Lashkars in Pakistan by Massimo Berruti

6 minute read

It seems fitting that Massimo Berruti was holed up in the Swat Valley in Pakistan for three months early this year, right around the time when dozens of other photographers were off shooting the Arab Spring. The war in the Pashtun tribal territories long predates this year’s conflicts—and is likely to last far longer too. The result of Berruti’s long stay, the exhibition and book Lashkars, is a powerful body of work of conflict photography, yet it has a more lasting feel than much of the work that’s emerged from this year’s tumult. That sense of permanence was the point of the commission, the second Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, in what’s become an annual competition. The foundation says it aims to support in-depth photojournalism at a time of “a several financing crisis.”

Berruti, an Italian photographer represented by VU, based in Paris and Rome, has little interest here in the war on terror, American drone attacks or even, for that matter, death. The Lashkars are Pashtun civilian militia, which have fought the Taliban for control of their valley for years, with tacit acknowledgement of the Pakistan Army, yet with little concrete support. And it’s their grinding, even humdrum daily existence along the amorphous frontier land which intrigues him.

The black-and-white images are quiet and emotionally ambiguous. In one, a young man stands in front of the rubble of his parents’ home, aiming a rifle at the sky. Is he shooting at some invisible drone miles above? We don’t know. In fact, Berruti says, he’s an 18-year-old Pakistan-born Londoner called Jalal Khan, who’s returned to his village to marry a childhood friend. The rubble isn’t from a drone attack, but from Taliban fighters who’ve destroyed the family house in retaliation for the Khans’ anti-Taliban views. In another image, a child carries a tree branch past the bombed-out ruins of a Taliban commander’s house. But it’s not just a photo depicting a boy collecting firewood. The children are claiming back their neighborhood, by stripping the trees around the commander’s house. “It was a sign of freedom and emancipation,” Berruti says.

The exhibition’s textured portrayal of the area extends to the spectacular valley and mountains, which you might have expected Berruti—who loves shooting panoramas—to photograph. Instead, Berruti’s used his artist’s eye to offer something far more timeless: A painted mural of the landscape, which is pasted across the wall of a gas station. There’s a jagged crack down the side of the wall, a sign that this tourist idyll once known as Pakistan’s Switzerland is a deeply disputed place.

Despite the presence of guns and rifles everywhere, the conflict is off-stage. It’s so part of normal life that the business of fighting and killing hardly needs photographing. The story of war is instead etched into people’s faces, like the lined forehead of Saidbacha, the chief in Mahnbanr, who sits holding his pistol, gazing into the lens with what looks like a smirk. “He was the first to engage in battle against the Taliban before the Army arrived, and told me he’d killed four Taliban with his own hands,” Berruti says.

This was no easy world to penetrate, even for Berruti, who first traveled to the area in 2008. He kept secret his prize money—a whopping €50,000 ($68,000)—fearing that local chiefs might demand a cut in exchange for allowing him to work there. He also labored hard for permission to spend more than two weeks in the area, since Pakistan’s government suspected that any photographer opting to spend months there was surely up to no good. Berruti’s used his time well, depicting the long winter months when the Swat Valley is snowed in and isolated from the outside world. And the quiet moments appear to have been captured after weeks of Berruti winning the trust of locals and being able to melt into the background. As VU’s creator Christian Caujolle says in the forward to the book, there’s a feeling of “the photographer waiting.”

Given this intensely conservative area, it’s no surprise that women are completely absent from the exhibition—an unfortunate vacuum, given that Berruti focused so deeply on the Lashkars’ daily life. Berruti says he asked several times to photograph women, until he realized that “to continue to ask for this was putting me in a bad light.”

Finally, a disclaimer: I was a member of the jury for the first Carmignac award, which met in Paris in November, 2009. Led by William Klein, we sat around a conference table at the Ritz Hotel, poring over dozens of portfolios in search for a winner. After our discussion dragged on for hours, Edouard Carmignac—who heads the investment company and created the prize—finally walked over from his office on the Place Vendôme and suggested we continue over (what else?) a long lunch. He then listened intently to the discussion, enthralled at the excitement the prize had evoked. After hours of fine food and wine, Carmignac admitted to having his own favorite for winner, but insisted that the process was a “democracy,” in which he had no say. His prize is aimed at picking one photographer each year to spend months in an area which Carmignac believes is under-covered; the first year focused on Gaza, and the third commission is Zimbabwe. Despite the big prize, Carmignac is strangely not flooded with submissions; there are 76 submissions for the prize Berruti won, and fewer than that this year. In the introduction to Berruti’s book, Carmignac writes that photojournalism needs “lucidity and courage, a hardened character, and nerves of steel.” And sometimes, it needs backers like Carmignac.

Massimo Berruti is a photographer based in Paris and Rome. Lashkars is on vew at the Chapelle des Beaux-arts in Paris until December 3, 2011. See more of his work here.

