Luke Cody’s Afghan Odyssey

afghan-_1.jpgLuke Cody left a successful career in the banking industry to pursue photojournalism. His project in Landmark Education’s self-expression and leadership program involved a photo exhibition based on a three month tour of Afghanistan. Cody explains the purpose of his tour and his exhibit:

“I wish to present a simple vision: that there is no difference between a human being living in a society that’s seemingly spoilt for choice and one struggling to survive in an underprivileged or war-torn part of the world. We are all made of the same fibres, and we experience life, adapt and survive via the same mechanics. I believe these traits are universal commonalities worth celebrating.”

“I want to show these people who, in many ways, are more accepting of the conditions in which they live than we are. Many of us seem restless, to be in constant search of something more. If we were to embrace and accept what we have, the good and bad, and help our brothers and sisters who aren’t as fortunate and don’t have the opportunity to live as comfortably as us, I believe we could shift the context of our own problems so they are seen in a more positive light. This will allow us to look beyond ourselves and provide support and relief for others because we choose to.”

Cody’s exhibit, which took place July 5-7 at the Baden-Powell House at Assembly Hall in London, also raised money for Afghanaid, a leading charity undertaking critical development projects in Afghanistan. (Afghanaid also lent Cody important assistance for his three month photo tour).

Cody’s unique exhibition and life story caught the attention of emel magazine, a leading British muslim publication, who wrote the following story about Cody and his work.

An Afghan Odyssey

After the remarkable photographic exhibition “What’s the Difference” in collaboration with Afghanaid, Somaiya Khan meets Luke Cody to discuss how his portfolio of images capture the survival of the Afghan people who are embracing life amidst violence, fear and rancid poverty.

afghan-_2.jpgCurious to meet the man who made a most unusual choice – to turn from the banking sector to photojournalism – I convene with Luke Cody only a few days after his exhibition. At 28, he is much younger than I expected, and from his accent, unmistakably Australian. I am struck by his piercing eyes and alert demeanour. H e seems not to be a man weary after travelling so far and achieving so much; rather, he has a nervous energy about him, while at the same time exuding a sense of considered calm.

However, photographing the photographer proves only to make him self-conscious: like many photographers Cody seems more comfortable behind the lens, and doesn’t like having his picture taken. He shrugs self-deprecatingly as he casts a hand over his face. “You know, this is me: I didn’t want to shave, I haven’t had a haircut in about two and half months – so I tie it back. I don’t like hair getting on my face when I’m taking photographs. It was either a baseball cap or this!”

After this portraiture ordeal is over, Cody and I settle to talk about the inspirational personal journey that took him east to Afghanistan; an entirely self-funded project which from start to finish he managed in just three months. Born in Melbourne, Cody came to London about five years ago and joined the rat race, working incredibly long hours in IT. However, no intent on a conventional lifestyle, Cody found his work for Barclays Bank left him unfulfilled. He began his search for something deeper and more meaningful. Seeking to tie up loose ends. He became intrigued by a personal-growth workshop as a way to break down personal barriers, to expand his limitations, and move away from a “self-obsessed kind of existence”.

I tell him this must have taken a huge amount of tenacity: to break away from the known, daring to d o something so very different. Yet, Cody Is careful to tell me that he is neither daredevil nor a thrill-seeker: he believes that this may be how some people view the “glamorous” job of a war photographer. Instead he seems earnest in championing the cause of the Afghan people, and more precisely in celebrating “universal commonalities”. He insists “We are all made of the same fibres, and we experience life, adapt and survive via the same mechanics. My work is about shifting context and triggering a global consciousness that unites us so we can proper from being more closely related to one another.”

afghan-_3.jpgI ask Cody about his motivation behind choosing Afghanistan as his first photojournalistic reconnaissance mission. “For me, in terms of being in Britain, there’s a massive British military presence within ISAF, the most amount of troops I think. I thought the British public need to see an alternate truth, as opposed to just seeing what’s happening in the south. Afghanistan is obviously a huge country and you know there’s a lot more terrain that isn’t covered in the national media, so I really wanted British people to see people from Afghanistan as they live. I wanted to emphasise the similarities. It’s just so important: all that people associate with Afghanistan is war and terrorism, and the country is being pigeon-holed. We don’t see these faces” he says, indicating his photographs. “And this is the truth” And what a truth it is: his moth-long travel in the region has resulted in a portfolio of images that are not of violence and wards but depict people going about their day to day lives, instantly recognizable in our own lives. They capture the strength of human spirit – humour, vulnerability, hope and solidarity; bring the back streets of Afghanistan to our cosmopolitan city.

