by Julia Wohlers
Photographer Elena Gallina explores beauty in war zones
Interview with Elena Gallina by Julia Wohlers, creator of Brand of People magazine
The summer of 2019 was the deadliest to date in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties mounted as the Taliban and Islamic State affiliates orchestrated thousands of attacks between June and August, targeting noncombatant men, women and children indiscriminately.
It also happened to be the summer that photographer Elena Gallina, a master’s candidate and a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, booked a flight to Kabul. Her mission: to disassemble prior conceptions of women in war zones by asking them, face to face, about the role beauty plays in their lives.
It’s a universal question that all women will confront at some point in time. Is beauty physical or ephemeral? Is it a source of power or a means of exploitation? How can we (and should we even strive to) be beautiful in a society that later objectifies what it first praises? The perplexity spans language, culture and border, unrelenting even in the face of armed conflict.
A conflict that you might think would scare away Westerners, or anyone fortunate enough to live in a place where safety can be taken for granted. But after growing up in post-war Kosovo as the daughter of aid workers, Elena isn’t fazed by the daily risks that conflict presents, nor is she a stranger to the scars that discrimination and violence can imprint upon a people and a place. Despite the hazards, she set out to photograph and speak to Afghan women who, after decades of tokenization and an all-too-frequent portrayal as victims or gendered slaves, deserve a chance to set the record straight.