Pakistan, Swat Valley, Imam Dheri, 2010. The armed Lashker members, headed by Idrees Khan, are performing “Pehra”, day light patrolling, in the countryside near their village. They patrol in order to prevent the Taliban from reentering the area, to keep the strangers away, and to protect the Lashkers’ families.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Mahnbanr (Tehsil Qilagai) near the Dir border, March 2011. Mahnbanr Lashkar elder Said Baddshah heading home with his armed Lashkar members after attending a large jirga at Tehsil Kabal. Leaders like Said Badshah have been constantly threatened by the Taliban for playing a pivotal role in kicking them out of Swat Valley. Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Galoch, March 2011. Devoted Lashkars heading inside the mosque to offer their midday prayer, while a young boy sits in the mosque’s courtyard reciting Holy Koran. Lashkars are very religious people, praying up to five times a day.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Bara Bandai, November 2010. Lashkar members making preparations for pehra (night patrol) at the hujra of tribal elder Ahmed Khan, whose portrait is on the wall. In Pashtun culture a hujra is a place where tribal elders assemble to discuss different issues, sometimes holding meetings, called jirga, to settle any sort of dispute or evolve future strategies.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Bara Bandai, November 2010. Lashkar members, under the leadership of Idrees Lala, performing pehra on the streets of the village. A young member is patrolling with the adults.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Kanju, March 2011. Lashkar member Ameer Zaib raising his arms during a joke with one of his colleagues (out of frame) at a car showroom in Kanju. Ameer Zaib works in this showroom to provide for his wife and their two small children, but the trade is not going well in this area still troubled by the aftermath of last year's floods.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Shal Dherai, March 2011. Jalal Khan, a young man living in the UK, is the nephew of Shah Sheri Lashkar head Khalil Khan, and came back to Pakistan for the wedding. He is hunting birds with an airgun at the hujra of his uncle.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Mahnbanr (Tehsil Qilagai) near the Dir border, March 2011. A beautiful view of a snow-covered house located at the entrance of Mahnban. During the winter this part of Swat Valley receives a lot of snow and is almost completely isolated from the rest of the valley because of the very bad condition of the road.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Mahnbanr (Tehsil Qilagai) near the Dir border, March 2011. Armed Lashkar members performing pehra on a snow-covered road that leads to the populated area of Mahnbanr in Qilagai Teshil. Communication gaps due to the bad condition of the road isolate the Lashkars during winter, making their task of defending the area more difficult.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Kabal, March 2011. Lashkars cutting wood from the broken house of a Taliban leader in the village of Kabal. After the end of the military operation, Pakistan Army and Lashkar members detonated this house to deny any possibility of its recovery by militancy forces.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Mahnbanr (Tehsil Qilagai) near the Dir border, March 2011. Children aside the road collecting woods and heading towards their home by passing through a muddy road at Mahnbanr. Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Mahnbanr (Tehsil Qilagai) near the Dir border, March 2011. Lashkars having breakfast early in the morning inside the Lashkar head Said Badshah’s hujra where they were sleeping at night. In the Pashtoon culture, eating together has a great significance and is a great honor for the host.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Alligrama, March 2011. A Lashkar member, Ameer Zaib, watching TV in his bedroom with his children and trying to soothe his baby girl Gull Sangay to sleep. His young son Zaraq Khan is also with them.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Qilagai, March 2011. A child tries to recover a cricket ball that has landed on the other side of the exterior wall of the hujra of Lashker head Ajmeer Khan.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat valley, Kanju Township, March 2011. Koza Bandai Lashkar head Sher Shah Khan sitting outside his house, with two of his young Lashkar members guarding him. The hujra of Sher Shah Khan was attacked and badly damaged by the Taliban. The attack, however, did not deter the brave Khan from fighting against the Taliban in Swat Valley. While their hujra in Koza Bandai is being repaired, Sher Shah Khan and his family are living in Kanju, in a house recovered from the Taliban. Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Mahnbanr (Tehsil Qilagai) near the Dir Border, March 2011. Lashkar members performing pehra, night patrol, on the rooftop of a house at the entrance of Mahnbanr. Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Mahnbanr (Tehsil Qilagai) near the Dir border, March 2011. A Lashkar member sleeping at the hujra of Mahnbanr Lashkar head, Said Badshah. After pehra all night, Lashkar members sleep close together to warm each other.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Bara Bandai, November 2010. Checking the gun before pehra, night patrol, at the hujra of tribal elder Ahmed Khan. Normally pistols are locally made replicas of industrial ones.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Bara Bandai, March 2011. The graves of Lashkers, raised by Pakistan Army to stop infiltration of Taliban. Taliban had mercilessly shot dead or slaughtered these relatives or friends to teach a lesson to Lashker heads about what can happen to the ones who stands with Army.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Galoch, March 2011. A Lashkar member removing his old German pistol after night patrol. It is common for these people, who are self financed, to fix old models of guns. These are not as effective as the heavy AK-47 rifle, commonly used by the militants.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU
Pakistan, Swat Valley, Thal, November 2010. Lashkar members before leaving for pehra, the night patrol around the streets of their village. The operation goes on till 5 a.m., and can involve, as in this case, even the youngest members.Massimo Berruti—Agence VU

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