Eyes Wide Open: A Q&A with the photographer Pia Torelli
Image from "Eyes wide open, an Afghan Journey" by Pia Torelli

Eyes Wide Open: A Q&A with the photographer Pia Torelli


Pia Torelli is an Italian photographer who has roamed around the world from a very young age. Backpacking in the late 70’s with friends to Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan, Iran, India and Nepal, Torelli became an experimented worldwide traveller. She then started earning a regular income working as deckhand on sailboats on the French southeastern coast.

In the 1980s, she trained as a photographer and began working all over the USA and the rest of the world. She travelled back to Afghanistan with an NGO in 2002 and then returned for a third time this year. Her photographs are on display at Alliance Française in Dubai until the end of this month.

Q: You have led an extremely active life and seen some fabulous places so that must give you a perspective on Afghanistan unlike many others - how would you describe the place?

Between 2002 and 2013, I feel like the country has moved up but it is still unbalanced.  I definitely felt less secure last October compare to my stay in 2002, when I could walk around alone. This year, I had a guard with me at all times.

It is a chaotic city - having been designed in the 1960's for 450,000 people and now having a population of four million and there are constant problems with electricity. There are some new buildings in one part of Kabul, but I wonder who can afford to live there?

Q: What was the main thing you were trying to capture in the photographs?

My idea was to capture how Kabul has progressed both in rebuilding and culturally. I saw some women on the street in the more upmarket areas without the blue burka and in other areas it felt like 15 years ago at the time of the Taliban.

I decide to show both sides of the city in my pictures. For example there is one photo with three women wearing burkas ready to go to a festivity and another picture showing three women on the lake having a pleasant time with their male friends.

Q: Do you think people in the UAE have misconceptions about the country?

I am not sure what the people think about Afghanistan, but for most of the people I talk to, it is still a very dangerous place to be.

I remember the places I visited in the 70's, like Band e Amir national park at 3000 m altitude. The deep blue lakes, the view and the air were out of the world. I also visited another place in 1977: Bamyan, where the famous Buddhas were. They now have been destroyed by the Taliban.

Afghanistan is more than a war torn country and people should know this. One day, I hope it will return to be a country where one can visit like I did in 1977.

Q: What was your biggest challenge when you were there?

To find the places I visited before. Many places were actually not there any more or they were inaccessible because the army had taken them over. For example, I wanted to find a girl I photographed in 2002 at a girl's school and we couldn't even find the school.

Q: Do you have a favourite image from the exhibition - if so, why?

A portrait of a girl I photographed in 2002, because she give me hope for the future of the women.

Q: Do you plan to return?

Yes, indeed. I am planning a fourth trip to Afghanistan. I have another photography project in mind related to Afghan women. I cannot say more right now as it is still in the draft stages.

Q: What other photographic projects are you working on?

At the moment I am getting in touch with construction companies in Dubai. I am interested to work with them to document the new projects for the Expo 2020. It's a very exciting time we are living in Dubai right now.

Q: Where else can we see your work?

On my website www.piatorelli.com I am also planning to take my current show 'Eyes Wide Open - An Afghan Journey' to Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. I suggest people should keep an eye on Pia Torelli Photography FB page to be kept informed. https://www.facebook.com/piatorelliphotography

Q: Finally, what should people hope to take away with them when they come to see your show?

A frame! All photos are for sale, prices starting from AED 750. A percentage of the proceeds goes to my sponsor FBMI and the sale of my works will finance my next trip to Afghanistan for my next show. People can also help FBMI - it is an Afghan-based initiative backed by the UAE government that was set up in 2010 and it has offered more than 3,500 women – many of whom are widows – the opportunity to take control of their lives.

Through offering them employment in the handmade carpet industry, the women and their families receive critical social services  in return. That includes a minimum wage of $2 (Dh7) a day and free healthcare check-ups each month and education for children under the age of 14. It's a very important and valuable initiative.

People should get an understanding of Afghanistan once they have seen my photos. All the news we get from Afghanistan are about bomb attacks, killings, terrorism. We mustn't stick with the news reports only, we have to dig and get more information and refuse to consider a country in a permanent state of war. It is our duty to get properly informed and then spread a positive and encouraging message.

Lastly, I hope the Afghans will recognise my work from they hearts. I would like to help them and show them the true pictures of Afghanistan.

* Eyes Wide Open, An Afghan Journey runs at Alliance Francaise, Dubai until Dec 31