I ask what his initial expectations were, and how different it actually was when he got there. “I tried not to have any expectations. I had a lot of support from Afghanaid, who agreed to help me with this project, with infrastructure and volunteers on the ground. I was lucky enough to have guides in each of the four provinces that I went to, guides who grew up in those communities. That made it, not easy, but it definitely allowed me to acclimatize and adjust and do what I had to do in connecting with people.” Cody considers. “It wasn’t about being a photojournalist, it was about being a humanitarian photojournalist, it was acceptance, compassion, solidarity; allowing these principles to pave the way for me to have interactions where I can capture life as it exists without hindering it.”

Cody speaks of the people he photographs as a person who is attached with an almost poetic intensity to a particular place or community. I remark on a photojournalist’s conflicting demands of being a participant, personally affected by the people and event in front of the lens, whilst also acting as an observer, coldly absorbed in the process of making a record or creating art. He agrees that the equipment can make his job hard, as people freeze on seeing a camera.

Cody worked with photographer David Axelbank each Saturday for a month at Photofusion in Brixton, the independent photography resource centre. I am amazed. People train for years to take pictures like this, to hone their technical skills. Cody makes clear to me how much he feels is owed to his mentor: the editing, the execution. Without Axelbank’s help and guidance, Cody insists, this project and the exhibition could not have come to be. Yet I am amazed by Cody’s own audacious choice, to quit everything and seek instead a deeper meaning, a greater purpose. I ask him to share the impetus behind his decision.

“I guess it’s just about me, going after what I want in life, and being quite sure of certain things that I’ve found out, certain principles that I’ve applied, like acceptance… There was a lot in my life I didn’t accept so therefore within myself there wasn’t clarity. Over the last year and a half I’ve found out my identity, and from that I’ve really felt such a fulfillment,. Clearing things up from my past, rebuilding my relationship with my father after quite a long time. It’s applying these principles and then wanting to share them with the world through photography.”

Although he seemed reserved at the start of our interview, it is clear to me that Cody cares very deeply that his message reach as many people as possible: he constantly reiterates the simple yet profound truth that we are all the same. It is important that Cody does not lose momentum after his first exhibition; photographs of this kind have a value for up to a year and a half after they have been taken, and it is during this key period where they have their worth to press agencies on a commercial-level. Of course as art their value is timeless.

afghan-test.jpgWriters and artists have always veered between contrasting versions of recording history. On the one hand, it is argued, history is about global events – war, conflict, famine, terrorism – and to record history means being in the front line, at crisis point, bearing witness to violent change. On the other hand, there are those who see history as the slow march of time, with most of us largely untouched by political turmoil, since our lives consist of what human life always has: birth, work, procreation, friendship and play. One view values journalistic reportage, the other the eternal verities.

Cody’s work is not saying that war and terror have gone way, but perhaps what is needed is a more benign version of reality. More benign but equally legitimate. Should images of history be urgent, polemical, in-your-face? Or is it better to sneak behind history’s back and catch it unawares? It is a frightening sign of the times that images of war-torn regions of the world fail to make an impact –they are so commonplace.

History, as far as the photographer is concerned, is not a date but an image; not a textbook debate but a human face; not even a document but an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time. I get the feeling after talking to Cody that the photographer is on the brink of something new and exciting. Exhibitions with other photojournalists, such as NATO’s charitable event being held in September at government building in Whitehall, will give him and his work more exposure. I am left with the impression of a man truly blessed in the new direction of his life, having both the talent and the passion to do what he loves.

Afghanaid is a charity committed to investing funds in health, education, water, sanitation, agricultural and community development projects in Afghanistan. Funds will also go to ensuring Cody’s exhibition and many others like it continue throughout the world.

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