Photographing the Afghan Police: Opium, Bribes and Eyeliner

London-based photographer Bran Symondson (40), a trained chef and former soldier, burst into the Art world last year with his astonishing images of the Afghan National Police, which were displayed in a solo exhibition at Idea Generation Gallery and published in The Sunday Times Magazine. Bran, who has since won the 2011 Amnesty International Media Award for a piece he did on the Al-Shabaab terrorists, talks to Chic-Londres about his experience as a soldier and photographer in Afghanistan, where he was posted for six months in 2008 with the mission to help training the police.

Were you surprised by how effeminate the Afghan police appears? While it seems strange at first to see two policemen walking hand in hand, you get used to it after a couple of months. On Thursdays, policemen have party where they apply make-up and dance with each other. Also, every police unit has its own “chai boy”, a young recruit whose role is to look after the commander; he prepares the food, cleans the place and sexually services him. This is considered as a rite of passage and totally accepted.

Why is homosexuality so prevalent? Homosexual practices are an integral part of the culture, including within the army, the police and the Taliban. Single Afghan men almost never interact with women, as girls get married off very young, usually around 12. After that, they are kept in compound and they wear a full burka when in public. Therefore men find solace with each others, both for sexual release and feelings of affection.

How do you compare the way the Afghan police operate to our Western model? There is no point in comparing, as our worlds are so different. Most of the time, the police has no real authority, as they have to follow the elders’ decisions, which come first in this tribal society. They also openly take bribes, as corruption is considered a normal way of doing business, and routinely get stoned on hash and opium, which is the equivalent for them to having a beer.

What message did you want to convey when taking your pictures? I wanted to show a lesser known side of Afghanistan, through the feminine side of what is seen as a machismo environment. The Afghanis are beautiful people, warm and welcoming, and the landscape itself is stunning, with fields of flowering poppies and snow-capped mountains.

What are your best and worst memories of Afghanistan? The worst is obviously to have lost some good friends who got killed there. The best comes probably from the sheer beauty of the place. It seems hard to believe but it provided a very romantic setting from a photographic point of view. I also feel extremely privileged to have been able to take pictures of beautiful people in an unusual situation.

Will you go back there? Probably not, as there are other projects I would like to explore now. That said, I might one day go back as a tourist, as Afghanistan has got so much to offer. Poverty is the main driving force for the Taliban and I believe tourism will be the end of them, by bringing foreigners and money to the locals.