"I met Karen in London before she came to Afghanistan in 2009, and we became dear friends.
She was someone who would light up a room... She was not afraid to be vulnerable...
The tragedy of her loss is something that will be felt by all who knew her, for a very long time to come..."
Documenting Afghanistan: from every-day life to murdered NGO doctor, Karen Woo
Leslie Knott - journalist, documentary film-maker, and photographer - grew up in Richmond, British Columbia.
While pursuing a career in photojournalism, Leslie was offered an internship to train Afghan women journalists, who were preparing to cover the Afghan Presidential Election in 2004.
Her projects in Afghanistan have included setting up a radio station for women in Maimana, teaching photography to rural women in Badakshan, and reporting on the situation of women in Afghan prisons.
Leslie's films are piognant and heart warming, and often explore the social depths and complexities of life in war torn Afghanistan:
- ‘The Life and Loss of Karen Woo’
- ‘Women, War, and Peace’
- ‘Unheard Voices’ (for which Leslie Knott travelled to Afghanistan with Oxfam and handed out cameras to women who had never taken pictures before.)
- ‘In-Justice’ (a documentary commissioned by the European Commission but withdrawn before screening)
- ‘Out of the Ashes’ (following the Afghan cricket team for two years, struggling for a 'normal life' amidst conflict and poverty).
Leslie's photographic works have been featured in the Sunday Times, The Observer, The Guardian, The Sun, Closer Magazine and the Tyee.
She produces films for embassies and NGO’s including UNICEF, Human Rights Watch and CIDA.
Currently in Afghanistan, Leslie talks about her work, achievements and her experiences, and what they all mean to her:
When did your passion for photography and film making start?
Story-telling through beauty and emotion has always drawn me close to photography and film making. I had initially started as a photographer, moved onto radio, and then made the jump into film making in 2008. Since my first documentary, ‘Out of the Ashes’, I have found film making a good fit for conveying important stories and issues through a medium that can change perceptions.
What are the awards you have won so far as a photographer and film maker?
For my film projects, I received the Jack Webster Student Award 2002 and in 2003, as a broadcast journalist student.
The Peace and Sport Award Special Jury Prize and Grierson Award for Best Newcomer Documentory for ‘Out of the Ashes’. And for ‘Women War and Peace’ series, a Gracie Award.
I have also been nominated for a Royal Television Society Award for ‘The Life and Loss of Karen Woo’.
I won the WACC Photo of the Year award in 2008 for a photo I took of a staff from a radio station, conducting an interview in her burqua in Maimana, northern Afghanistan.
Have you worked on any project for NGOs?
Since 2008 I have worked with many different NGOs, including Afghan Connection, Afghan Youth Support Cricket Organisation, Human Rights Watch, the Canadian and British Embassies, the Norwegian Refugee Council, ChildFund, UNICEF, OXFAM, and Afghan Aid.
My most memorable projects have been where I am based in the rural provinces, working with villagers.
In 2007 I worked with OXFAM traveling around Afghanistan’s rural areas training women and children on how to use cameras. The aim of the project was to have the reality of life for these women and children to be reflected back to the international community through the photographs.
The results were both beautiful and heartbreaking. Many issues that I had never heard of, including expired medication causing brain damage, came to light.
It was wonderful to see the happiness and positivity that photography could bring to these people, and how grateful they were to have a medium in which they could communicate their daily life.
Last October, I had another amazing opportunity to spend a week in the mountainous region of Badakshan in northern Afghanistan. I was working with the 10x10 project and we spent a week following young girls whose lives had changed through education. Beyond the spectacular scenery and the inspiring stories of young girls who had been forced to marry at a young age, it was the access we had to the daily lives of the community that really showed the heart of the country, and the generosity of the people.
It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to live the rhythm of rural Afghanistan and how they struggle to meet the basic needs of food, warmth and access to health care and education.
In the 12 years since you started your career as a photographer and film maker, how has story-telling changed? Do you think digital media has changed the documentation of culture and access of information and news?
For me the biggest change has been the adoption of digital media. It has made it much easier to communicate instantaneously.
Twitter has also made communication between people who would never have the opportunity to communicate, to reach out and connect with others.
I remember being in Kabul in 2009, staying in the centre of the city. I had just joined Twitter a few months before. Early one morning I heard what I thought was a ping pong ball hitting my window. I soon realized that it was gun shots. I turned on the radio but there was no information. No news on the TV or on the internet. So I quickly logged onto Twitter and found out that there was a guesthouse one street away under siege. By communicating with a few other Twitter followers who were also living within close proximity to the shooting, we were able to piece together what was happening.
