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Skate Girls of Kabul

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    Posted: 17-Jul-2017 at 1:56am
Skate Girls of Kabul

Reinventing the wheel

When British photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson first arrived in Kabul in June 2013, two smells hit her: “the scent of roses that thrive in the climate” – and “the smell of tarmac, because road resurfacing was in full swing”. The project that had brought her to Afghanistan was one that challenged preconceptions. For her Skate Girls of Kabul series, Fulford-Dobson took portraits of girls learning to skateboard – in a country where it is considered taboo for women to ride bikes. (All photos: Jessica Fulford-Dobson)

Best foot forward

In the foreword to her new book, Fulford-Dobson writes: “It’s hard not to think of Afghan girls skateboarding as a remarkable and quirky clash of cultures. But when you see these girls in their beautiful, bright, flowing clothes tearing around the skate park, often yelping and shrieking with laughter, your preconceptions drop away. You realize that however unusual it may seem, they’re doing what comes naturally to them. As with girls anywhere in the world, once you give them the chance to do something they love, each one begins to discover her own personality, her sense of style and how to express it.”

Ramped up

The Afghan charity Skateistan began as a grassroots project in 2007, and now teaches more than 1,200 young children to skateboard each week. “It’s impossible to avoid how much joy and action there is as the girls whizz up, down and around the hall,” says Fulford-Dobson. “One amazing thing about skateboarding is that it demonstrates – perhaps more than many other sports – just how tough and resilient these girls – or any girls – can be. They hurl themselves forward with unstoppable courage, and if they take a tumble they bounce right up again, running back to the queue and cheering on their friends. It’s a brilliant way to illustrate the strength, enthusiasm and positivity of young women in Afghanistan.”

Above board

Because she was there on her own, Fulford-Dobson was able to gain the girls’ confidence. “I spent a few weeks with them and they were able to forget I was there most of the time,” she says. “Even though I had to communicate through an interpreter, I began to see and appreciate their different personalities – in the way they spoke, how they dressed, how they moved, how they behaved with each other and, of course, in the way they skateboarded.”

Strike a pose

This image won second place in the 2014 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, organised by London’s National Portrait Gallery. Fulford-Dobson describes how she captured the portrait: “I let this seven year old find her own pose. I took about nine pictures of her, half sitting down and the other half standing – this was the last photograph I got of her before she had to run for the school bus. So even though she appears to be composed and standing calmly for me, she is in fact poised to turn and run away.” Fulford-Dobson was impressed with the way she held herself. “I love the way her little hennaed hand rests gently – yet possessively – on the skateboard, and how small she seems beside it. Above all, I love her assurance: her firm, steady gaze.”

Beyond the veil

Beyond the veil

Despite the pace of the subjects, many of the portraits have a stillness that takes them beyond action shots. Describing the photo for which she won the prize, Fulford-Dobson says: “She first caught my eye because she is wearing such a strikingly beautiful colour, a sort of inky teal. I was so impressed by how immaculate she looked in an environment where dust is never far away. From the way she has tied her headscarf so beautifully and so naturally, you see that she has an innate sense of grace.” She refers to her photographs as “almost like fashion portraits, but of course the girls are wearing their own clothes and I wanted them to choose how they would sit for me. I didn’t style them at all, I took them just as they were when they hopped up onto the platform.”

Platform for change

Platform for change

Fulford-Dobson had to snap the portraits on the hoof, but found that the restrictions gave the photos energy. “I had a very small area to play with, due to lack of decent light generally, so on top of this ramp I had just a metre-squared area for the girls to jump up on and stand however they wanted … when you see the portraits altogether it is fun seeing so many different characters and personalities reflected through each of their own natural stances and outfits.”

Seeing the light

Seeing the light

“I used only natural light, as I always prefer, but in the whole skate park there were only a few pockets of light that were strong enough, which limited where I could make these portraits,” she says. “In the end, this restriction actually turned out to be positive on both sides: even in the tight space I selected, you can really see their different personalities shine through.”

Free wheeling

Through its work, Skateistan connects vulnerable children with the school system: more than half of its students are streetworking children. Fulford-Dobson told BBC World Service: “For them to have time in their lives out there where they can be children, and they can have as much fun as other children in the world … is a wonderful thing.”

Edited by MateenK - 17-Jul-2017 at 2:38am
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