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America brief leads to Afghanistan journey for student photographer

A second year photography student at Middlesex University turned a brief for a course project into a journey which ended up on the pages of Newsweek last week.

A second year photography student at Middlesex University turned a brief for a course project into a journey which ended up on the pages of Newsweek last week.

Asef Ali Mohammad, 25, who is studying for a BA in photography, was given the brief "America" by his tutors and was told he could take any angle on it he wished.

He decided to see what the "average people" of Afghanistan thought about the US intervention in their country and spent nine days in Kabul gathering the portraits and views of more than 30 Afghan citizens.

His work was picked up by highly regarded photojournalism publication Foto8 Magazine, who put it on their website, and has now appeared in Newsweek magazine in the USA.

Asef, whose father was from Afghanistan but fled to Pakistan at the time of the Soviet Invasion, said he grew up with the country as a fixture in his life but had never been there.

"War in Afghanistan has influenced my life since I was a kid.  We would be watching TV and my father would change the channel to see what's going on in Afghanistan. Twenty years on, Afghanistan is still in turmoil, nothing has changed," he said, "That had an effect on me. Now I change the channel when my flatmates are watching TV, and we still see the ongoing war."

He spoke to a friend of his brother who had family in Kabul and arranged to stay with them for the nine days he would be out there.

Asked if he was anxious before he went, he said: "The only worry I had before the trip was 'what if I don't get enough people to photograph and interview, but I got more than I could have wished for.  I met people from different walks of life, from labourers to highly skilled professionals, from housewives to homeless kids, and people working in the media, and I asked them one simple question in Dari (Afghanistan's national language) 'How has America changed your life?' It was an absolute pleasure working with such an extraordinary people."

He said despite Kabul being a more secure area of the country, his tutors were very concerned for his safety. But the student photographer had made up his mind that this was where he wanted to go.

He said:  "My tutors were very concerned about the security risks that might arise when I arrived in Kabul and advised me to be vigilant and text or email David Simmonds everyday which am very thankful about. I am also immensely grateful to them for all their great support and help, also for exposing us to great photographic works that are highly respectable in photojournalism or in the world of photography. Thanks for EJ Major for helping me with post-production on this project."

Asef's tutor and leader of BA Photography, David Simmonds, said: "A serious and committed student, Asef has achieved something remarkable and particularly impressive for an undergraduate.  The work he produced in response to a second year photography brief inviting students to interpret the word "America", has been published by prestigious international journals.

"Asef's success is a tribute to his maturity of approach, ambition and determination. He took us by surprise when he told us he had booked a flight to Kabul to work on the brief – students often go to great lengths over their work but this was exceptional.  Back in London, Asef was able to understand the strength of the work he produced in Afghanistan, and approached Foto8. They published the work online where it was seen by Newsweek who
featured it in its next issue.

"By happy coincidence, the Photography Dept was in New York when the edition was published. I had the personal pleasure of being at the newsstand as it arrived on Monday morning: a four page feature.  It was a very proud moment and no more than this serious and very likable student deserves."

See Asef's photos and interviews from Afghanistan.

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