Before Twitter, this kind of collaborative communication would have been impossible – but because we had been connected through a common interest in Afghanistan, we were able to get specific information in a rapid way.
What is the most important aspect of your work?
The most important thing about my work is to raise awareness about people who have something to say but do not have a way of telling their stories or struggles.
I enjoy breaking down preconceptions about a people and a place, as well as bringing closer the realization that as humans we share many similar emotions.
It is the fear of borders and culture that have created divisions. As human beings, we all have similar needs and desires for ourselves and our families.
Why Afghanistan? And how long have you been living there?
Before arriving here in September 2004, I never had a burning desire to travel to Afghanistan.
But it sounded interesting, so going against all the advice I had received from my family and friends, I decided to see for myself what it would be like.
What started out as a six months internship turned into an eight years involvement with this country. I have traveled to most provinces and drank tea with Afghans from all walks of life and ethnicities. My biggest accomplishments were setting up Radio Quyassh in Maimana, a radio managed and run by Afghan women, and Out of the Ashes, the film about the Afghan Cricket team.
How would you describe Afghans, if it's possible to generalise at all?
Afghan humor, gentleness, how Afghan men love roses!
Strong Afghan women with a cheeky sense of humor with enormous hearts. I was once hailing a taxi in Kabul and a car pulled over with a woman in the front seat. I told the driver that he could carry on, I would get the next car. The woman seated in the front insisted that I get in. We started talking and it turned out that she spoke English and worked at the university teaching mechanics. I love meeting people who break the preconception of what an Afghan woman is.
The people are still generous, hospitable and friendly, even through war, poverty and struggles. Although most Afghans have nothing, they will find ways to give what they have to those who have even less.
I feel that the media has done a disservice to the world and to Afghans, by misrepresenting what Afghans and Afghanistan are really like.
What are the challenges you face working in Afghanistan, especially as a woman?
Working as a woman in Afghanistan has never been a problem for me, but there have been great challenges in filming women in such a conservative society.
I have photographed and filmed women from all walks of life, from Afghan prostitutes to policewoman, and it is always a negotiation and a journey of building trust before they feel comfortable enough to look into the camera. As for security, I have been lucky and never had a problem with filming.
The people most aggressive toward me have been the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or military personnel who did not want the camera near them.
I have seen your photographic works and I absolutely love them. Are your films and photography mainly about Afghanistan and Afghans?
I have spent the past eight years working mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or on Afghan related topics.
This year I am starting to branch out more into other countries. I spent six weeks in the West Bank and in April I will be travelling to Chad with UNICEF.
As I spend more time in Afghanistan, I discover more stories I feel are important to work on. My experience here also makes it easier to work in the country because of ease of language and an understanding on how to get around. Afghanistan has been a wonderful place to cut my teeth in the world of filmmaking, but I am now looking forward to diversifying my experience into other areas of the world.
You worked on the documentary ‘The Life and Loss of Karen Woo’; did you know Karen personally?
I met Karen in London before she came to Afghanistan in 2009, and we became dear friends.
She was someone who would light up a room. She had the most all-encompassing, warm-hearted personality. She was an inspiration to both men and women who feel that they should listen to their hearts and follow their dreams. She was not afraid to be vulnerable, and took risks on a road less-traveled.
The tragedy of her loss is something that will be felt by all who knew her, for a very long time to come.
And what do you hope to achieve through this documentary?
For me, the most important thing about ‘The Life and Loss of Karen Woo’ was to show the true character of Karen, and to assist the Director Ursula McFarlane, in having access to people and places that she would have not known about.
I wanted to help paint the true story of Karen, and how she gave so much to a country that she adopted as her own.
Let’s talk about ‘In-Justice’. Why was it important to make this film?
We started working on ‘In-Justice’ in the Autumn of 2010.
It was commissioned by the European Union in Afghanistan to produce a film focusing on women’s issues. I came up with the idea of the prison story – after visiting the female prison in Kabul in 2007.
At that time, the prison was a very different place. The new prison, Badam Bagh, is a huge improvement for women who, for the majority, were incarcerated for moral crimes. The film is important because it gave a voice to these women who did not get a chance to tell their reality.
It was an opportunity to educate the international and Afghan community about the reality of women in prisons.
