Most of us in the skate community know what Skateistan is all about, however to those on the outside, it’s one of those hidden feel good stories to come out of the skate scene. Recently, we had the opportunity to work with the Aga Khan museum and their amazing partners to help bring to life the work of Award winning photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson through her visit to Kabul and her firsthand experience with Skateistan and the solid work that they do every day.
Written by: Sierra Bein
In a part of the world where women were once threatened for playing sports, a group of young girls has found a love for skateboarding.
Because skateboarding is so uncommon in Afghanistan, it has never been limited as a sport. It’s hard to understand how a piece of wood and four little wheels can change someone’s life so deeply, but now for the first time in North America you can visit the images of the young skater girls of the Skateistan program and see it for yourself.
“They might be girls from Kabul but they represent girls everywhere. Being themselves doing sports, being confident,” said Jessica Fulford-Dobson, an award-winning London-based photographer, who has brought her photo collection of the “Skate Girls of Kabul” to the Aga Khan museum. This was also her first day in Canada.
Fulford-Dobson gave an artist’s talk and spoke on a panel the first night of the exhibition to give a behind-the-scenes of her work with Skateistan—a program meant to empower youth through skateboarding and education, and Afghanistan is where it first took root.
She was joined by Beth Malcolm of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and Shabana Saidali, who was an instructor and participant in the Skateistan program in Kabul. Marianne Fenton, who works at the Aga Khan, moderated the panel on Sept. 5.
The images are what Fulford-Dobson calls art with impact, and is what she describes as some of her most challenging work. She was happy to see a “positive story from a part of the world I’ve only heard doom and gloom from the past decade.”
Like the skate girls, Fulford-Dobson, is also different than what you would expect from a sport photographer. Rather than working with an action focus or as a photojournalist, she works as a portrait photographer and artist and likes leaving some things to the imagination.
“I was after an element where there was almost a poetry to the moving pictures and that poetry would come from the move of their fabrics, their wonderful headscarves that they were wearing and their incredible clothes along with the action in it,” she said.
For Malcolm, these images were important to bring to a North American audience to show how these programs can help girls around the world. Skateistan has since launch in Cambodia and South Africa.
“It’s so important that girls have the opportunity to be themselves, be girls, see where they’re strong and where other people are strong so they can aspire to be that,” Malcolm said that mentors are important for girls, especially in these areas. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
While getting to know the girls, Fulford-Dobson said she could see how skateboarding gave the girls fierceness, no matter what class they came from.
“They are quite feisty little girls because they have to survive on the street and what’s also interesting with Skateistan is predominantly the children going there are children that are from very poor families, they’re from refugee camps, displaces families, street working children, but they don’t turn anyone away so you will sometimes get children of government officials,” she said.
“Often the children from the more comfortable homes are learning from the street children and that I think it was really touching that they become their heroes.”
The evening of the unveiling, larger-than-life images of the skate girls were illuminated outside of the museum entrance while a group of Canadian skate girls were performing a skate demo.
The images of the girls, who range in age from 5 to seventeen years old, stand taller than the crowd of people surrounding them. Even the tallest people in attendance need to look up to the young girls smiling and riding.
Although the girls have never been to North America, let alone Toronto, groups of people stepped up to each portrait as if being able to meet them in person. You are able to see each of them with their board at hand or under their feet, and my their expression even get a glimpse of their personality.
“These little girls and their relationships to skateboarding, they just learn to be very strong because they will fall off it all the time,” said Fulford-Dobson. “And more importantly they’ve learned from skateboarding, how to be resilient and to face their fears.”
“I think for me what was the powerful thing … Is that this simple little board with wheels could be so powerful.”
Fenton, who is new to working at the Aga Khan remembers first seeing the images before they were on display and was excited to be able to bring them to Canadians for the first time.
“I don’t know these girls,” said Fenton. “But I think they deserve to be monumentalized.”
The Skate Girls of Kabul installation is on until October 8th and is free to check out in the Aga Khan Park, Toronto.
For more info on the installation, check it out in our events section.