IN CONVERSATION WITH ANDY BARNHAM AND SARA DE JONG
‘We Are Here, Because You Were There’ is an exhibition that reflects on the stories of Afghan interpreters, previously employed by the British Army during the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan (2001-2021), who have resettled in the UK. In recognition of the threats Afghan interpreters faced due to the association with British forces, the UK Government launched the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) in April 2021. Due to flaws in the design and execution of ARAP, many Afghan interpreters, including those portrayed, turned to the Sulha Alliance, an advocacy initiative founded by three Afghanistan veterans and Prof Sara de Jong, for support.
The exhibition, which will again be on display in Spring 2024 in Bradford’s Impressions Gallery and can also be visited virtually, consists of a portrait series and accompanying quotes that emerged from in-depth interviews with Afghan interpreters. During these interviews, the interpreters shared their experiences of working alongside soldiers, the threats they faced in Afghanistan, their evacuation, their early experiences in the UK and their hopes for the future. The project emerged from a collaboration between Prof Sara de Jong (University of York) and photographer Andy Barnham. Rosa Wevers had a conversation with them on the aims of the project and the power of photography and storytelling.
Rosa Wevers (henceforth RW): Sara and Andy, can you tell us more about the exhibition’s thematic focus and how the project came about? What were your roles in the project?
Andy Barnham (henceforth AB): I served in the British Army and both worked with interpreters and also worked as a military interpreter myself. I’m also the son of a refugee; my mother fled Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War with her family to America. I’m also of mixed race (English/Chinese), and I was born in Hong Kong, so in terms of background and history, I’m a child both of a postcolonial UK and France and also of military intervention. I am also emotionally involved in Afghanistan as close to 50% of my service was related to Afghanistan (a year at language school learning Dari and two operational deployments) so when Kabul fell in 2021 I was keen to help. At the time, the interpreters were visible in the UK news as they were regularly protesting and demonstrating. This led me to reach out to the Sulha Alliance, of which Sara was a founding member, to try and help by publicising the interpreters’ stories, so that they wouldn’t be seen as “foreigners”. I was aware that my mother, being a refugee, had herself been reliant on the help of others and I wanted to pay that forward to ensure the interpreters get as much help in this country and be successful and thrive – not just survive.
Sara de Jong (henceforth SdJ): I started researching the protection and rights of Afghan interpreters in 2017. My initial interest in this topic was in the position of brokers, mediators, and native informants: people who are mediating very difficult colonial and neo-colonial relationships. I was interested in these difficult positions of being that bridge, as it means that one is also often seen as a traitor. Brokers tend to find themselves rather indispensable, but then also very quickly disposable when they are no longer needed. So given that interest, I decided to do this research and literally started interviewing interpreters and their allies at any point where there was political contention. I became part, in a sense, of what I was studying when I founded the ‘Sulha Alliance’ – an organization that campaigns for the protection and resettlement of former Afghan interpreters in the UK. In addition to my research, that is another reason why I was in contact with a lot of Afghan former interpreters.
RW: In the exhibition visitors can learn more about this issue through a selection of photographs and interview quotes that were taken from in-depth interviews that you conducted. Sara, what was the focus of these interviews, and what did you hope to find out?
SdJ: For the interviews we would go to people’s houses, where they had just been moved to. In a few cases, they had not yet had permanent housing: they would be in temporary accommodation or in a hotel. I would conduct the interviews by asking them first about how they actually had started to work as an interpreter for the British army, and then conduct a life history interview, in which I focused on the moment when they became an interpreter, the risks they faced, their efforts to come to the UK and their first experiences in the UK. Andy would sit alongside me and sometimes ask a question as well. So, I would first conduct the interviews and then Andy would take the portraits.
RW: Andy, how did you approach these interviews as a photographer?
AB: As a photographer, it’s important to build rapport so that the people who I portray show emotional honesty in their portraits. I always start my portrait sessions with a conversation in order to build a relationship; it’s unfair to expect someone to show emotion on set and be honest with a stranger straight away. However, during the interviews with Sara this was not necessary at all because the guys had already spent two hours talking to us. Nevertheless, it was important that I could introduce myself as a veteran. Having been to Afghanistan twice (I was in Kabul and Herat in 2006, and in Helmand in 2008) I had a certain amount of experience of the country, which I shared during the interviews.
