• April 6, 2015

In Afghanistan, a Yearbook Takes on Special Significance

Becky Harlan

“I want to be an engineer and help Afghanistan become a more developed country,” says Naib, a student in Class Eight at the Roots of Peace School in Mir Bacha Kot in the Kabul Province of Afghanistan. He is responding to a question posed by photographer Ruvan Wijesooriya, who asked Naib and his classmates about their hopes for the future while making their portraits for the school yearbook.

Picture of a boy posing for a yearbook photo in a red button-up shirt
“I want to be an engineer and help Afghanistan become a more developed country.” —Naib, a student in Class Eight

Normally, a yearbook is a keepsake for students, teachers, and their families. But for this school in Afghanistan, where education is not a guarantee for everyone, a yearbook symbolizes a triumph. I spoke with Wijesooriya, the creator of the project “Yearbook Afghanistan” by phone and email to find out why and how he ended up getting almost 250 students to say “cheese.”


Picture of a girl wearing a white headscarf laughs shyly in front of a chalkboard in front of her class
A student laughs after reciting a passage in the front of her class.

BECKY HARLAN: Tell me about this school—its beginnings and its mission.

RUVAN WIJESOORIYA: The school was funded in 2006 by the Penny Campaign, an initiative of the nonprofit Roots of Peace, which assists communities affected by war. At the time, the school was an overcrowded makeshift structure which used a sheet to shade the children from the harsh sun. The resulting permanent school structure was a success story, and the Penny Campaign expanded to build several more schools.

Picture of a few boys walking through a schoolyard in Afghanistan during recess
A few boys are caught in a candid moment during playtime in the schoolyard.
Photograph taken by a student at the school in Mir Bacha Kot

BECKY: How did you get involved?

RUVAN: In 2011, I heard about Penny Campaign projects in Afghanistan. I was interested in visiting a school that educates girls. I believe education should be a human right and that universal women’s education will make the world a safer and better place.

I got in touch with the Penny Campaign and pitched the idea of the yearbook. They loved it, and a few months later they brought me to Afghanistan.

Picture of a young girl posting for a yearbook portrait wearing a patterned headscarf
Malaly, a student in Class Two

BECKY: What drew you to this part of the world?

RUVAN: I had a pretty different childhood—my parents are Sri Lankan immigrants who moved to Duluth, Minnesota, in the early 1970s, then joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1980. Every other weekend of my childhood was spent on road trips around the Middle East. Many of those places are at war now, and I feel lucky to have experienced what I did during a time of relative peace. I had never been to Central Asia, so this was totally new territory for me. While I had been in places where terrorism was a constant threat, I had never been in a country where a war was being waged, and certainly not while holding a passport identifying me as an occupier. I felt that my life experience gave me a different viewpoint, and I wanted to take on a project that would exercise it.

Picture of an empty school yard with three teachers off to the side looking out at it, mountains towering in the background
Three teachers look out at the schoolyard, which is surrounded by Afghanistan’s mountainous landscape.
Picture of a group of students holding up still life drawings they made for art class
Art class seemed to be a favorite among the students, according to Wijesooriya. Here, they hold up the still life drawings they made for class.

BECKY: Why a yearbook?

RUVAN: Shooting a yearbook has been something I have wanted to do since I first got into photography. I knew the format would be an excellent way of documenting the school in a simple and archival way. The yearbook documents the universal experience of being a student, capturing a vast number of faces from a shared experience within a particular time and place. The portraits are unassuming, looking for the best in the subject because they are for the subject. For many of the children it was their first time having their portrait taken.

Picture of a young boy posting for a yearbook portrait wearing a blue button-up shirt
Abdul Rabi, a student in Class Two

BECKY: What was your vision for the project?

RUVAN: Most of the ideas for the yearbook came from my own high school yearbook—Cairo American College, Class of 1995. I decided to shoot the project on 35mm film because I wanted the pictures to be timeless. I thought it was important to keep that emotional and nostalgic quality that I feel film preserves. I also came up with questions to ask the older students, e.g., What do you want to be when you grow up?, What do you want for the future of Afghanistan?, and What is your favorite subject in school? When I got back to New York City, I printed the images and sent the kids a picture of themselves—a memory and a reminder of a place and time from their childhood.

The website for “Yearbook Afghanistan” features nearly 250 school portraits of the students (shot in two and a half hours due to security issues and logistical challenges), along with a section of candid shots I made around the school. I also showed a group of the students how disposable cameras work and was able to get the film back from them before I left. Those photos are showcased in a different section. Another section, “Portraits of Afghanistan,” [not pictured here] contextualizes the school by showing a broader collection of culture and landscape photographs.

[Editor’s note: Explore portraits from all nine classes, see the children’s answers to Ruvan’s questions, read a letter from the school principal, and more on the project website.]

Picture of a young girl approaching the front of her classroom to recite a passage, she seems kind of shy from the camera
A student approaches the front of the class to recite a passage. Her camera shyness entertains her fellow classmates.
Photograph taken by a student at the school in Mir Bacha Kot

BECKY: What struck you about the school and the students while you were there?

RUVAN: One thing that struck me was how much the students there wanted to learn, wanted to help each other, and wanted to be in class. If a teacher stepped out of class to speak with another teacher, one of the students would attempt to lead the class. Seeing students teaching other students was inspiring. Of course, as with any school, kids are still goofing off in class, and lunch break is chaotic, but there seemed to be an overriding sense of gratitude that the children had for their school. Many could remember a time when they didn’t have the privilege of having a building or even a toilet. There is still no running water there. Most of these children would likely be working if they were not in school, and it became clear that these kids had to become responsible at a young age.

