The lights are dimmed at La Galerie Nationale in Alserkal Avenue, providing a calm atmosphere as the day draws to a close. Pia Torelli greets me with a quiet, self-assured confidence, her piercing eyes emanate an enigmatic presence. The photojournalist is renowned for her photographs which capture a captivating insight into Afghanistan—from a soldier perched on a mountaintop to the classroom of a girl’s school in Kabul. Her upcoming exhibition at La Galerie Nationale on September 12, 2016 will showcase her photographic documentation of Afghanistan in 2002 and in 2013.
Born in Brussels, Belgium, Pia has travelled extensively throughout her life, from Europe and the US to Asia and the Middle East. However, it was a trip to Greece at the age of 15 that ignited her passion for travel. “When I crossed the border to Greece I could see the difference in lighting,” she says of how the nation captivated her visual senses. “The colours of blue and white are completely different. It’s like a flash in your eyes.” From Greece, her journey led her across Europe and eventually into Afghanistan for the first time in 1970’s. Pia recounts how she was enchanted by the green valleys in Bamiyan and the mountains in Kabul, a city once filled with music and vibrancy. “I would wake up early in the morning and try to walk and discover the city,” she says,
Afghanistan would continue to have an impact on Pia when she travelled to the nation as a photojournalist in 2002. The experience upon landing at the airport tarmac was emotional for her. “I cried because I could see and feel the destruction. I wanted to take a picture and they said ‘no pictures at the airport.’” She travelled throughout Afghanistan and describes how she was able to gain access to photographing the locals. “You need to talk to them. That’s what I like about my travel and photography, I like the contact with the people.”
Pia returned to Afghanistan in 2013 and remembers the strength and resilience of the people and how it compelled her to return. “I was searching for that spark that would make the country rise again.” She was disappointed when she witnessed the nations’ further descent into destruction and lack of progressive change. Pia demonstrates Afghanistan’s transformation in her favourite photograph which will be presented at her upcoming exhibition. The image captures the essence of street life in Kabul in 2002. “There is so much happening in this picture,” she says. “The bullets on the wall, the men stay still as the women pass through; it’s like the background of a theatre.” In 2013, Pia returned to the same location and found that the vivacity of street life was lost while the infrastructure was completely destroyed. Her photographs provide a rare and fascinating insight into quotidian life in Afghanistan—from military helicopters flying amid the stark archways of a king’s palace in Kabul, to a woman’s burqa swept away by a gust of wind, to the portrait of a schoolgirl peering behind a white veil.
Pia has lived a profound life and has lived to tell the tale. As she bids me farewell with a firm handshake, she radiates courage while her vivid photographs resonate in my memory. Afghanistan no longer seems so daunting and far away. – Nada Bokhowa
The photographs of Pia Torelli will showcase at La Galerie Nationale in Alserkal Avenue from September 12 until October 18, 2016.