RW: The quotes that are on show in the exhibition offer an intimate and personal insight into the lived experiences of Afghan interpreters. They render tangible how the British invasion in Afghanistan as well as the migration the UK is experienced in daily life and how it mobilises a complex web of feelings of fear, in/security, loss, trauma, resilience and hope. How did you decide on the selection of quotes that were included in the exhibition? Why did these quotes in particular stand out for you?
SdJ: On the one hand, it’s a big challenge, because I do these rich narrative interviews and then I have to reduce this to one or two quotes, which is difficult in many ways. However, I didn’t come to this selection without previous knowledge. I had conducted a lot of interviews with Afghan interpreters before. So in some ways, I knew the bigger story and context that I wanted to communicate. Often already during the interview, there were a few quotes that really stood out to me, either because they said something that I knew resonated with a lot of people in a very eloquent way, or because the quote really spoke to that specific individual.
I wanted to express a chronological story from the time that they started working as a young adult in Afghanistan to the early phases of their resettlement in the UK. Moreover, I wanted to make sure that we would disrupt some of the false assumptions that exist, such as the idea that for the interpreters, everything in Afghanistan was bad and once they would come to the UK everything would be great. Another story that was dominant at the time, and which was especially pushed by governments, was the idea that ‘we got so many people out’. But much of this wouldn’t have happened without volunteers and advocates, and, importantly, the Afghan interpreters themselves had actively fought for their rights. This is why there is the quote “I’m sure that if we had just been sitting quietly without raising our voices, we would have not made it to the UK”
And then finally, there are just some quotes that might speak to a more general experience, but I also wanted to pick a quote that was true to the person. The person who made that statement about the importance of raising one’s voice, is somebody who I have known the longest of all the people that are shown in the exhibition. He literally reached out to me on Facebook Messenger, a long time before August 2021, to tell me that he got rejected initially for the resettlement program because he was fired from his job. The British Army at the time had fired one third of their interpreters. He explicitly said, “Just give me the BBC!”. One of the methods of our advocacy was to work very closely with the media and to get certain stories out. I got him on different programs and eventually I got him on the BBC as well, which is good.
That was extremely powerful. First, of course, because it was powerful for him. And second, because I now knew that I had somebody on the ground who wanted to speak and I had all these journalists asking me about it. He could also speak for the collective because there were several people facing his same situation. The fact that those dismissed from their jobs were initially excluded from the resettlement program meant that a thousand interpreters who had worked for the British Army would not get protection despite the threats they faced. This interpreter was an advocate, but also, an archetype of a certain type of person who was very brave and very proactive in seeking his own protection. Therefore, this quote, for me, also really belongs to him.
RW: The quotes both speak to this individuality, while they simultaneously break these larger narratives that are very dominant in the media, and which only give a very limited and one-sided perspective on what is actually happening. Can you tell me more about the following quote?
SdJ: With a lot of veterans coming out and doing amazing advocacy work for the rights of Afghan interpreters, it is still important to show that the interpreters weren’t always treated very well during their employment in Afghanistan. In that way, that quote disturbs another narrative that is sometimes pushed, namely that armies and soldiers always valued their interpreters during their employment and that it is only governments who were unwilling to offer them protection and rights afterwards. This critique of the British Army may be one of the reasons that the National Army Museum didn’t seem eager to show the exhibition.
RW: Andy, could you say more about the design of the quotes?
AB: It was my aim to provide two messages within each quote; the key message would be visible in a larger font, visible from a distance. The smaller font, readable from up-close, provides context of the larger quote; it was a deliberate tactic to encourage engagement, and not merely a cursory glance, from viewers.
RW: The project consists of a selection of black-and-white portraits that have been heavily edited in such a way that the portrayed person remains anonymous. Despite the large pixels and blurred parts, the images remain recognizable as human faces and even indicate that we are looking at a specific demographic. While the faces are all blurred, each portrait is unique. Andy, can you tell us more about the creative process that led to the portraits, and the choice to make the faces unrecognizable?
