking us how and where to leave. Around that time, Australia changed its policy, which stipulated that any person arriving by boat was not allowed to claim asylum. For us, Luke Mogelson, a writer, and I, these were the main reason to try to do the story about Afghan migration to Australia. We decided to pretend to be refugees from Georgia. Georgia was a random choice. We were on the phone with a smuggler and we had to come up with a country. We felt that chances on running up on another Georgian on this trip were minimal, so we just went on with it. It later turned out that we were wrong, a woman from Iran in the safe house in Jakarta, who had lived for many years in Georgia, was trying to chat to us in Georgian.
We found a smuggler and then went to the hawala market in Kabul (money exchange market) to pay him. We received a code to give to the smuggler once we had made it to Australia. The smuggler was not in Kabul or in the market. We paid 4,000 USD each for the trip from Indonesia to Australia. We told the smuggler that we would arrange on our own the trip from Kabul to Jakarta.
Once we arrived in Jakarta we got in touch with our handler and they put us in the safe house with other refugees. There we waited for weeks to take a boat trip. The toughest part of working on this assignment was actually the waiting, not the journey itself. There is a lot of time to think about what can go wrong, thinking about sharks and boats, that, once you board, there is no way back, etc. I was really worried about the boat, whether it would be a proper boat for a journey on the ocean. When the day came to board the boat, they first put us in small skiffs. Later on, I was happy to see that it was a wooden 30-foot boat. We spent days on the open sea. It was a really distressing experience. Many people were seasick. There was no toilet. We had very little food or water between 57 of us. I was sunburned and thirsty by the time we reached Christmas Island.
I told people in the safe house that I used to be a photographer in Georgia. I even bought a retro looking camera at Dubai airport on the way to Jakarta, a Fujifilm x100s. I scrapped the camera with the keys and other sharp objects, to make it more authentic. Although we did not talk a lot on the boat with each other, because everyone was just trying to survive, I would occasionally take a photograph and people were okay with that. The camera did not last for very long. It died several months later, from the sea water during this trip.
Luke and I decided at the last moment to get Australian visas in Jakarta. We applied for electronic visas in an internet café nearby our safe house. Once we arrived at Christmas Island we pulled out our passports and the coastal guard let us go. We were lucky, because for our fellow travellers, the worst part of the journey was just beginning. They would have to spend months in detention, waiting to either be deported or allowed to enter Australia. I think it is important to report on a story based on experience. Without experiencing it, it is really hard to fully understand what these people go through. Of course, we only experienced a small part of it, because of our western passports.
(See The Dream Boat story in the New York Times Magazine, here).
- USA, Sacramento
Afghans gather to pray and celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, in Sacramento. Most here are members of a newly formed Afghan community, many of them former interpreters for the US Armed Forces and USAID. They came to the US on Special Immigration Visas (SIV). (6 July 2016) – Photo: Joel van Houdt
Usually when I photograph, I find it more powerful to focus on one person or one family, or even a small group. But for this project, I thought it was important to photograph all of the different places and show different examples of where Afghans currently reside. I only scratched the surface, there are so many countries that I did not photograph, but I thought that going to the US to document Afghans there, who had recently fled the US-led war in the country, was extremely important.
The people in the picture are all former interpreters for the US army and most of them fled Afghanistan in the last two years. They live in Sacramento pretty close to each other in the apartment block, where almost every apartment is occupied by an Afghan. A lot of them work in an iPhone repair centre. They usually only get a one-year contract and are fired after a year, because in the US, after a year’s contract they should be given a proper contract, which, for many of them, never happens. It is a strange situation that they have found themselves in Sacramento.
I found that in Freemont (California), as in Virginia, both original places for Afghan migrants in the US, fewer and fewer people can afford to settle there, mainly because it has become really expensive thanks to the Google and Facebook headquarters based closed by. This is why many of them end up in Sacramento, which is a cheaper place to live. In Freemont, near the mosque, I met this well-built ex-Special Forces guy from Afghanistan, who is now driving a tow truck. He fled to the US seven years ago. He said that he hates life in the US and that he wants to go back to Afghanistan.
For many of them, life in the US is very harsh. They do not get a lot of money from the government. They are also not allowed to bring that many family members, only a wife (or a husband) and children. For Afghans, this is a very difficult situation, to live so far from their close relatives. Also the time difference of 12 hours makes people feel really cut off from their families and loved ones, from their previous lives and their country. It is definitely not ‘the easy ride’, considering that these people are seen as the success story of Afghan migration.
(1) Joel van Houdt is currently based in Moscow. He lived in Kabul between 2010 and 2015 and worked for various publications, travelling through much of the country, reporting on the war, the Taleban insurgency and warlords.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020