The Taliban, representation and culture: or reading the other

A photographer, Thomas Dworzak, came across a cache of photographs taken of young Taliban in Kabul in 2002, just after their regime fell. And the photographs point to some fascinating issues regarding representation and ideology. There is a short photo essay available on here which is worth listening to.

As is well known, the Taliban cleaved to a ferociously literal interpretation of Islam, one which absolutely prohibited the depiction of faces in illustration or photograph. These strictures carried over into the public sphere in bizarre ways. Consider this example of a street sign.


And here we see a shop display where any imagery of heads on products has been deliberately obscured.


This sort of iconoclasm is not unknown in Europe. Consider the egregious destruction of religious imagery during the reformation. The underlying social dynamic was almost identical with Roman Catholic imagery being destroyed or deface because it represented a temporal corruption of the spiritual, the rationale was that a Biblical injunction against ‘graven idols’ gave license to destroy this imagery.


Yet the Taliban were not being entirely true to Islam. While it is true that human and animal forms were eschewed within the confines of mosques, this was not based on the Qu’ran but on the more colloquial traditions contained within the Hadith. The lush aesthetics of Islamic art, rooted in geometric and floral abstraction, was such that it was and remains a remarkably rich visual lexicon.Moreover in the public sphere human imagery was often found in Islamic societies (consider even today in the Islamic Republic of Iran there is no injunction on imagery of Ayatollah Khomeini). In other words there was, and remains, a remarkable diversity of approaches to visual imagery within Islam – a tension as it were between competing visions of Islam.

And something of this tension between philosophical and religious purity and the visual is found in the photographs Dworzak discovered. These depictions are quite striking.


The young men have winsome expressions, the images are hand tinted. In some two or more pose together. Often they carry guns and in some these are pointed directly at the photographer – an added risk to photographers in a process that was already weighed down with risk. For these photographs were utterly prohibited. The Taliban issued an edict in 1996 which banned:

…music, shaving of beards, keeping of pigeons, flying kites, displaying of pictures or portraits, western hairstyles, music and dancing at weddings, gambling, “sorcery,” and not praying at prayer times

One spokesman of the Taliban suggested that:

“Of course we realize that people need some entertainment but they can go to the parks and see the flowers, and from this they will learn about Islam,”

And it is this that informs the photographs. Ahmed Rashid, a journalist, who provides commentary on the photo-essay argues that the Taliban depicted in these photographs comprised a second wave, less attached to the original precepts of the founders and therefore willing to covertly have photographs taken of themselves.

Dworzak posts that these photographs depict the Taliban as “…very effeminate, with black eyeliner, and guns and flowers and holding hands and everything’… The suggestion is that they are essentially homosexual, or at least representative of some ‘effeminacy’ – and the term itself is hugely problematic, in this specific instance it might be argued that it is used in a way which contains a somewhat insulting and pejorative insinuation regarding gay men in general.

Frankly I think this is a misinterpretation by Dworzak. It is true, as Rashid notes, that there are cultural traditions in the South of Afghanistan where homosexuality is covertly an aspect of the society, however the Taliban were as homophobic as they were misogynistic. So while these photographs may indicate some element of that the photograph do not strike me as particularly indicative of effeminacy.

The juxtaposition of flowers, painted Alpine backdrops and the Taliban is actually positioned clearly within a Middle Eastern and Asian cultural aesthetic which as has been noted – particularly in the former – eschews the representation of the human face in favour of geometrical or decorative motifs. The flowers can even be regarded as being within a ‘safe’ visual discourse approved by the Taliban.


As for wearing makeup, kohl is used by men throughout the Middle East, this use can be both aesthetic and pragmatic in that it protects against grit and against the glare from the sun.. The apparent use of lipstick seems to be more an artifact of hand tinting, as is evidenced in the photographs taken from the middle distance. And in this regard the photographs are little different than photographs from the 1930s. Fleshtones are exaggerated, backgrounds achieve an almost fluorescent quality. But none of these are particularly ‘effeminate’ and they reside within a easily understood context.


But I think that it is the centrality of power and youth that is most evident in these images. These are young men with guns whose writ ran through the streets of Kabul. The photographs serve a dual representational function, both in what they are and in the meanings they encapsulate, capturing these men at perhaps the high point in their lives. The element of narcissism – drawn from a highly macho or masculine culture – is an added extra and perhaps only appears distinctive to the occidental eye.

In that respect one can ask whether this is simply a misrepresentation of ‘other’. It is understandable that faced with the appalling brutality, misogyny and homophobia of the Taliban that any seeming paradoxes provide an attractive explicatory function for such evils, that they might indeed in some sense be ‘hypocrites’.
Here the reading seems to be that although their actions were misogynistic and homophobic, their essential core was somehow different and was imbued with an ‘effeminacy’ which undermined those actions.

The problem is, that by and large they were not hypocrites. These young men were willing to bend the rules that they themselves would operate within, but they would not turn against them. These photographs sit within the context of their cultural environment – an environment where, ironically, as Rashid notes photographs of the self were highly valued and sought after artifacts of visual culture.

And I’d suggest that this demonstrates the dangers of ‘reading’ other cultural artifacts too closely in the context of ones own culture. Because certain concepts of ‘effeminacy’ are positioned within our own visual culture – rightly or wrongly – that does not mean that they are transferable to very very different milieu.

Gilbert Adair in his interesting “Myths and Memories” once wrote about the problems of defining ‘beauty’, and noted that:

… questions… presuppose that if it exists it is by nature indivisible and hierarchical; that there are not, in short as many variations on physical beauty as there physical or racial type… and any reflection on the subject might be claimed to represent another instance of the Occident insidiously asserting its ‘natural supremacy’.

In a way these photographs represent perhaps not an assertion of natural supremacy, but an assertion of the known projected upon the half known.

This is not to say that reading the other is unknowable. Clearly the Taliban operate within a socio-economic and cultural context. We can, and should, make judgements about that context and those players within it.
But that requires some consideration of the artifacts that are available, and the context within which they are created. Otherwise an incorrect, and arguably reactionary, interpretation may be arrived at.

(I’m indebted to Donagh of Dublin Opinion for drawing my attention to this)

Ciarán Swan

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