an Afghan woman prisoner passes the time.
Connie Frisbee Houde’s work in Afghanistan helps facilitate
a greater understanding of a troubled land
Photos by Connie Frisbee Houde
didn’t travel with Tom this last time I was there,” says
Connie Frisbee Houde. “I was going to, after they got back.”
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
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. . . .”
dedicated the show to the Nuristan eye camp team that were
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.
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
Houde is describing a section of the show featuring images
from this most recent trip.
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.”
works: Women work with ceramics in a shura.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
products: The items produced at a shura.
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
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.”
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
Four years later, it isn’t just the northern region of Afghanistan
that’s changed. The whole country has changed.
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
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,
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.
to talk: Afghans discuss their country’s future.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.