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Humans of Afghanistan

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This video comprises a short collection of clips from my time working as a civilian videographer for the U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan in the first half of 2012. The song is Chad VanGaalen's "Rabid Bits of Time" from his terrific 2008 album Soft Airplane.

I learned in Afghanistan that everything I thought I knew about humanity was wrong. I was profoundly depressed in the wake of this admission. My ideology needed to be true and so constantly justified; I needed to believe it was advantageous, even though it so often led me astray and prohibited my real salvation from error. Now I can see things from which I had heretofore blinded myself. Some of these things are beautiful. And they are more beautiful because I could only arrive at them by first wading forward through so much pain.

In this film, I wanted to juxtapose those pieces of the war that people tend to cut out in their editing process with the ones we see in the final product. The film shows what we think we know through such familiar images as tanks moving forward to combat and weapons systems shooting into some blank nowhere; and yet here's what we viscerally understand, the face of a man laughing or a small girl's confusion. In this tension, we are confronted with the superficiality inherent in our narratives of war. Hopefully, recognizing this, we might deliver ourselves from that false framework to a more genuine place where we see this American soldier could be my brother, that little Afghan girl could be my daughter.

I was especially interested in isolating those moments in my footage where I saw a moment of vulnerability. In a combat zone, everybody is trying very hard to conceal how scared they are, whether they're soldiers or children or village elders or whatever. But the special thing about having a camera there is that I can capture the flinch, laughter, or other momentary lapse from this big secret we're carrying together: that we're in a place where we have to believe it's okay to kill each other. Our eyes plead with one another to keep up this pretense. The editing process demands that you play these images over and over until it's technically adequate. Once you've seen the same clip hundreds of times, something interesting happens; you begin to see these tiny admissions that you couldn't catch when you were there. Every once in a while our faces let slip how we really feel about all of this despite what we'd otherwise willingly admit.

When I arrived back in the States, everybody wanted to talk with me about Afghanistan. It was very difficult for me, even to hear the name; I just wanted to hide somewhere private and cry. I couldn't really understand why that was for a while. But I think I've come to realize that here in the West, people's opinions about the region, its people and the war have really congealed into this sickening sort of knee-jerk bring-the-troops-home or these-colors-don't-run blather that ignores the humanity of everyone involved. I think it's very easy to ignore people when we don't want to genuinely confront the difficult questions that come with acknowledging their existence. It's easy, but it's wrong. I don't want to tell people what to think about this war, whether it's good or evil — that would be an arrogant presumption on my part and I've learned from Afghanistan that nothing is so unambiguous — but I want them to think of the broader implications for humanity in their considerations of where we should go from here. We can't always avoid making mistakes but we can at least avoid being uninformed. And that means more than reading the news. It means understanding the people.

It is still unclear what the conclusion will be amid so many possibilities for humanity. Afghanistan is a lens through which the world might better understand itself.

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