World Press Photo 2011 in Edinburgh - Jodi Bieber interview
Photo of a mutilated young Afghan woman has become a symbol of our tormented times
This article is from 2011.
Bibi Aisha was 18 when the Taliban came calling for her just before midnight. Forced into a mountain clearing in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, she was put on trial and convicted by a local commander. Her crime: fleeing from a violent husband and taking refuge in her family home. The punishment: she was held down while Aisha's husband took a knife and cut off her ears and nose. Left for dead on the mountainside, she was found by aid workers and eventually given shelter in a women's refuge centre in Kabul before finally leaving for the US, where she is due to receive reconstructive surgery.
Her horrific story was part of Aryn Baker's TIME report on the plight of Afghan women in 2010, which included Fawzia Koofi, the former deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament, Olympic athlete Robina Muqimyar Jalalai, and Mozhdah Jamalzadah, a TV personality dubbed 'part Oprah, part Hannah Montana'.
As the WPP jury chairman David Burnett said: 'This could become one of those pictures – and we have maybe just ten in our lifetime – where if somebody says, “You know, that picture of a girl … ”, you know exactly which one they're talking about.'
Aidan Sullivan, also on the jury, added: 'Part of what the World Press Photo contest does is to take pictures to a wider audience, an audience that is going to ask, "Why?" And this photo makes people ask: “What on Earth? What's going on? What has happened?” For me, this was the picture that asked the most important questions.'
As for Bieber herself, while staggered at the disfigurement of Aisha, she had to steel herself to get in there and do a professional job. 'I was shocked, as it's not every day that you meet someone who's had their nose and ears cut off. But with Aisha, her hair was beautiful and I really just spoke to her like another person. I asked if she was excited about going to America and things like that. I just treat people as honestly as I can, and also it's a work situation; you have to find out where you're going to photograph her and how you'll do it. So you have all these other things going on.'
Despite Bieber's long experience (this is her tenth World Press Photo prize and the first as overall winner), a very strict process had to be undertaken before her work would be published in the magazine. 'I quite strictly edit, and then sent them what I was happy with of each woman,' she recalls. 'They were stunned by the photo of Aisha and there followed about a week of talking and making sure Aisha would be alright. They questioned me about what happened in the room and how I got the picture, making sure that I was within the boundaries and hadn't been an abusive photographer.'
Aisha is now living in New York, making jewellery, visiting an imam once a week, learning to speak English and hopping onto the internet now and again. But the life of the woman who took that stark image has also changed out of all recognition. 'I don't often get covers or work with TIME,' says Bieber. 'I was taken aback more by the response. The moment it was published, Aisha's life changed and so did mine. Suddenly I was in front of the camera and not behind it. And there was a lot of discussion around the picture and many different points of view. I was doing lots of interviews on television shows where you're not exactly speaking about shutter speed or the light.'
Bieber is a globetrotting photographer who in between the WPP and our phone interview had assignments in Shoreditch and Moscow, and has seen action in India and the Middle East. 'I'm a naturally very cautious person and weigh things up. The biggest danger I've experienced came when I did a favour for a magazine that gives me very wonderful assignments and they asked if I would photograph a restaurant. And I was attacked outside, so you can never really say when something like that can happen. I was never attacked when I photographed gangsters or while in Iraq or Iran. Things don't always happen the way you assume they will.'
World Press Photo, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 473 2000, 6–27 Aug, free.