‘Afghanistan in 4 Frames’ captures humanity under the gun 

Two women recline in a ditch in the shade of a tree looking relaxed, as if they’ve just exchanged the banal minutiae of their day. The pastoral mood belies the reality of the semi-automatic weapons resting casually in their laps.

The immediate, affecting image is in a photo on display in San Francisco’s City Hall by Lynsey Addario, one of the photojournalists highlighted in “Afghanistan in 4 Frames,” a free San Francisco Arts Commission exhibit opening Wednesday.

Curated by SFAC Gallery Director Meg Shiffler, “4 Frames” showcases the work of four photographers, two of whom are Bay Area natives, who have been embedded in the war in Afghanistan.

The content is varied, including shots of civilian life, the consequences of combat, and stolen moments snapped in the privacy of military quarters. Although there are allusions to violence and conflict, Shiffler has selected images keeping in mind those who will walk through City Hall, including children who attend the on-site day care center.

Avoiding the graphic side of photojournalism, the photos share a palpable sense of humanity that percolates under the surface of the harsh circumstances of war.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran and San Francisco-based photographer James Lee ventures into such territory, covering the rare subject matter of the Afghan National Army, the U.S.-backed military enforcement of the region. Soldiers are often shown in a domestic light: hanging laundry or, rather charmingly, getting a haircut — with an all-pink beauty kit of comb, mirror, and scissors.

The only film-based photographer in the group, Teru Kuwayama,  produces soft, painterly, black and white shots taken with his Leica and Holga cameras. One image echoes Rembrandt in its lighting, composition, and content — a room full of people in a communal kitchen, each one with a dignified visage, as if they were each posing for their own portrait.

Bay Area photographer Eros Hoagland utilizes high contrast to produce a robust sense of tension within the frame. One shot of the flag of England, i.e. St. George’s Cross (first flown widely during the Crusades), is a poignant reminder of the complex relationship between East and West.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Addario engages with female troops and civilian women, something her male peers are restricted from in Islamic countries.  Her coverage is comic and touching.  

In one shot, a soldier precariously perches her leg, bathed in shaving cream, on the edge of a trash can. She could be a Degas bather were it not for the industrial barrack showers behind her.  Even in the wake of war, a touch of femininity is sought.

Afghanistan in 4 Frames

Presented by San Francisco Arts Commission

Where: City Hall, Ground Floor, 1 Dr Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco
When: Opens Wednesday with 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. reception; hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; closes May 13
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 554-6080; www.sfartscommission.org/gallery

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