Photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson captures the inspiring "Skateistan" project in Kabul, using skateboards as a tool to encourage young women back into education. We find out more.

Award-winning photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson delves into a fascinating project based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Turning her lens to the youth of the city, she captured a very special NGO using skateboarding as a means to engage with disadvantaged children and young adults. Founded in 2009, "Skateistan" is a labor of love for Australian Oliver Percovich who turned his passion for skating into a pioneering initiative. Open to all, the scheme is centered on empowering its members with a particular focus on young girls.

Utilizing a male-dominated sport in a challenging environment where girls are subject to all manner of restrictions, the project's ultimate goal is to encourage its participants back into full-time education. Fulford-Dobson was immediately struck by the project's simple yet powerful goal. With girls forbidden to ride bicycles, a strip of wood and four wheels took on a significance that went way beyond just a childhood hobby. In 2012 the photographer arrived in a troubled and unstable Kabul and began shooting a series of compelling portraits, her subjects eager to pose with their treasured skateboards. Using natural light and the "Skateistan" skate park as backdrop, this candid set of shots reveal the power of play.

Eager to learn more, we spoke to Jessica Fulford-Dobson as she prepares for the launch of the "Skate Girls of Kabul" book.

Can you tell us a little about your background in photography?

After leaving Durham University, one of my early jobs was assisting the award-winning documentary film maker Nicholas Claxton on his film "Linda McCartney – Behind the Lens." Linda was the first professional photographer I met. I found working with her very inspiring. Linda told me some of the stories around her photographs as we were putting them up for display. Not long after, I got my own Nikon F10 and enrolled on a photography course. I have been working professionally since 2000. I like to keep things as simple as possible, preferring to work with natural light, a closed "set" of just me and the sitter and no one else. I don’t work with an entourage.

When did you first come across the young women shown in your work?

I was reading a newspaper late in 2012 when I stumbled across a small piece about girls skateboarding in Kabul. The article was so short that I nearly missed it. The very idea of Afghan girls on skateboards captured my imagination and I thought it was a shame that such a visually striking story was compressed into a small column of text. We only seem to hear bleak news from Afghanistan, so it was really refreshing to read something so different and uplifting. I knew immediately that the "Skate Girls of Kabul" would be the perfect subject for me as a photographer. I specialize in portraiture, particularly of children, and here was an opportunity to photograph young girls doing something exceptional in a beautiful, albeit war-torn, country. In addition, I hoped I could bring more publicity to a genuinely positive story about Afghanistan through my photographs, and therefore help generate more support for Skateistan, the charity that was giving these girls this amazing opportunity.

Can you shed some light on the "Skateistan" project?

Skateistan’s initiative is to engage with the youth through skateboarding to improve their lives and give them an education. Skateistan began around an old disused fountain in 2007, when the founder Oliver Percovich arrived with three skateboards. It became an official Afghan NGO in 2009. Afghanistan is facing many difficult issues, not least the size of the younger population: 68% of the country is under the age of 25 and 50% are under 16. Education is obviously a big concern. Skateistan [is] aware that it is vital that educational development efforts continue to engage with this vast young population.

How did the "Skate Girl" photographic series first come about?

I let this seven-year-old find her own pose. I took about nine pictures of her, half sitting down and the other half standing. This was the last photograph I got of her before she had to run for the school bus (left photograph above). I had a very small area to play with, due to lack of decent light, so on top of this ramp I had just a meter-squared area for the girls to jump up on and stand however they wanted. When you see the portraits altogether it is fun seeing so many different characters and personalities reflected through each of their own natural poses and outfits.


Do you have a favorite image from the series?

I feel passionately about all of them, but the front cover image (which won second prize at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London) sums up the whole project for me. That girl caught my eye because she was wearing such a beautiful color, a sort of inky teal. I was so impressed by how immaculate she looked in such a dusty environment. From the way she has tied her headscarf so beautifully and so naturally, you see that she has an innate sense of grace. I love the way her little hennaed hand rests gently – yet possessively – on the skateboard, and how small she seems beside it. Above all, I love her assurance; her firm, steady gaze. You feel a sense of depth there, even though she is just seven years of age.

How did you find working in Kabul? Were the young women open to your project?

Yes they were. After I met the girls and learnt more about Skateistan’s various projects, I became excited about documenting the collaborative aspects of the project. It’s about Afghans supporting Afghans and building up their own communities and support networks. In Afghanistan men and women are segregated in any kind of official setting. All classes are single-sex and older girls who have passed through the ranks at Skateistan teach the younger skaters. The project also embodies the idea of women supporting women. I found that exciting and inspiring.

That said, it’s impossible to avoid how much joy and action there is as the girls whizz up, down and around the hall. One amazing thing about skateboarding is that it demonstrates – perhaps more than many other sports – just how tough and resilient these girls – or any girls – can be. They hurl themselves forward with unstoppable courage, and if they take a tumble they bounce right up again, running back to the queue and cheering on their friends. It’s a brilliant way to illustrate the strength, enthusiasm and positivity of young women in Afghanistan.

Kabul is immediately associated with war and instability. Do you think it's important to shed light on the more positive side of the city and its attempts at regeneration?

Yes I do. Being a Westerner, a woman alone working in Afghanistan was challenging in many ways. There were so many scenes that I longed to capture but couldn’t: I didn’t want to risk my actions being resented or my motives misunderstood.

Unfortunately, my first visit fell during a particularly violent month that saw a number of Taliban attacks and bombings across the city, which was also quite challenging. The skate school had to be suspended for a few days due to the security so I was unable to complete the project on my first visit. So, I knew I would definitely have to come back to finish what I’d started, which I did in May 2014 in the wake of the historic Afghan elections.

The fact that these children display such optimism, hope and exuberance in a country that has suffered terrible violence and conflict in recent years is just astounding. The poverty of the country is also something that cannot be ignored. In Afghanistan, 60% of Skateistan students come from deprived backgrounds. Some of them live on the street and many are refugees from other regions in Afghanistan. The skate parks give these kids the opportunity to have fun and really be children for a few hours.

What do you hope people will take away from the images?

I hope that the joy, freedom and excitement you can see in the pictures of these girls is contagious. I hope the images stay with the visitors and encourage them to support wonderful ventures such as Skateistan.

Find out more about Skateistan and donate to the project at its website. Pre-order the "Skate Girls of Kabul" book by Morland Tate here.

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