AB: At the start of the project I was keen to try and show the interpreters in locations and environments that would be familiar to British viewers insofar that they’d see locations or themes that they would recognize, and use that as a means of acceptance that the interpreters aren’t strangers. They helped us over there and they are now here; they belong in a safe environment and they deserve all the help that they can get. However, it became clear quite early on that this wasn’t possible because all of the interpreters that we met had families back in Afghanistan and these families were under threat of life from the Taliban due to the association of their sons having worked with NATO and Western powers. It then became very important to hide their identities.
RW: The blurred portraits remind me of a larger development in the arts, one that curator Bogomir Doringer (2018) grasps with the notion of ‘facelessness’. As a critical response and creative protest to post-9/11 surveillance control, many artists seek to develop strategies for portraying human faces in such a way that they evade recognition by biometric technologies while remaining – to a certain extent – identifiable to the human gaze. Is the context of surveillance and facial recognition something that you considered in the creation of the project?
AB: Yes, what became clear in the interviews that Sara was conducting, was the number of times the interpreters had undergone biometric checks; they’d been forced to submit their biometric data as part of their UK visa application. I was aware that traditional methods of trying to anonymize people, such as a black bar across a person’s eyes, have become outdated with the amount of other data points that biometric scans can now pick up from faces. So I spent a long time experimenting how to safeguard anonymity while still showing personality and expressions.
All the final portraits that you see are composites of up to 12 individual frames. I pride myself on a clean portrait style and even though I knew no one would see the individual frames, I worked on every frame as a matter of personal pride. Then it was a question of how to present them in the overlay pattern on the canvas; if you overlay them too well, the person is far too identifiable. If you overlay them too badly, it is just a big hot mess. Coming to the idea of blurring and pixelating each frame was something that I thought of in relation to the multiple forms of trauma the interpreters had experienced. They might have been injured as young men in their service with the British Army, in the struggle to obtain their UK visas, during the physical fight to get onto the plane and in the challenges and continued fight here in the UK – to get rights, to access to their Afghan bank accounts, or to get their kids in school. I believed the process of blurring the images would be a suitable manner to visually acknowledge that trauma and the experiences they had been through, in addition to helping them hide their faces from biometric recognition.
RW: Did you use the same approach for every portrait?
AB: We conducted 14 interviews, and there are 14 portraits on show in the exhibition. However, I only actually managed to take 13 portraits; one of the portraits is a composite of a frame taken from each of the participants. One interpreter, who wasn’t featured in the exhibition but who we invited to speak at one of the events around our exhibition, said that the narrative told in the exhibition could also be attributable to him, because all interpreters underwent similar experiences. As such, maybe it is karma that I didn’t manage to take the 14th interpreter and the 14th portrait is a composite of all of them.
RW: Thank you.
The exhibition at the ffotogallery can be viewed online here: https://ffotogallery.org/programme/we-are-here-because-you-were-there
The exhibition can be viewed from February 16 2024 to May 25 2024 at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford, UK. Click here for more information: https://www.impressions-gallery.com/event/andy-barnham-and-sara-de-jong-we-are-here-because-you-were-there/
Andy Barnham is multi award winning international portrait photographer. Portraits from We Are Here, Because You Were There won awards and was shortlisted at the Royal Photographic Society, PX3, Monochrome, ND, TIFA as well as being nominated for the prestigious Prix Pictet (Human cycle). Exhibitions include London, Berlin, Cardiff, Glasgow, Cambridge and York.
Sara de Jong is a Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of York. She has published extensively on the protection and rights of Afghan interpreters, including:
* ‘From Migrant Crisis to Migrant Critique: Affirmative Sabotage and the Right Claims of Afghans Employed by Western Armies‘, in: Combating Crises from Below. University of Maastricht Press, 2023
* “Brokers betrayed: The afterlife of Afghan interpreters employed by western armies”, Journal of International Development.
* “Segregated brotherhood: the military masculinities of Afghan interpreters and other locally employed civilians“. International Feminist Journal of Politics.
Rosa Wevers is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Gender Programme at Utrecht University, and former project coordinator of MOED.