“She was wearing such a beautiful color, a sort of inky teal,” photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson said of the Afghan girl with the carefully tied headscarf whose portrait she took last year. In November, the photograph won second place in the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, and the larger series, Skate Girls of Kabul, is now on view at London’s Saatchi Gallery.
“I love the way her little hennaed hand rests gently — yet possessively — on the skateboard, and how small she seems beside it,” she told Hyperallergic. “Above all, I love her assurance — her firm, steady gaze. You feel a sense of depth there, even though she is just seven years of age.”
The girl attends sessions at Skateistan, a school run by a German nonprofit that uses skateboarding as a tool for empowerment in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa. In Kabul, because of cultural norms, all the classes are segregated by sex, with the older girls teaching the younger ones.
Fulford-Dobson first began photographing female participants in 2014, drawn to the way the program showed women helping women in an especially difficult environment. In Afghanistan, 60% of the organization’s students come from impoverished backgrounds; some are refugees, and a few live on the street. When Fulford-Dobson visited, the Taliban launched a series of attacks around the city, and the school closed down for days. For many girls, skateboarding is their only source of fun.
Despite such troubles, the girls exhibit just as much natural spirit and joy as any American kid. “One amazing thing about skateboarding is that it demonstrates — perhaps more than other sports — just how tough and resilient these girls, or any girls, can be,” Fulford-Dobson said. “They hurl themselves forward with unstoppable courage, and if they take a tumble they bounce right up again, running back to the queue and cheering on their friends.”
Looking at one image of a smiling girl clutching her skateboard to her chest, you see that the photo doesn’t so much capture a cultural clash between the East and West as it does reveal a commonality between them. As Fulford-Dobson said, “Life for these skate girls is undeniably different in so many ways to that of their Western counterparts, but it’s also touchingly, heartbreakingly and amusingly the same.”
Skate Girls of Kabul continues at Saatchi Gallery (Duke Of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London) through April 28.