Cathal McNaughton explains how timing and previsualisation enabled him to capture this enigmatic image of a schoolgirl in Afghanistan

Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton


Award-winning Cathal McNaughton has more than ten years’ experience covering conflicts and breaking news for national newspapers and international press agencies. He shares his best press photographs and reveals how he captures a subject in ways that others haven’t seen

I took this photograph while in Afghanistan with the British Army six years ago on 25 February 2006. We had gone to a school as part of a ‘hearts and minds’ initiative to gain the trust of the local people. We had an opportunity to visit various classrooms at the school and get an idea of what life was like since the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Coming from Northern Ireland (not that I’m drawing any parallels), where some people took the view that the country was a warzone 24 hours a day, seven days a week (which it wasn’t), I could appreciate that people outside Afghanistan might assume that life there was only about the war. But the war is only one part of it. Although it affects everyone who lives there, people still get on with their lives and go about their daily business. In a way, this image presents another side to life in Afghanistan. It shows a more positive view of what life is like for the people who live there.

In my opinion, everybody should consider ‘editing’ what they see in the news, by which I mean they should think about what else is going on in the country aside from what is being reported. The news only shows the dramatic, shocking events and I think it’s important to show that life in Afghanistan, for example, isn’t all guns and bullets, death and conflict. I wanted to convey that there is hope for the country – that there is improvement in the situation for ordinary people in the aftermath of the Taliban regime.

The image is somewhat symbolic in that it depicts a child learning. Implicit in this is the hope that this generation will have a more promising future than previous ones through better education. In the past, females did not always have the right to an education, so this image of a girl learning is also symbolic – she could be viewed as a sign of hope of better education for girls as well as boys.  

The pupils were learning English – you can just make out the word ‘Afghanistan’ on the blackboard. The reactions of the children to us depended on the class. This particular class didn’t really care about us, which was surprising. But there were a couple of other classes where the children reacted to us being there – they came over to ask questions and were messing around. In these instances, it was clear my being there was disrupting the class so I had to leave!

I spent a couple of hours at the school. There were classrooms and lessons going on, but it wasn’t set up in a way we would know. That said, schoolchildren are schoolchildren – they were out in the playground playing and being mischievous 
as they are anywhere in the world.

I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what I was going to photograph as I’d never been in a classroom in Afghanistan before. I went in and observed what was happening, and tried to document what I saw in front of me. I photographed what was going on in the way I wanted – I would never take direction from someone to photograph something in a way I didn’t feel was right.

As I’ve discussed in previous Photo Insight articles, a lot of photography is about anticipation and preparing for something to happen – getting yourself in the right position. It doesn’t always work out, but if it does, you’re ready for it. I was photographing the back of the children’s heads, but I was waiting for one of them to turn around, as I knew this would make a stronger picture.

The young girl happened to turn around and make direct eye contact with me, which added a powerful element to the composition. I’d taken lots of other pictures with no eye contact, but this image has extra impact. It’s as though the girl is looking right through me, the photographer, at the viewer. It’s quite an affecting image in that way.

You can read a lot of things into a picture like this, and I’m not going to tell people what to think – they can make up their own minds about how they interpret the photograph, and it’s good if an image appeals to people on different levels.

I took the image on my Canon EOS-1D Mark II camera with a 70-200m lens. I was shooting at around 100mm, so I wasn’t completely zoomed in. It was quite a low-lit scene, so I would have been shooting at f/4, which also meant the background was thrown out of focus. I didn’t want the background to be distracting, so the shallow depth of field proved beneficial here.

As I was shooting digitally, I had the luxury of being able to shoot test shots and view these on the LCD screen to work out what my exposure would be. I exposed for the girl’s face. The light was quite flat and even, so I wasn’t in any danger of under or overexposing the scene. I converted the image to black & white as I felt it lent itself slightly better to this than colour.

It was a privilege being at the school and seeing what was going on. I would like to know what this girl is doing now. 
I do wonder about her prospects, as the future in Afghanistan is very uncertain at the moment.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

To see more images by Cathal or to book a place on one of his workshops visit 
www.cathalmcnaughton.com

To take part in a free street photography Masterclass with Cathal, send an email with your name, address, telephone number and a couple of sentences about your photographic interests and experience to oliver_atwell@ipcmedia.com