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Determination: an Afghan woman prisoner passes the time.

Visions of Hope

Photojournalist Connie Frisbee Houde’s work in Afghanistan helps facilitate a greater understanding of a troubled land

By Shawn Stone
Photos by Connie Frisbee Houde

‘I didn’t travel with Tom this last time I was there,” says Connie Frisbee Houde. “I was going to, after they got back.”

“There” is Afghanistan. “They” are Tom Little and his team, who were in the country representing the National Organization of Ophthalmic Rehabilitation Eye Care Program. For years, Little had been providing medical treatment and training to Afghans; he and his team were murdered in early August by “insurgents” while returning from a mission in the Nuristan region. Little had lived in Afghanistan for decades and raised a family there. Houde, who is a lifelong friend of Little’s widow, Libby, had recently arrived in Kabul, the capital city, when this happened; she continued her visit, but the tragedy haunted her.

On a recent weekday morning, Houde leads a reporter on a tour of her latest exhibit, which is currently on view at Albany’s Visions Gallery. It’s a show that almost didn’t happen.

“Because of Tom’s death, I had difficulty getting myself going on this exhibit. I kinda wanted to come home and forget about it all. But then I came up with the title Life Goes On.”

The full title of the show is, Life Goes On—August in Afghanistan. Houde observes, “The Afghans’ lives go on, even though war is there and has been there for 30 years; Tom’s family’s life goes on, my life goes on. . . .”

“I dedicated the show to the Nuristan eye camp team that were killed.”

The show captures the breadth of Houde’s interests and travels in a place we’ve been at war, to varying degrees, for nine long years. There are no images of battle, however. The Afghan people take the spotlight.

“I wanted to put the people up front, because we need to see the faces, we need to understand the people as human beings,” Houde says. “You look at this baby, here—this could be my kid.”

Houde is describing a section of the show featuring images from this most recent trip.

“I was traveling with a woman named Fahima Vorgetts, who we’ve been working with to put a well in a village south of Kabul. And she works a lot with women’s groups called shuras, which are basically economic cooperatives.”

Good works: Women work with ceramics in a shura.

Shuras are basic, grassroots economic development. They teach the kind of practical skills that result in useful products, and provide the marketplace where women can sell the goods they’ve made. Houde explains that there are, for example, shuras dedicated to working with fabrics, where women learn tailoring and embroidery; in the case of the shura captured in this particular series of images, the women are producing pottery and glass products.

She points to an image of a woman holding a small ceramic object.

“This is the woman who leads this particular shura, which all the women around her are members of,” Houde says. “That’s her daughter in the picture. We were sitting there, and they were showing us what they were doing.”

These pictures were taken in a village north of Kabul.

“It is a really beautiful spot. It’s up on the hillside. [During the civil war of the late 1990s] they held out against the Taliban longer than some other villages. The Taliban were really angry when they finally took it over: They chopped down all the grape vines and put acid on them so they wouldn’t grow again, and burned them. . . . So it took a while for this area to come back, but people have been rebuilding and planting trees.”

Houde explains that since Fahima Vorgetts began working with them in 2003, there are now five shuras in this area: “Economically, it’s a godsend to these people.”

There are also photos of women in close-up, which exquisitely capture mood and reflect personality; these are fascinating.

“It’s hard to tell how old some of these people are,” Houde says. Pointing to a headshot of a youngish-looking woman, Houde says, “She’s probably a teenager, but she could be married and have kids. Some of them are breadwinners for their families, even though they look like teenagers.”

“This woman here,” Houde says of an adjacent picture, “she was a classmate of Fahima, who is 52; [this woman] looks like she is in her 60s or so.”

“Life is hard to them. This woman over here is a grandmother; I didn’t ask how old she is, but she could be just 60.” And the woman appears considerably older.

Houde doesn’t show bombed-out buildings or signs of battle, but the economic and psychological effects of a long-term military and political struggle are the subtext of everything that’s happening in these images.

“This was my fifth trip” to Afghanistan, Houde says. “My first was in 2003. Then I went for a month in 2004, a month in 2005, and I didn’t go back until the fall of 2009.”

In that four-year interval, things had changed considerably: “It was really a shock to me to see the difference—and by that, what I mean is that in 2005, I would just walk out of the door of Tom and Libby’s compound with my camera and wander the streeets. Like here, there are certain areas you don’t walk in by yourself, but I wasn’t bothered, I wasn’t hassled. People would ask me questions, and they would want to talk English to me. I always had my radar out, but I felt relatively safe.”

