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TEDGlobal 2011

Monika Bulaj: The hidden light of Afghanistan

July 12, 2011

Photographer Monika Bulaj shares powerful, intimate images of Afghanistan -- of home life, of ritual, of men and women. Behind the headlines, what does the world truly know about this place?

Monika Bulaj - Photographer
Monika Bulaj’s stunning, painting-like photographs blur religious and cultural divisions, exploding stereotypes. She is a TED Fellow. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
My travels to Afghanistan
00:15
began many, many years ago
00:18
on the eastern border of my country,
00:21
my homeland, Poland.
00:24
I was walking through the forests
00:27
of my grandmother's tales.
00:29
A land where every field hides a grave,
00:33
where millions of people
00:38
have been deported or killed
00:40
in the 20th century.
00:43
Behind the destruction,
00:46
I found a soul of places.
00:48
I met humble people.
00:51
I heard their prayer
00:53
and ate their bread.
00:55
Then I have been walking East for 20 years --
00:57
from Eastern Europe to Central Asia --
01:02
through the Caucasus Mountains,
01:05
Middle East,
01:07
North Africa,
01:09
Russia.
01:11
And I ever met more humble people.
01:13
And I shared their bread and their prayer.
01:17
This is why I went to Afghanistan.
01:20
One day, I crossed the bridge
01:23
over the Oxus River.
01:27
I was alone on foot.
01:29
And the Afghan soldier was so surprised to see me
01:31
that he forgot to stamp my passport.
01:33
But he gave me a cup of tea.
01:36
And I understood
01:38
that his surprise was my protection.
01:40
So I have been walking and traveling,
01:43
by horses, by yak, by truck, by hitchhiking,
01:46
from Iran's border
01:49
to the bottom, to the edge of the Wakhan Corridor.
01:51
And in this way
01:56
I could find noor, the hidden light of Afghanistan.
01:58
My only weapon
02:05
was my notebook and my Leica.
02:07
I heard prayers of the Sufi --
02:12
humble Muslims,
02:14
hated by the Taliban.
02:16
Hidden river,
02:18
interconnected with the mysticism
02:20
from Gibraltar to India.
02:22
The mosque where the respectful foreigner
02:25
is showered with blessings
02:30
and with tears,
02:32
and welcomed as a gift.
02:35
What do we know
02:39
about the country and the people
02:41
that we pretend to protect,
02:43
about the villages
02:46
where the only one medicine
02:49
to kill the pain and to stop the hunger
02:51
is opium?
02:53
These are opium-addicted people
02:55
on the roofs of Kabul
02:58
10 years after the beginning of our war.
03:01
These are the nomad girls
03:05
who became prostitutes for Afghan businessmen.
03:08
What do we know about the women
03:12
10 years after the war?
03:14
Clothed in this nylon bag,
03:16
made in China,
03:18
with the name of burqa.
03:20
I saw one day,
03:24
the largest school in Afghanistan,
03:26
a girls' school.
03:29
13,000 girls
03:31
studying here
03:34
in the rooms underground,
03:38
full of scorpions.
03:41
And their love [for studying]
03:44
was so big that I cried.
03:47
What do we know
03:52
about the death threats by the Taliban
03:54
nailed on the doors
03:57
of the people who dare to send their daughters to school as in Balkh?
03:59
The region is not secure, but full of the Taliban,
04:05
and they did it.
04:08
My aim is to give a voice
04:10
to the silent people,
04:12
to show the hidden lights
04:15
behind the curtain of the great game,
04:19
the small worlds ignored by the media
04:22
and the prophets of a global conflict.
04:25
Thanks.
04:27
(Applause)
04:29

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Monika Bulaj - Photographer
Monika Bulaj’s stunning, painting-like photographs blur religious and cultural divisions, exploding stereotypes. She is a TED Fellow.

Why you should listen

Monika Bulaj is a photographer and writer who explores -- in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe -- the dim areas of monotheism, where the sacred can transcend borders: Bonfires, dances, cults of the dead, possession rites. She describes outskirts and deserts, frontiers and megalopolis. And the world of the last ones: nomads, farmers, immigrants, outcasts, untouchables and impure.

Her photos and reportaging have been published by GEO, National Geographic (Italy), La Repubblica, periodicals by Gruppo Espresso and Rcs, Courrier International, Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), Internazionale, Freundin, Teatr (Poland) and other international magazines.
She has displayed more than 50 personal exibitions in Italy, Germany, Ungheria, Bulgaria, Egypt.

Her books include Libya felix, a travel into Sufism and the world of the Tuaregh; Figli di Noè, on minorities and faiths in Azerbaijian; Rebecca e la pioggia, on the nomadic tribe of the Dinka of South Sudan; Gerusalemme perduta with Paolo Rumiz, the special correspondent of La Repubblica, on the pellegrinage in the research of the Eastern Christians; Genti di Dio, viaggio nell'Altra Europa, a synthesis of 20 years of research in East Europe and Israel, and her latest book, Bozy ludzie. 

She has screenwritten documentaries, among which is the movie Romani Rat (2002) by M. Orlandi, on the Holocaust of the Roms, with the contribution of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. She's the director, photography director, and screenwriter of the documentary Figli di Noè, about the villages of Caucasus on the border between Dagestan and Azerbaigian.

Bulaj is a TED Fellow. Read TED's Q&A with Monika Bulaj >>

The original video is available on TED.com
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