The Best View of Heaven is from Hell

As a serving soldier in the Special Forces Reserves in the British Army, Bran Symondson became fascinated by the Afghan National Police (ANP), their ethos and their daily existence in the war with the Taliban. 

When he was given the opportunity to return and document these characters as a civilian photographer for the Sunday Times Magazine, he was able to capture a unique perspective on the current conflict.

The men of the ANP preserve as well as corrupt; they must be relied upon, but can’t be trusted; they are proud of their appearance in the midst of squalor, and are curiously feminine in a world of machismo, force and power. The role of the ANP is at the heart of every contradiction, as it is their job to keep the encroaching sides apart, yet help bring Afghanistan together as a nation.

Symondson had gained unique access to the men serving with the ANP and formed bonds of trust in this enormously difficult environment. His photographs are unique not only because the ANP is unique, but because of his empathy with his subjects, and the beauty he is able to bring to such chaotic juxtaposition.

The ANP paint their weapons with naive folk art, decorating them with flowers to beautify and soften their existence.

In a culture where women are hidden away in compounds, men turn to each other for comfort and sexual gratification. These intimate relationships are prominent in Symondson’s work, which shows the strong bonds these men share. The images are all the more surprising in a culture where homosexuality is punishable by death.

A character frequently seen is the ‘Chai boy’, shown below. He has a similar status to that of a beautiful woman; in return for sexual acts with older members within the group, he is cared for and can manipulate his adoring circle.

“Something about looking through a lens, rather than a rifle sight calmed me down. Recording the situation somehow

made it okay. The guys around me laughed; there is often something about being in extreme danger that’s funny.”

Bran Symondson