Thursday, April 28, 2011

Supernatural creatures of the mountains - les créatures surnaturelles des montagnes

They are named Jinn and they often come out at night. They like remote mountain valleys too. My first "encounter" with them was in Kachura village, in Pakistan's Karakoram mountains, during a full moon night.

Here is a two-part edited short story about Jinn's (and epilepsy...) in Afghanistan's Wakhan region by my friend and Afghan Kyrgyz expert © Ted Callahan:

"One night, as I’m writing up the day’s fieldnotes, Orunbai, a son of the Khan, comes to my tent.

“Sorry to bother you, Temir-aka, but my wife is sick. It might be a jinn, but we’re not sure.”

I’ve been wondering about traditional healing practices among the Afghan Kyrgyz, since I have yet to see any evidence of it, and eagerly follow Orunbai to his house. Inside, I find Kyrgol, his wife, keeled over, complaining of severe abdominal pain and moaning as she grasps her stomach.

...They decide that... they will try to drive the jinn out themselves. First, one of the women brings over a loaf of round, flat bread with two candles lit in the middle of it. This is passed in front of the sick woman three times, while chants are muttered. Then, this same woman brings over some embers from the fire and, putting them in front of Kyrgol, fans the smoke towards her. Finally, one of the men takes a rock which has been sitting atop the stove, wrapped it in a red cloth, and moves it back in forth in front of Kyrgol’s stomach, though without actually touching her.

Curious, I feign ignorance and ask why they are doing this. I am simply told, “For the jinn.”

When my turn comes, I give her some painkillers and antacids. The next day, Kyrgol is fine. Opinion is split over whether it really was a jinn or just, as I suggest, indigestion. We agree to let the question of what the problem might have been rest."

"One Wakhi shepherd at the Khan’s camp, Mirza, suffers from epilepsy, a common condition in the Wakhan owing to close intermarriage. Often, around dinnertime, he would rise, walk over to a corner, lie down, and suffer an epileptic seizure. I assumed that everyone knew he had epilepsy and that he simply endured his condition because no medicine was available.

One day, I asked Mirza whether he had sought treatment for his condition.

“Yes, I have visited several bakshy ( - ed: in Kyrgyz community, Bakshy are male shaman with healing powers) in the Wakhan but they have not been able to help me.” he answered.

Surprised, I asked, “Wait, what do you think your problem is?”

“I have a jinn” he replied, as if it were obvious. "

Text ©Ted Callahan

Friday, April 22, 2011

Prisoners of the Himalayas - an ongoing film Project

Last January/February, I went back to the Afghanistan's Pamir mountains to have my first "real" experience shooting film. It's a long story that brought us there, but it was due to the motivation of Louis Meunier (Director of the project). Louis has a long experience in Afghanistan, and he was not the first director to approach me on doing a film on the Afghan Kyrgyz - but his experience, honesty and motivation made it happen. We shared our knowledge of the area and we eventually got last-minute funding from the Danish Embassy in Afghanistan to shoot this film. Thanks so much dear Danes! This last winter was the first session of a 2 (or 3) session-shooting in the Afghan Pamir.

During an interview break, a Kyrgyz looks through my camera.

As far as filming, I was going to be paired up with another cameraman. I was fearing a show-off dude, but instead I was lucky enough to be teamed up with a kind, patient and extremely talented man: Laurent Fleutot (Director of Photography on "The Winged Migration" and "Oceans", among others).
Of course, this expedition would not have been possible without the help of our Wakhis and Afghan friends who supported us all along - it was my second winter trip up there with now famous Malang Dario, our production assistant. He was the first afghan to climb Mt Noshaq in 2009, Afghanistan's highest mountain. See Louis's other project about this here: 24.000 feet above the War.

