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September 26, 2010
James Lee in Afghanistan
James Lee's simple plan fell apart in the winter of 2007. The former Marine, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, had moved to rural Independence near Bishop, Calif. Lee was trying to control his wanderlust by living the simple life of a construction worker. His plan dissolved when he happened on a magazine article written by mountain climber turned war correspondent, Ed Darak. "I was never going to stay in Independence long enough to enjoy a simple life," Lee said, "I accepted this fact while reading [the article]." He was 37 years old. "I sold my house and purchased my first camera." Lee said. By January, he was back in Iraq. This time, instead of carrying a gun, the veteran of the Battle of Fallujah was carrying a camera and a notebook. Lee had always gravitated toward Afghanistan. Early in 2010, he embedded with the Afghan Security Forces. He traveled to four provinces in four months. Instead of covering the American mission in Afghanistan as most photojournalists were doing, Lee said he wanted to cover the Afghan people. "If I can't tell the story from the perspective of the Afghans, I don't want to tell the story," he said. And just as he chose a non-traditional path for covering the war in Afghanistan, Lee has also avoided the traditional path to documentary photography. Lee has no formal training in photojournalism. By choice, he remains disconnected from the professional photography world so his images won't look like traditional documentary photography. "It's not about the technique or the camera, it's about the story you're telling," Lee said. (31 images)

The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery will present an exhibition at SF City Hall featuring works by Bay Area photojournalist James Lee and three other photojournalists from mid-February through May, 2011. For more information on the exhibition, click here

See more of James Lee's work here

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Inside the mosque - Before afternoon prayer, Imam Ghulam Mustafa faces a pair of mihrabs while reading the Quran in Jalrez district, Wardak province, on March 21, 2010. An architectural feature in most mosques, a mihrab is a niche in the wall that marks the path leading to Mecca. Determining the present direction of this mosque is less clear. Enclosed in barbed wire, this unadorned mosque stands alongside Combat Outpost Conlon and well beyond the reach of people from neighboring Sangarkhel and Busraq. Some tribal elders from these villages may want it back. Today, only the shoes and sandals of Afghan security forces are found on the ground near the entrance during the daily salat. As the imam assigned to the Afghan National Army's 1st Company, 2nd Kandak, Mustafa does not believe the mosque can be safely returned to the public. "Afghan soldiers have been attacked and killed while praying in other areas," he said during a recent interview. "If we allow civilians to enter the mosque we will be putting our soldiers at risk. Unfortunately, this mosque is so close to our post that it would be very dangerous to just give it back to the people." Photo by James Lee

Outside of Islam - Shedding his sandals, a Sunni Afghan National Army soldier strides across a row of footwear and through the screen door of a crowded mosque during the sunset Magrib prayer in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 26. Eighty percent of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, while Shia Muslims comprise a religious and political minority. Some Shia Muslims serving in the ANA are opposed to peace negotiations with Sunni Taliban members. Taliban forces have been accused of religious cleansing against Shia communities. In 2001, the Taliban reportedly murdered more than 300 Shia Muslims in the Afghan town of Yakawolang. Photo by James Lee

Higher learning - At odds, Imam Ghulam Mustafa receives an indifferent reception from the faculty of a crowded madrasa in Jalrez district, Wardak province, on March 22, 2010. These Islamic religious schools have been widely associated with teaching anti-Americanism and developing radical political views. With an audience of young boys, the headmaster repeatedly accused the uniformed imam of colluding with infidels and adopting Western culture. Mustafa will likely face similar confrontation in the near future as the popularity of madrasas continues to rise throughout Southeast Asia. Photo by James Lee

Deep sleep - Without a mission, Afghan National Army soldier Habdul Raful slumbers in his barracks room at Combat Outpost Conlon in Jalrez district, Wardak province, on March 22, 2010. Recent joint military operations in Helmand province have demonstrated that Afghan security forces are not ready to replace the International Security Assistance Force. This lack of Afghan capacity may present a grave obstacle to President Obama's new population-centered strategy. Lacking effective Afghan forces, this policy could further alienate local populations through the continued reliance on ISAF and foreign civilian personnel. Photo by James Lee

