By Karim Emam

Jessica Fulford-Dobson’s photography exhibition at the Qatar Museums (QM) Gallery in Katara testament of how just having fun and smiling can unite people.

Powerful, stunning, and touching – these words came across one’s mind when looking upon the young faces of the Afghani girls at the exhibition by award-winning photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson. Her series of striking portraits, entitled “Skate Girls of Kabul”, tells the extraordinary story of the girls who took up skateboarding, thanks to Skateistan, an Afghan charity that provides skate parks as a hook to get children from disadvantaged families back into the educational system and empower them.

Jessica Fulford-Dobson with HE Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Museums (QM)

The project first attracted Fulford-Dobson’s attention when she read about them in a small newspaper column. In June 2013 she visited the education charity. Inspired by their charismatic femininity, she returned to Afghanistan the following May to complete this series of portraits and sequences. The series was viewed by more than 74,000 visitors during its two week run at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

“I always felt that after the London launch, you can clearly see that there was a real global hunger for a good news story, a story of hope. This is the reason why the short article I read in late 2012 captured my attention; even I, like the rest of the world, was fed up with the doom and gloom that we always hear from Afghanistan and the surrounding region. I knew that people would be interested in this but I didn’t realise what a global phenomenon it would become. And for any photographer in this age it’s quite hard to have photographs hit headlines, unless they are to do with celebrity, sex or violence. I had been in touch with Qatar Museums before, and after London I wanted to approach HE Sheikha Mayassa because I felt it was important also to have a combination of cultures from the east and west, coming together to support these girls and give them a voice on the global stage,” says Fulford-Dobson.

The exhibition has been shown in three different continents now when you count its presence at the Venice Biennale and the Aga Khan Museum in Canada, but will it ever been shown in Kabul some day? “The project has been sponsored by an Afghani telecom company (Roshan Telecom) and we did have a talk before the London launch about when would be the right time to be in Kabul. We do hope it’s soon. At the moment we are trying to let the world know about it so the skate girls continue to get support.

Skateistan also monitors these kids for a few years to ensure that they don’t slip. Does she keep in touch with the girls? “Yes my partnership with the school and the project is long term. They were founded in 2007 and officially started operations in 2009. When I approached them in 2012, a lot of journalists had collaborated with them to make films and other projects. But I think I was the first to approach the photography from a non-journalistic angle, to talk about in a way that will take them to a different arena in the art world,” says Fulford-Dobson.

“We must make sure that all the good work that is being carried on with the project continues. Because from Afghanistan it expanding out to Cambodia and to South Africa now. So it’s wonderful to know that girls from all over the world are now benefiting from this. It will be very interesting for me to see where they are in ten years’ time. Already we are seeing the benefits. One girl was joined the project in 2007 is today a youth leader that speaks in the parliament on behalf of the youth. It is still such a young charity, but in just ten years they have girl from selling trinkets to becoming a national youth leader; that’s quite something,” she says.

Fulford-Dobson, speaking about the process, says, “I like natural light and also I worked on my own. I don’t like coming in with an army of assistants and umbrellas, because as soon as they see that, it’s not very natural and everybody feels conscious. When I was taking the skate shots I wanted to be a fly on the wall, because I didn’t want to stop their fun; they only have one hour a day to do this and this is their time. But I actually wanted to engage with them and this why this is very powerful, because of all the time I spent with them, despite a lot of them not speaking any English. But with the help of some of their younger teachers who helped to translate, it’s amazing how just having fun and smiling can unite people.’

Qatar Museums (QM) opened the show on the July 19 in the presence of Chairperson HE Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and it will continue in QM Gallery in Katara until October 21.