On a hot, dusty and windy day in September 2005, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jessica Riordan rode in an SUV with her friend, a French officer named Brice (rhymes with Greece), as he led a convoy up a mountain known as Antenna Hill in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The hill was characteristic of the country’s landscape, brown and rocky with a snaky dirt road. Every time the SUV made a turn on the switchback, it jostled the passengers. Riordan’s flak jacket was abrasive against her perspiring neck, and she longed to pull out a scarf stashed in her cargo pants to buffer her skin. She always kept the scarf handy as a makeshift hijab, or veil, to cover her hair lest her naked head offend
Her Afghan-made shoulder holster was strapped on, with an outline of the country etched onto it and embossing inside that read: Afghanistan: U.S. War Against International Terrorists and Al-Qaeda. In her pocket, she carried a handful of blue Bic pens. Her Canon Rebel XT digital camera was slung on a strap across her chest.
Finally, after one more sharp turn, Riordan met with a full view of the hill. Stacked atop one another were houses made of mud, reminiscent of the adobe pueblos in New Mexico. The sun was so bright that she had to squint, and what she glimpsed almost took her breath away. Children — dirty and shoeless young war-zone inhabitants — flew brilliant red kites. The toys had been donated by American troops, and for the first time since she’d enlisted in 2000, Riordan felt proud of being in the military.
To her the kites were more than red pieces of paper floating overhead. They were a symbol of freedom and hope for Afghans, because kite flying was forbidden by the Taliban before the U.S. military stepped in after 9/11.
Their vehicle lurched to a stop, and Afghan children emerged from nowhere, shouting things like, “Hey, you mista, give me pen!” Riordan and her peers stepped out of the vehicle and she obliged, pulling pens from her pocket. She held up the Canon and smiled to the children, letting them know all she wanted was to take photographs. They grinned unabashedly as shots were aimed at them.
As the convoy eventually pulled away, the soldiers had to throw water bottles to the children to get them to move out from under the vehicle’s tires. Afghan children seemed to have no fear of the vehicles and chased them so closely that the soldiers were sure there would eventually be a horrible accident.
They reached the top, and Riordan walked one way while Brice and his men walked another. Antenna Hill housed towers for radio and TV stations, but what caught Riordan’s eye were huge steel shipping containers that appeared to have been blown up, probably, Riordan guessed, by the Taliban. She snapped away, absorbed, not realizing for a moment that a man was peeking at her from a building across the way. Their eyes met. He smiled and waved her over to drink tea. She smiled back and nodded, then called Brice and the others to join them.
The Afghan man, possibly in his 40s or 50s, was a security guard on the hill. Riordan wasn’t sure of his age, as many Afghans tend to look older than they are, a likely byproduct of the country’s many years of instability. His quarters were sparsely furnished with a small TV, a ratty old couch, a candy dish and a coffee table. A few photos adorned his walls; he pointed to them. There were pictures of the Mujahedeen, the Afghan freedom fighters.
He frowned at other pictures, then stabbed an index finger at a photo before pointing to one of his legs and pulling up his pant leg. Riordan was astonished to see shrapnel embedded in his skin. He then went about serving tea and acting the courteous host; Riordan concluded he was thanking them in his own way for being there. She still had the camera, and with gestures, asked permission to photograph him.
The camera was the most important, and the only, thing that Riordan took shots with in Afghanistan. It functioned wordlessly to help bridge the gap between cultures where language couldn’t and a gun wouldn’t. Where others hesitated to approach, the camera helped Riordan get close to local culture. The photographs she took during her six months in Afghanistan are permanent reminders of a profound personal experience.
Jessica Riordan, now 27, joined the Air Force in January 2000 at age 20. She’d been waiting tables at a tavern and a coffee shop in her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn, and says she lacked the discipline for college or even life in general. “The military seemed like the right decision at the time and it absolutely changed who I was,” she says now.
At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, Riordan was stationed in Langley, Va., working on security systems for F-16s. Her relationship with the military had been tumultuous, and she was trying to gain conscientious objector status. After 9/11, though, Riordan says she finally understood the importance of the military. She now felt a sense of patriotic obligation.
She was a broadcast technician in the Air Force, repairing anything related to TV and radio. She helped transmit entertainment for American soldiers through the Armed Forces Network — sports, movies and game shows.
She was stationed in the Azores Islands, then in Tokyo. Before she deployed to Afghanistan in June 2005, she visited the Philippines, where she began using her camera to connect with people. That experience was a precursor to her time in Afghanistan, where she was stationed at Bagram Air Base, nestled in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush Mountains.
Most battles in Afghanistan occurred in the mountains, and usually involved U.S. Special Forces; Riordan and her comrades saw little combat. She says some soldiers adopted a “kill all the hajjis” attitude, but she thought it was important to understand the people and the country she was helping to liberate. Few people, she notes, realize that hajji is a revered term for a Muslim who has achieved the pilgrimage to Mecca. Yet she heard American soldiers use the term pejoratively.
“I had to stress to my co-workers that the general Afghan populace is not the enemy,” Riordan says. “We’re at war with some people that hijacked the country.”
During Taliban rule, most women wore birkas, head-to-foot coverings with only mesh slits for viewing. While she was there, Riordan says, women were scarce in public, but most of those who did go out, because of the absence of the Taliban, wore the less conservative hijab that veils their hair. Traditional women continued wearing birkas.
Afghan men stared when they’d see her in jogging shorts, she says, because they were unaccustomed to seeing women that way. No one hassled her, but her friend Ariana, who was born in Afghanistan but grew up in California, was not so fortunate. While she worked as a translator, an Afghan man took offense that she was not covered in a hijab. He beat her and called her a whore. American soldiers had to step in.
When it comes to her interest in photography, Riordan recalls smelling the chemicals from her artist mother’s darkroom but believes it’s mostly natural talent; she’s never taken a class. She took pictures in Afghanistan because she wanted to see things that not everyone saw.
One particularly memorable moment involved a visit to Afghan women working for the University of Nebraska-Omaha printing press, one of the largest employers of Afghan women in Kabul that grew out of an International Red Cross effort in the early 1980s to assist Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan.
The Afghan women at the UNO facility treated Riordan like a celebrity and a role model: She carried a gun, wore no head covering, had no man to report to and controlled her own life. They asked her to make a speech, be photographed with them, even hold their babies. Riordan felt privileged because few people have such personal encounters with Afghan women. She hopes to reconnect with the women and send them prints of the photographs she took there.
Riordan got out of the Air Force in January 2006. She spent time traveling in Europe and visiting family in Knoxville before moving to Louisville last summer to be with her boyfriend, a former Air Force staff sergeant who came here to work at Churchill Downs. She’s pursuing a degree in cultural anthropology.
She now takes a more personal interest in politics, researches her political opinions and reads up on the war, especially as it concerns Afghanistan. Her heart is still there, a country rich in history and people. While officially independent only since 1919, scientific evidence suggests it is one of oldest agricultural regions, dating back 50,000 years.
“It’s in shambles right now, and it used to be a tourist destination,” Riordan says mournfully. “It used to be a great country. Maybe they’ll be one again.”
Riordan believes she had such a rich experience there because she went in with the eyes of an anthropologist, a woman and a photographer.
“The more people I meet, the more I find we have so much in common no matter where we are from, such as the basic need of security and safety,” she says. “We all have the same desire for freedom and to control our own destinies. I think as Americans we take those things for granted. That’s what my photographs represent.”