‘Nothing Is Black and White’

Photographer Matthieu Paley tells Brandon Hoops the story behind a picture from Pakistan

By / March 2013

Soon enough I would have to cross the bridge. It was hard not to shudder, looking out across the rugged stretch of rope and wood as it was tossed about playfully in the wind. The bridge was built to carry villagers and facilitate commerce over the Hunza River in Pakistan’s Gojal region. I imagined slipping between the sparsely placed wood planks or through the open sides.

To fortify my mind from the thoughts that tried to enervate my courage, I followed the journey of an old Wakhi woman as she made her way across. The woman didn’t joke around. On a day when not many were crossing the bridge, she moved with determination, eyes intent to each step, hands steady on the rope at each side. It wasn’t until she arrived at the end and paused to rest with her hand on the bridge that I truly understood the extent of her toughness.

Her gray hair was tucked under her colorful scarf. Her sweater was tattered and torn in a few places. Her face was textured as if carved out of stone. And most luminous of all was her demeanor: proud. She wasn’t looking for sympathy for her hardships. She wasn’t going hungry. She was making do, just living her life like her ancestors did, unaware of the alternatives.

For a region with scenery fit for filling an IMAX screen, I find it has been these faces, these people, that have left the most lasting impression on me. I have been back every year since that first experience in 1999. I was lucky. I found a place that had been underexposed. The forgotten Himalayas impose their force over north Pakistan and Afghanistan but haven’t been portrayed with the voracity of their siblings in Nepal.

Those early years also gave direction to my career and shaped my photography. After 9/11 no one wanted good, human stories from the region. Everyone wanted hot news. Everyone wanted images of a war zone. But I had no interest in conflict photography. I wanted to learn to speak the language. I wanted to experience photography as a slow process. I wanted to show that nothing is black and white.

Other people would ask me, “Do you want to join the Taliban?” They thought I was crazy. But they had never been there. They only knew what the media portrayed: the war, the terrorists. They had been brainwashed. They didn’t know what I knew. It is an incredibly hospitable place.

I don’t go because I like to live on edge or hunt after drama. I go because I feel great warmth and know great friendships. I was reminded of this during a recent winter assignment to the Kyrgyz community in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains.

The men in one of the mud houses were out when I popped by, and I found the women drinking salty milk tea under a spotlight of sun streaming in through the roof. The picture I took shows a quiet moment among mothers, daughters, and aunts as they engaged in one of their routines of daily life.

Maybe another photographer could have stepped into that scene and snapped a better picture, but they wouldn’t have known anything about these people, their kids, their lives, their language. I understood these things. And what the picture doesn’t show is the acceptance I felt sitting there, my camera stowed away, sipping my cup of tea.


Matthieu Paley is a freelance photographer whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, National Geographic, and many other publications. He lives in Turkey with his wife and children. Pamir, his latest book, is available in French and German.