A recent New York Times story featured this photograph of a woman walking toward a yak herd in northern Afghanistan. The photo was taken in August.
She lives in the Wakhan Corridor, a region beyond the Hindu Kush mountain range that has been remote enough to usually escape the ravages of war. It doesn’t seem hard to see why. Sans oil or accessible mineral deposits, the combination of geography and climate should suffice to maintain relative isolation. That was the point of the story and certainly of the photograph: some modernization is underway, but the people there are likely to continue to live largely as they have, that is, in pastoral cultures bound by the simple routines and set traditions that equip them to survive in a harsh natural environment.
The woman in the photograph exemplifies this portrait. She is layered in the colorful clothing assumed to be the mark of ethnic authenticity, and if she looks apprehensive, it has more to do with the intrusion of the photographer than any hesitation regarding the challenges of separating her yak from the herd spread across the frozen landscape. She trudges out into the cold dutifully, as she really has little choice: the yak has to be milked, and her family needs the milk, and what else is there to do anyway? This is not her world from the inside, of course, but the image draws on a long history of travel photography carrying these assumptions. The bottom line is that she may be doing well enough–look closely at her clothing, for example–but that few readers of the Times would want to change places with her. Yak milk in a yurt on a frozen plateau is one thing, and a latte in an urban coffee shop is quite another.
If those were the only two options, the world might be a pretty good place. But there can be worse environments than those created by the weather. The market economy, for example, particularly when people have to depend, not on their animals, but on predatory mortgage companies. This woman was featured in another Times story on the same day. She is standing before her house in Colorado. This could be a picture of the American Dream: a single women can own her own house, complete with a terrific view of the Western sky. You can sense that’s not the case, however, as her rueful expression is reinforced by the dark tonality of land and clouds. The weather is warm enough that she can be sleeveless, but the scene nonetheless feels cold and ominous.
And rightly so: she is having to defend herself against foreclosure by Deutsche Bank, which, after a mortgage company changed her locks without cause and then encouraged her to skip a payment while restitution was arranged, has moved to seize the house on grounds of non-payment. Having done nothing wrong, she now is having to incur legal fees just to hold on to the home and the equity that was rightfully hers. And I’ll bet that her sense of security and social trust is not doing so well, either. Maybe having your own yurt wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Photographs by Gilles Sabrie and Kevin Moloney for The New York Times.