We walked and walked and slept in dung smoked filled shepherd houses by -30C and this is what came out: Ladies and gentlemen (drum roll), I present to you "Prisoners of the Himalayas":

You can learn more about the project on our film website :

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Afghan Pamir Re-visited

These past January and February I was in Afghanistan for my second winter expedition (the last one was in 2008, on an assignment for Geo magazine with Ted Callahan ).
This year, it took 16 yaks and 23 days to trek up and down the Afghan Pamir mountains  - and reach the end of the Wakhan Corridor and the China border. Abdul Rashid Khan (whom I first met in 2005), the last leader of the Afghan Kyrgyz, passed away last December 2009, quietly in his yurt. We visited a community adrift, struggling in selecting a new Khan.

Below is a sneak preview, the full story is up on my website, under Stories > The Last Khan  - presentation text will be up there soon....

Monday, April 18, 2011

Three cups of Deceit - goes live with a story from Jon Krakauer

I was lucky enough to exchange e-mails with writer Jon Krakauer yesterday.
Then today his story (an ebook to be exact) we were discussing went live on Byliner website: "Three cups of deceit - How humanitarian Greg Mortenson lost his way". My image of a Central Asia Institute (Greg's foundation) school in Afghanistan is on the cover. You can download it for free for the next 3 days on the Byliner website - so read it if you get a chance and make up your own opinion.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Greg Mortenson on 60 Minutes - CBS news

I have been following Greg's Mortenson work with the Central Asia Institute (CAI) since my year-long stay in Skardu, Pakistan,  back in 1999. I started getting e-mails from various people over the last few days, requesting images from CAI schools in Afghanistan. I didn't know why until a friend sent me that link (aired tonight). Over the years, I have heard few negative stories from various people about Mr Mortenson - it's always hard to know if they are simply jealous of his success or plainly telling the truth. I hope Greg gets on CBS's 60 minutes (or any TV interview program for that matter), to clear the air...

In 2002, Outside got in touch with me to shoot a story on the Siachen glacier, in the disputed Kashmir region - I was put in touch with Greg to get access - the initial story proposal was to cross the Siachen glacier from Pakistan to India, walking over 7000m, with missiles being fired over your head. There was talk about me coming to the US  to "train" for glacier crossing etc. I thought it was crazy and declined - a tough choice for a photographer who was just starting up.
I must have been right since the story's angle was later considerably changed: photographer and writer first had a look at Siachen's glacier and its army presence on the Pakistan side, then they went down to Islamabad to legally cross into India, make there way up to the Indian army camps opposite Siachen and complete their story. This seemed much more reasonable. Teru Kuwayama, a photographer friend met in New York in the late 90's, shot the story (great B+W work) with writer Kevin Fedarko. I was later sent to Tuvalu to shoot an interesting story on global warming for Outside, my "compensation" price. I was far from my beloved Karakoram, but that story certainly opened my horizon...

Greg's right hand man is also an old Wakhi friend of mine, Sarfraz - the older brother of my Wakhi "teacher", Alam Jan Daryo. Sarfraz is from Zood Khun, a tiny village at the end of the Chapursan valley, on the border with Afghanistan and a stone throw away (to be exact 4 days walk over a 5000m pass) from the Afghan Pamir, the home of the Afghan Kyrgyz - a story that has "obsessed" me for 10 years now. Anyway, CAI's growing involvement in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor, building schools, with the help of Sarfraz, has been of great interest to me.
The CAI recently built a school in the Afghan Pamir, at a place called Bozai Gumbaz - a 4 or 5 days walk from the nearest village of Sarhad. It's hard to imagine the remoteness of the Little Pamir - and it's cultural complexity - but all these factors made it hard for me to imagine a foundation would consider building a school there - in fact, the Aga Khan Foundation didn't consider doing it, and they are the most involved in the region.

