Jessica Fulford-Dobson's photo series Skate Girls of Kabul is a simplistic, yet poignant documentation of girls who have joined a skate club in the Afghan capital. The programme, run by international non-profit organisation, Skateistan, uses skateboarding and education as a means of youth empowerment.
The series has gained worldwide acclaim for both Jessica and for the charity. It succeeded in challenging the way we perceive the young women of Afghanistan. "Over the years I'd heard so much about Afghanistan but I'd never heard anything other than the horrors– but there are people out there doing good work...I was in a situation where I could go out on my own and keep my head down and try and bring the story back, which is exactly what I did." Fulford-Dobson told IBTimesUK.
In a country that is often associated with war and suffering, Skate Girls of Kabul shows a different side to life in Afghanistan. The girls are seen to be enjoying themselves as children do. The western world seems to have become accustomed to seeing a certain type of 'image' emerge from Afghanistan, but Fulford-Dobson's project displays a sense of normality among the pain and the suffering; that children can be children wherever they are.
"We can relate to that feeling of joy, that feeling of exhilaration of doing something we enjoy, but actually even more poignantly it's coming from a part of the world that we just are not aware that any happiness going on – but there is, and we mustn't forget that and we've got to help it (Skateistan) continue".
Fulford-Dobson heard about Skateistan in 2012 when an article 'Girls Skateboarding Afghanistan' caught her attention. Immediately inspired, she contacted the Skateistan European office in Berlin, explaining about her interest in their Kabul project. They were sceptical at first – Fulford-Dobson was not the first photographer to be interested in the work they were doing. They had seen many photographers travel out to their programmes, and had naturally become "quite protective" of the children. However, when Fulford-Dobson explained that she was not using it for a news story, but just as a "beautiful way of capturing portraits of the girls that they (Skateistan) have at the school and putting it in a different arena" the charity agreed.
The project spans over a two-year period, with Fulford-Dobson travelling to Afghanistan in 2013 and again in 2014. Her first trip was a time for her to bond with the girls, both before and during their classes. She paints a vivid picture of travelling on the Skateistan mini bus to collect each girl, before taking them to their classes. "It was adorable because I would get to see them running to the school bus and in any place when you see children, you know, running for the school bus its quite a lovely sight just to see youth wanting to get to school and learn".
A tomboy growing up, Fulford-Dobson said that for many years, she had never felt completely feminist, because there was no need. A contradiction in some ways, her Kabul series has often been interpreted as such "even though I was a tomboy when I was a little girl, my cousin skateboarded and I still, despite being a tomboy thought 'oh well that's for boys, I'm a girl, I'm not going to skateboard' even though in theory I should have given it a go. Children in the western world take these kinds of opportunities for granted; they are so lucky to be free."
Skateistan work with both boys and girls, but Fulford-Dobson knew "instantly" that it was the girls she wanted to photograph, making it clear from the beginning that it was "just the girls story I'm interested in. Boys skateboarding is something you see all over the world...but girls on skateboards – now that's interesting in any part of the world, but particularly from that part of the world...Skateboarding, as a sport, works within Afghan culture and Skateistan works with that culture. The charity got permission from the students, and their parents that they were happy that there was a female photographer in their class. It was all done properly, which again, I think, in anywhere in the world parents want to know that their children are meeting the right people and are being looked after".
Many of the girls were enrolled in a back to school programme, organised by the charity. The programme was for children who don't have the grades to get into mainstream schools. This was usually due to their background, as many of the children are from displaced families. "Skateistan get them on their feet, to read and write and the basics so they can then go into the third or fourth grade...If you look closely at their hands, you can see a lot of them are working in between classes. They have hardworking hands, children over here don't have hands like that".
The Skate Girls of Kabul is expected to go on tour in 2017. Skateistan now have two programmes in Afghanistan and in Cambodia and South Africa.