I’m usually wary of photo essays about poverty and drugs. Eugene Richards has unleashed a torrent of imitators, and the results are often voyeuristic and exploitative–unless there’s an underlying story, photos of depraved debasement do little more than serve as a vehicle for gawking at the unmentionables, grotesques without empathy. Benjamin Lowy‘s “The Afghan High” does the opposite.
The essay presents Afghanistan’s drug culture and the government’s futile fight against the opium growers as facets of a complex international political issue with both compassion and journalistic distance. The portrait at the top of this post, for instance, portrays the man not just as a token drug user but instead as a thinking, emotive, whole agent caught in the middle of a bad situation. If the essay stopped with the drug users, though, its value and interest would have been lost. By including images of the government’s meager efforts to fight poppy growers, the essay becomes a powerful statement on the entirety of Afghanistan’s relationship with drugs. The last photo, especially, (sorry I can’t link to it) evokes an idea of just how ingrained drug culture is in Afghan culture: the poppy fields, which are the focus of strategic international maneuvering and the fate of which may determine the outcome of America’s military efforts, are a place where children play. Lowy’s control of light throughout the essay is breathtaking, as well.