I went back to the Afghan Pamir in January-February 2011 for my second winter expedition (first was in Jan/Feb 2008, where I collaborated with anthropologist and now friend Ted Callahan, who appears in 60 minutes). During the expedition, via our only satellite phone (who worked erratically as we were close to the China/Tajikistan border), we were asked to shoot images (video + stills) of the CAI school, by an American producer, working for CBS. Strange request to get in such a lonesome place.
The school looked like it was never-ever used. The 2 only Kyrgyz teachers in the Afghan Pamir leave too far off from the school . In fact, by the time the CAI finished building the school, the government had already started sending teachers up to the Afghan Pamir and classes were being held at 8 locations. They didn't have schools, they just used the Aga Khan Foundation tourist yurts or regular guestrooms or tents. But it worked. For these reasons, the school, so far, has never been used - at least not to the degree CAI claims...

Here is the CAI school in Bozai Gumbaz (February 2011), with UrunBai, one of the Kyrgyz leader standing proud in front.
I also attached a picture from a Aga Khan Foundation's school in Zood Khun, North Pakistan - not a CAI school. When the weather is good, students often go outside of the classroom...
And finally, a telling note "Instructions for Life", posted on the wall in that AKF school. Don't forget we are in North Pakistan, immersed in Ismaili communities, a very tolerant form of Islam whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan.

All images © Matthieu Paley

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Strange case of Nauru - exhibition

I was recently in France for the opening of my exhibition on Nauru. 46 images and 2 videos are exhibited outdoor at the Festival Photo de Mer, from April 8th until May 8th. Other exhibitions includes stories from Ed Kashi and Chris Maluszynski.

Thanks to a grant from the Festival Photo de Mer, I spent 11 days on Nauru, the world's smallest Republic, far off in the middle of the Pacific. To turn it into a "real" story I teamed up with Geo Magazine (the German edition) staff-writer Markus Wolff. Story will soon come out in Germany.

Nauru has long been on my mind. I first heard about it in late 2001, when Afghan refugees were held in a detention center on the island. I couldn't put these 2 facts together in my head. After some research, they were so many curiously fascinating facts about the island that I just needed to go. It seemed a unique case of middle of nowhere yet middle of everything.

Here is a translation of my synopsis that got me the grant (© Matthieu Paley) :

"Nauru, an island of barely 21 km2, is located in the middle of the Pacific. It is the world’s smallest republic.
Its soil, extremely rich in phosphate, has been exploited since the beginning of the 20th century. The rapid value increase of the phosphate, followed by independence, makes Nauru the richest country in the world at the beginning of the 70’s.
As a result, falling for the temptations of uncontrolled consumerism, the Nauruans considerably change their way of life. Diabetes and the highest obesity level on the planet are some side effects of these excessive years.
End of the 90’s: the Phosphate resources diminish considerably.

Looking for financial solutions, Nauru becomes a tax-free zone, and with this a facilitator for money laundering businesses of the Russian mafia. The government also opens a detention center for Afghan and Iraqi refugees, all paid for by the Australian government...

In 2004, the state goes bankrupt. The government of Nauru decides at last to reactivate its phosphate mining. Official sources estimate that there are between 20 and 30 years left for further exploitation. The Nauruans, an isolated people, continues to look for solutions, keeping all the while their joyful island spirit.

We go to meet these men and women of Nauru, their president, a former weightlifting champion; Gerard Jones, a personal trainer and bird hunter; Lucia, the oldest lady of the country and Scarlet Lucy, the cargo ship that brings goods to the island every 2 months."

Two preview shots, the full story will soon be up on my website.

Lucia dances in her living room “I dance a lot, I pray to the Lord and I play Bingo!”. 85 years old, she is the oldest woman of the country, and the last person to have known deportation, in 1943, during the Second World War. 1200 Nauruans were then sent on the Chuuk island by the Japanese forces, and endured forced labor. Only 737 came back in 1945.  


It takes 6 hours flight from Bisbane in Australia to reach Nauru, an island state of barely 21 km2, located in the middle of the Pacific, 42 km from the equator. It is the world’s smallest republic, with less than 10.000 inhabitants. Twenty minutes of driving (19 km) will bring you around the whole country…