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

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