Durand Line - Facing dust-loaded dry winds, Afghan Border Police officer Masoud Sayed watches for signs of trouble along the Durand Line in Nangarhar province on April 15, 2010. Drawn with British ink in the late 19th century by Officer Henry Mortimer Durand, this borderline intentionally bisected tribal lands in a largely unsuccessful attempt to eliminate Pashtun opposition to English interests. Today, few Afghans would be able to identify the exact lay of the Durand Line, which officially demarks the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Both of these xenophobic lands are havens for criminals and guerrilla fighters who fervently denounce foreign interference in the region. Photo by James Lee

Double occupancy - Beds sit empty behind an earth-filled blast wall located along a ridge line in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 15. Some of the Afghan Border Police assigned to this remote observation post believe their position exposes them to unnecessary risk. Last December, guerrilla fighters launched a coordinated nighttime attack against Observation Post Sangar in neighboring Anarguy. Five officers were killed defending their mountaintop post. When foreign military officials denied requests for helicopters, the survivors bound the dead to borrowed donkeys and followed local villagers off the mountain. Photo by James Lee

Out of uniform - After serving three years with the Afghan National Army's 1st Company, 2nd Kandak, Abdullah Wahid Mohammad Hussain received a military discharge and returned home. Not all Afghan soldiers wait to be discharged before taking off their uniforms. According to official records, just over 100 soldiers are currently assigned to 1st Company. This number includes 25 soldiers who are listed as missing. Many of these absent soldiers simply removed their uniforms and walked away. An inability to transfer money to family members in remote villages and low pay may be responsible for many of these unauthorized absences. Photo by James Lee

Uniformed culture - Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmen move together in a slow-moving chow line in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 23. Such united fronts are short-lived. After grabbing lunch trays of rice and goat meat, these Afghan National Army soldiers find seats at tables divided along ethnic lines. Distrust amid some groups can be traced back to late 19th century land disputes. Bridging these ethnic fault lines within the Afghan National Security Forces will become increasingly important as foreign governments prepare to withdraw military resources. Photo by James Lee

A trim - With a compact mirror in hand, Mahlang-John Hasta-Khan watches the hands of his barber, while seated on the roof of a sandbag-reinforced guard tower located in Gahziabad district on Feb. 14, 2010. "I always feel better after a haircut," said Khan, an Afghan Security Guard. As a guard, he inspects vehicles at a roadside checkpoint at Combat Observation Post Pirtle King. Photo by James Lee

Fresh zebah - Before lunch, Marsham Khan rotates a goat head above a steel ammunition can full of hot coals in Gahziabad district on Feb. 15, 2010. "Removing all the hair is the hardest part," said Khan, an Afghan Security Guard at Combat Observation Post Pirtle King. "The tongue is the best meat, it has a very sweet taste." Photo by James Lee

Road work - Afghan National Army soldier Ghias Israel rests on the hood of a military vehicle after searching for roadside bombs in Jalrez district, Wardak province, on March 27, 2010. Current statistics indicate that guerrilla fighters are actively expanding the use of such weapons. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, guerrilla forces placed 158 effective roadside bombs in just the first two months of this year. These numbers indicate a dangerous trend. In 2007 there were approximately 2,600 roadside bomb incidents; last year the numbers increased to more than 8,100 incidents. Photo by James Lee

Out to dry - Standing on the shadow of a perimeter wall, Nurullah Waliaha rings water from a hand-laundered undershirt in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 27. Seven months ago he volunteered to join the Afghan National Army. Before enlisting, his mother had always washed his dirty clothes. "I like washing my own clothes," said Waliaha. "This is my uniform; it is my responsibility to keep it clean." Photo by James Lee

Border game - On a board game manufactured in Pakistan, Afghan Border Police officers roll a set of dice and plan their next move in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 16. With the odds in their favor, guerrilla fighters and criminals routinely travel unimpeded through security checkpoints at border crossings along Pakistan's tribal areas. Complicit ABP often fail to perform routine vehicle inspections. As a result, shipments of illicit drugs and weapons traverse the Afghanistan-Pakistan border every day. Photo by James Lee

Wildlife - Juma Khan surrenders himself to a boyish grin while a pet bird is perched on his wool beret in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 24. "I feed this bird small insects," said Khan, a sergeant in the Afghan National Army. "Watching birds makes me forget about the problems in my country." Khan began raising birds during his childhood in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Photo by James Lee