It received a lot of attention from the media and support from human rights groups when the EU blocked the release of the film, on the grounds that there are “concerns for the safety of the women portrayed”, can you tell us a little more?
Unfortunately we are under contract not to speak out about the events that led to the EU withdrawing and giving us back the copyright.
I can briefly comment that the information the EU had was not complete. They had not realized that we had full permission from the characters featured in the film, who wanted their stories told.
But we are very happy to be working on another version of ‘In-Justice’ which will enable the world to see what women are going through and are suffering through the Afghan judicial system.
You mentioned that prison conditions have improved, how so? And are there children living there too?
The conditions in the Kabul prison have greatly improved for women since I first went in to photograph in 2007. They now have access to health care and vocational training.
Most of the women who are in the prison are there for running away or accused of adultery by male members of her family.
There are many children in prisons with their mothers. When they become older they are moved to their family members’ homes or returned to their fathers. This is extremely stressful for the children and the
mothers and in many ways it is hard for the children. The reintegration into normal life after being raised in a prison is tough.
So what happens to the film now?
We are in the process of re-editing the film, and it includes the recent developments for Gulnaz, and the potential of her moving to another country and starting a new life.
Gulnaz is one of the women featured in ‘In-Justice’. She was a victim of rape and gave birth to a daughter in prison who was kept with her. She was serving a prison sentence of 12 years when the film was being made but was subsequently released from prison with no preconditions.
What do you hope for most for Afghans? And have issues like violence against women improved?
Afghans are a resourceful and resilient people.
I hope that the international community continues to assist Afghans in helping them to take lead in rebuilding their lives.The Afghan government is still in a nascent stage, and there are many places in Afghanistan that are still not benefiting from the amount of money that the international community has invested into the country.
For change to happen, it must happen from within.
There is definitely more awareness on violence against women, but change takes a long time. It needs to come from the grassroots, from the mosques and through a culturally appropriate stream. It needs to begin with the education of young boys, teenagers, and Afghans of all ages. The laws are in place, but I would say that there is a long way to go in enforcing them, or even valuing them by making it a priority to protect women.
Do you feel that your contribution, through your work, is making an impact on the fight against injustice?
It is hard to say how much of an impact my work has had on the overall battle against injustice and inequality for Afghan women.
But I do know that I have made small contributions on a personal level to a handful of women’s lives in Afghanistan.
At the radio station I worked at, I was able to measure growth in the way that some women thought about themselves before and after my presence there.
What are you currently working on and what do you hope to be working on one day?
I am currently working to re-edit In-Justice for broadcast – hopefully, on BBC.
I am also working on a film about the Afghan female boxer who will be heading to the London Olympics.
And to Chad in April to do a series of films for UNICEF. This year I would also like to return to the West Bank to work on more stories from that region.
One of my dreams is to be published in National Geographic. I am hopeful that one day I will get that the opportunity, but in the meantime, I am fulfilled with the work that I do as it covers a wide variety of topics and countries.
Write a book soon, perhaps?
There is one book I want to write. It is about the radio station I set up in 2004 in Maimana, northern Afghanistan.
When I arrived in the small village there was no phone network and very few cars; most people got around by horse and carriage.
I want to trace the journey of the female staff who had had this radio station for women foisted on them, find out where their lives lead in 15 years time. And seeing the impact of an international initiative it has had on the lives of these women.
About Karen Woo:
About Leslie Knott and her work:
'Karen's primary aim over the last 18 months of her life was to make a film to increase awareness of the desperate suffering in much of the country and show the human side to Afghanistan; one that receives very little coverage in the general media due to the emphasis on the ongoing conflict. Once completed, Karen hoped to use her documentary to raise funds for the small charity she had started, using the money to improve health and education programs, particularly those that focus on neonatal, paediatric and maternal health.'
'Against a backdrop of war and poverty, Out of the Ashes traces the extraordinary journey of a team of young Afghan men as they chase a seemingly impossible dream – shedding new light on a nation beyond burqas, bombs, drugs and devastation. This feature-length documentary follows the Afghan cricket team in their quest against the odds to qualify for the World Cup. Backed by BBC Storyville and executive produced by Oscar-winning director and cricket enthusiast, Sam Mendes, ‘Out of the Ashes’ follows the squad over two years as they go from playing in their shalwar-kameezes on rubble pitches to batting their way around the globe and up the international league tables. At a time when headlines from Afghanistan are dominated by news of death and corruption, the film reveals a more human side to this beleaguered country which has endured three decades of war and occupation.'