Good products: The items produced at a shura.

On Houde’s 2004 trip, she was accompanied by Metroland reporter Travis Durfee to the northeastern region of Afghanistan and the city of Kunduz; the result was the story “Sight for Sore Eyes,” which was first published April 29 of that year, and chronicled Tom Little’s humanitarian mission. (It was republished in August of this year, following his death.)

“It was very safe to travel there. Tom sent the two of us off with the Afghan team, and just didn’t worry about us.”

Things have changed: “Now, you don’t want to go up there.”

“My view of what has made that change,” Houde says, “is that the supply routes are now coming from the north, and coming through Kunduz—the supply routes for the NATO forces. The Taliban and other insurgents have come into that area, and are fighting against the soldiers being there. If [NATO] weren’t there, I think it would still be a peaceful area.”

Part of the exhibit is images from this 2004 trip. There are pictures of people waiting for, or receiving, medical treatment; the mood seems to reflect both patience and anticipation. “These,” Houde says, “are women waiting to have their eyes checked. Even though they were inside, it was men doing the checking so they kept their burkas on—and their faces covered—most of the time they were there. And they would just lift the burka back [as shown in the picture] to be examined.”

Four years later, it isn’t just the northern region of Afghanistan that’s changed. The whole country has changed.

“When I went back in the fall of 2009,” Houde says, “it was very different. We [had to stay] in a compound, and when we went out we went in a vehicle, we didn’t walk the streets. We were asked not to walk the streets. If we did walk the streets it was usually with an Afghan and in very small groups.”

“Otherwise,” she says, “you’re subjecting the people around you to being targeted.” Kidnappings, she adds, are common.

One section of the show features photos of her late friend, Tom Little.

“This is a photograph of Tom that I took in 2004,” Houde says “which was the first year that I went that I was really traveling in the countryside. I went first the year before, when I met Tom and Libby in their kitchen. We had a nice dinner, and Tom described his program to me.”

She points to another image: “He loved to hike. When you were a newbie coming in, he liked to take you to his favorite spots. This was one where you had a really nice view of Kabul and the valley.”

There’s another photo that seems really odd, of Little sitting with two smiling Afghan men. The doctor is holding a gun, but he’s holding like he’s holding a specimen; then men had asked him to check it out.

Time to talk: Afghans discuss their country’s future.

“My feeling was that this was so much who Tom is,” Houde explains. “He got along with everyone. He didn’t see political borders, he didn’t see ethnic borders, he just was there doing what needed to be done.”

“He was comfortable,” she says, “sitting next to guys who were freedom fighters or whatever, looking at their gun and laughing about it. Therefore, he was loved, greatly, and there were a number of instances in which Afghans saved his life because they knew what kind of person he was.”

Then there’s the photo that was used with most of the stories about Little’s death, which first appeared in these pages in 2004.

“This was taken in the workshop where, at that time, they were grinding glass,” Houde remembers. “Later, when I went back in 2005, they were beginning to set up a plastic lens facility.”

An important aspect of Little’s legacy, Houde says, is in the nature of the program he helped set up and run in Afghanistan.

“The reason his program has lasted as long as it has, I think, is because it was about training Afghans to do the work.”

Reflecting on who might have been responsible for the deaths of Little and his team, Houde says that “there are multiple rogue groups, whether you call them ‘Taliban’ or not, that are out there for themselves. And I think they saw an opportunity in targeting this organization to make a statement about killing the ‘infidels,’ not just because they were Christian, but because they were non-Islamic.”

At the time, Houde points out, the shadow Taliban government in the area “came out and said, ‘we did not do this, this is not a part of our code’—and they explained what their code was. . . . They apologized to the families.”

Clearly it’s an increasingly difficult situation in Afghanistan.

“I don’t fault our soldiers, I fault the policies,” Houde explains. “I think our soldiers are doing the best that they can, and many are doing good work. I just personally don’t believe that humanitarian aid should be connected to a gun.”

Houde’s own humanitarian efforts—like trying to build a well in Mir Taqi San, a village south of Kabul, continue. And her images bear witness, she hopes, and show that “we have much to share with each other as we bridge the differences from culture to culture.”

Life Goes On—August in Afghanistan will be on view at the Visions Gallery (40 N. Main Ave., Albany) through Nov. 5. For more info, call 453-6600.

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