Black tea in Shirgal - Taking a small drink of black tea, Capt. Stoney Portis, a U.S. Army officer with the International Security Assistance Force, listens to the nearby voice of his translator during a meeting with a tribal elder in the Afghan village of Shirgal, Kunar province, on Feb. 27, 2010. As Shirgal's tribal elder, Hajji Tazikhan (seated second from the left) speaks for the estimated 100 families that live and work in this mountainous farming community located along Afghanistan's eastern border. According to Tazikhan, living so close to Pakistan can be dangerous. Having crossed over the border, guerrilla fighters often walk along the soft terraced fields of Shirgal toward a suspension bridge that spans the Kunar River. A recent encounter with these transiting guerrilla forces has Tazikhan worried. While fingering a bowl of hard candies, Tazikhan explained that armed guerrilla fighters had visited the village and threatened to execute several young men employed by the Afghan Border Police. After hearing of the threat, Portis prompted Saeed Rahman (seated far right), a young lieutenant in the Afghan National Army, to gather further information about guerrilla activity near the village. Photo by James Lee

Truck stop - A truck driver waits to be searched at a roadside checkpoint operated by the Afghan National Army, Kunar province, on Feb. 7, 2010. Checkpoints are located along major traffic routes in the province. Photo by James Lee

Temporary detainee - After being ordered to exit a station wagon carrying five men, passenger Abdul Hamid is detained by Afghan National Army and International Security Assistance Force soldiers at a roadside checkpoint in Naray distict, Kunar province, on Feb. 28, 2010. As Hamid peers over his fingertips, a hand-held iris scanning biometric device is used to record the fine texture of the driver's eyes. Similar to a fingerprint, the distinct pattern of the pigmented muscle of the iris remains unchanged over a lifetime. Once the electronic scan captures the pattern, the information can be quickly screened against a database of suspected guerrilla fighters and criminals. Without a probable match, the soldiers released Hamid and the other men a short time later. Photo by James Lee

Grave marker - Colorful strips of fabric hang above a roadside burial site in Jalrez district, Wardak province, on April 1, 2010. Last year, the number of Afghan civilian deaths related to armed conflict climbed to its highest level in more than eight years. Some of these deaths were attributed to tragic mistakes by international military forces. According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, international military airstrikes accounted for the largest percentage of these deadly incidents. Photo by James Lee

Kunar River fisherman - Balanced on an inner tube, an Afghan fisherman floats away from a sandy bank before inspecting several submerged nets along the glacier-fed Kunar River on March 8, 2010. These local fishing nets are anchored to the riverbed and frequently snare brown trout or carp. Photo by James Lee

Young crowd - Boys crowd together while waiting for the distribution of humanitarian goods distributed by the Afghan National Army in the mountain village of Saw on Jan. 31, 2010. Afghanistan is experiencing a dangerous youth-bulge, with nearly half of its population under 14 years old. Photo by James Lee

At the board - Against the odds, a girl attends class at the Abd Rahm Nazi High School in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, on Jan. 21, 2010. Since 2006, guerrilla fighters have targeted more than 1,000 schools. Nearly half of these violent attacks occurred at schools attended by girls. Photo by James Lee

Up and down - Building up speed, a local laborer steers up a steep ramp as he delivers a mound of dirt at the future site of a large telecommunication tower in Saw village, Kunar province, on March 1, 2010. Lightened by an empty cart, he races back down toward a shallow ditch containing men with shovels and his next load. "This tower is the first example of private development in the area that was not initiated by Coalition Forces," said Capt. Stoney Portis, a U.S. Army officer with the International Security Assistance Force. "This project could be an indicator of an improved quality of life for the people of Naray district." However, this potentially valuable development is not without risk. While deployed in the Middle East, he became aware of how telecommunication equipment can easily become a weapon. "In Iraq, most of the remote-controlled improvised explosive devices were detonated through the use of cell phones," said Portis. Photo by James Lee

Tin wall - Flattened tins of vegetable oil line the outside walls of a rural mechanic shop in Wardak province, on April 4, 2010. Cooking oil and wheat have become increasingly expensive food items for the estimated 9 million Afghans who live on less than a dollar a day. According to USAID, impoverished families in rural provinces may face long-term hardships. While the GDP of Afghanistan slowly increases, the economic benefits of reconstruction have been limited to elites located in urban areas. This unequal distribution has permitted the economic gap between the urban rich and the rural poor to widen. Photo by James Lee

