Fighting Terror One Bridge at a Time

Christopher Grabowski

In Afghanistan, the Canadian contribution to the war on terror goes beyond military presence. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) supports projects ranging from de-mining fields and roads to training independent media professionals and developing the civic structures that make democracy meaningful.

CIDA provided financial support for my trip to Afghanistan in the fall of 2003, as well as some of the travels of other photographers represented in this show. In exchange, some of our work focused on documenting various projects financed by Canadian government agencies. 

The tradition of using photography to reinforce humanitarian initiatives goes back a hundred years. In 1908 the National Child Labor Committee in the United States hired Lewis Hine to help with their campaign to end child labour. The project was one of the first to use the visceral quality of photography to advocate social change. Throughout the twentieth century, photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Eugene Smith and Donna Ferrato sharpened the form with essays that shaped our understanding of pollution, war, poverty and domestic violence. Cornell Capa’s term for this work was concerned photography. 

From the 1970s to the end of the century, however, independent documentary photojournalism declined as the great photographic magazines stopped publishing and television staked its claim. At the same time concerned photography retreated from art galleries as conceptual art came to dominate. While the venues for photo-documentary projects shrank, the issues remained; organizations such as CIDA were still grappling with poverty, hunger and the debris of war even after the headlines had faded.

Over the years, the relationship between CIDA and independent photographers came to benefit them both and to have a significant impact on Canadian documentary photography. It was a connection that helped to sustain some of the practitioners through a difficult period and into the twenty-first century, and now documentary has begun to make a comeback.

While photographing CIDA’s work in Afghanistan, I was struck by the parallels between health care policies that emphasize prevention and an approach to the war on terror that favours humanitarian assistance. Although not as dramatic as the bombing of an Al Qaeda hideout, grassroots humanitarian projects effectively disperse the hopelessness that is the right hand of terror.

In the war-scarred province of Parvan, I photographed women entrepreneurs running a small radio station. In the Pagham district, I learned that a simple concrete bridge had been rebuilt, allowing farmers to move their goods to the market. Throughout the country, I observed the effects of micro-loans and efforts to establish community credit unions. Wells were being drilled in drought-affected areas, the capacity of communities to reintegrate refugees was being restored and, last but not least, independent media journalists were being trained.

If we look at these projects as campaigns in the war on terror, there is no doubt that Canada is helping to win many of them. The question is whether, in the context of the whole region, the international community is determined to fight enough of these battles to actually win the war.

Christopher Grabowski is a documentary photographer and a founding member of Narrative 360.