Planting potatoes - A crew of young boys plant their toes alongside last season's potatoes in a freshly tilled field outside the village of Charakee in Jalrez district, Wardak province, on March 25, 2010. Afghanistan's agro-climatic conditions are ideal for potato farming. However, a regional lack of stock seeds remains a problem for many farmers. Without quality planting material, farmers must retain a portion of their harvest as seeds for the next season. Such practices may reduce productivity while compounding food security issues. In an attempt to reduce Afghanistan's food insecurity, the U.S. Department of State is coordinating agriculture sector development programs with USAID, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Photo by James Lee

Splitting Wood - A fast-moving snowstorm finds Hakim-John Al-Sadine splitting wood at a labor camp in Gahziabad district on Feb. 15, 2010. Millions of trees have been lost to deforestation in the past decade, as illegal timber exporters and local villagers compete for wood inside of the few remaining forests in Afghanistan. Tree felling has reduced the biodiversity of woodland habitats and increased the risk of deadly avalanches. Photo by James Lee

Rethinking flowers - A young boy wears a handful of wild flowers behind his ear in Kunar province, on March 6, 2010. Locally known as Gully Nargas, these vibrant flowers are traditionally used during funeral ceremonies. As the Karzai government attempts to end institutionalized corruption, similar flowers could mark the return of legitimate horticulture and assist in the overall reduction of illicit poppy cultivation. It is estimated that 90 percent of the world's illegal opium is grown in Afghanistan. "Flowers such as carnations could have a positive impact on the local economy," said Jose Sanchez, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advisor in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. Having grown up on a farm in the Peruvian Andes, he understands the benefits of promoting selective crops within a developing country. "The value of flower production is not based on local markets alone, emerging global markets would be the destination of flowers grown in Afghanistan." Photo by James Lee

Long stitch - Seated behind a Chinese-made Butterfly sewing machine, Rahulla Zobid Ibrahim skillfully handles a plain-weave shirting selected for a traditional tunic in Midan Shar, the capital of Wardak province, on April 3, 2010. As a lifelong tailor, Ibrahim has witnessed the ever-changing patterns of conflict in Afghanistan. "I have seen the Russians, the Taliban, and now the Americans," said Ibrahim. "All this time I have worked in a tailor shop." Photo by James Lee

Shadow race - Near dusk a boy runs along a stagnant irrigation canal choked with sediment in the village of Sra Kala, Afghanistan, on Jan. 23, 2010. According to International Security Assistance Forces, development in the area has been stalled by recent roadside bombings near the village. Photo by James Lee

No protection - Breathing toxic smoke, a local worker collects scrap metal inside the open-air burn pit at Forward Operating Base Sharana in eastern Afghanistan on May 4. Chronic diseases linked to trash fires may develop decades after a worker is exposed. Army Technical Bulletin No. 593 requires that military officials monitor such waste management programs and ensure the proper use of personal protective equipment. Photo by James Lee

Back behind the door - Clutching an empty wash basin, a young girl rushes to shut a courtyard door after encountering a security patrol of Afghan National Army and International Security Assistance Force soldiers near her home in Saw Village, Kunar province, on March 1, 2010. Last month, oral testimony at the U.S. Senate hearing on Afghan women and girls indicated the need for continued international support on many key issues, including gender-related violence. According to official transcripts, Ambassador Melanne Verveer argued that violent crimes against women have slowed development gains in the area of human rights. Verveer is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues. "In addition to facing pervasive discrimination at every level of society, Afghan women suffer domestic abuse, rape, forced marriages, forced prostitution, kidnappings, so-called honor killings, and cultural practices that use daughters as payment to settle disputes and that condone self-immolation," testified Verveer. Photo by James Lee

Expensive propaganda - Evidence of resistance marks a mud wall in Jalrez district, Wardak province, on March 28, 2010. To counter these visible messages and extremist voices, the U.S. Department of State has identified the development of communication capacity as a key initiative. Included in these plans are the training of Afghan journalists and the installation of media infrastructure in outlying areas. As a milestone, these initiatives aim to notably reduce enemy propaganda by July of 2011. Reaching this landmark will be costly. Communications expenditure for fiscal year 2010 is estimated at $90 million. This figure reflects a budgetary increase of 44 percent since last year. Photo by James Lee

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