On one hand this was heartbreaking; on the other hand it is an example of human drive, strength, and resilience. This school gives the kids the ability to read and write and foster a curiosity for the world. Most importantly, education allows them to expand the possibilities in their future.

Picture of a grid of yearbook portraits from Class One at a school in Afghanistan
Class One from the Roots of Peace school in Mir Bacha Kot, Afghanistan
Hover or click to read full list of student names.

BECKY: The number of girls in the class photos dwindles as the children get older. Can you talk about that?

RUVAN: I knew photographing a student body in Afghanistan would naturally expose gender inequalities. This is a very important facet of the work and part of what the project seeks to document. However, this school allows girls to attend, which is a rare and good thing. Rarer so are classrooms with both boys and girls.

Women disappear in the later grades because at puberty women are typically in arranged marriages. Once at puberty, the vast majority of women become invisible to the public.

Picture of a grid of yearbook portraits of boys that are in Class Eight at a school in Afghanistan
Class Eight from the Roots of Peace school in Mir Bacha Kot, Afghanistan
Hover or click to read full list of student names.

BECKY: Was the yearbook more for the students, teachers, and school community, or to share with the rest of the world?

RUVAN: The yearbook is something for everyone. I did this for so many reasons—to share pictures with the kids at the school, to share them with you right now, to provide visual data for sociologists, to give a different visual perspective. My own self-exploration from this project continues to this day. I felt that now is the time to release it free to the public as a larger documentary project. I think these portraits demystify people who many in my country have come to understand as “different” and at times “the enemy.” In 2001, shortly after September 11, 2001, in New York City, I overheard too many people saying things like, “We should bomb them [Afghans] back to the Stone Age.” I’m releasing “Yearbook Afghanistan” online in large part for those people and their children.

Picture of a boy ringing a school bell made from a repurposed russian bomb shell at a school in Afghanistan
A repurposed Russian bomb shell is used as the school bell, ringing when it is time to go to class, time for lunch, and time to go home.
Picture of two girls sitting at desks in the classroom, practicing their writing
Students practice their writing in class.
Photograph taken by a student at the school in Mir Bacha Kot

See the complete “Yearbook Afghanistan” project here.

According to Wijesooriya, the school in Mir Bacha Kot needs continual funding to allow maintenance and growth. To learn more about Roots of Peace and their work with schools through the Penny Campaign, visit their website.

See more of Wijesooriya’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 53 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Aguedys Whittaker
    May 3, 2015

    culture, education , peace..at the end we all want the same..we all must go toward it..

  2. gwen
    April 23, 2015

    this children are the future of afghanistan future leadsers who will lead there country filled with peace no children will die of hunger and poverty and sickness… all i can say is let this children continue there education without the reason for war and power…

  3. Breanna
    April 15, 2015

    This is a wonderful thing to do for kids who don’t get to enjoy things like this all of the time in life. It would be really cool to go there and take pictures to see what its like. The fact that this yearbook makes these kids so happy says something. I think this is something that should be done to schools like this one. Its amazing to see them smile like that!

  4. Rudy Alfonso Cabrera Méndez
    April 15, 2015

    Nada me ha llenado más de felicidad que ver esas caras inocentes sonreir. Se los debemos a todos los niños del mundo.

  5. Austin
    April 15, 2015

    I believe that these pictures are very great. I think that they should do this more often. The smiles… I really like them.

  6. Laurie
    April 14, 2015

    Thank you. I wish everyone could see these pictures and have an innocent face to put with all the terribleness that goes on and be reminded that there is hope in these little happy faces and that all actions taken should be with a mind to preserve that hope.

  7. Mike Steadman
    April 13, 2015

    Concur with all — wonderful story, beautiful children, heartrending to hear of the girls’ plight so soon after, etc. But must also remind all of the unfortunate truth that virtually none of this would have been remotely possible had not we finally intervened as we had so aggressively (and yes, violently) against the Taliban, who indeed were bound and determined to forcefully bring even this long-besieged culture “back to the Stone-Age”. God knows how long this little slice of optimism can possibly last now that we’ve “fulfilled a campaign promise” and (more-or-less) completely pulled out of Afghanistan. I pray for the best. But am genuinely worried about the worst. God help them all (and not just in Afghanistan)!

  8. Tishelle Tobias
    April 13, 2015

    This brought tears to my eye. Seven teachers for an entire school. Can you imagine? It really put things in perspective.

  9. Ken Albertsen
    April 13, 2015

    All those fresh lovely faces. Let’s hope they don’t get too cynical as they age.

  10. Carl Seitz STS 3 SS
    April 13, 2015

    These smiling faces give me hope for a brighter and more peaceful future for their country.

    April 12, 2015

    It´s a great idea to show the real school life of the children. If we know them we could love them, they deserve our friendship.

  12. Rose
    April 12, 2015


  13. trevar
    April 12, 2015

    What beautiful children -it makes my heart wish i could be closer to help in some way to assist their way in life – they deserve a good life

  14. Don Cleveland
    April 12, 2015

    The girls disappear earlier than puberty. The first class photo has 20 girls and 41 boys. It implies half the girls never make it to school at all.

  15. Heidi Renteria
    April 12, 2015

    It’s beautiful and heart-rending to see these shining faces. I wish all Americans who urge war would see them, because it’s children like these who are always the victims of war. One question: I didn’t see any eyeglasses in the pictures. Do the students have no access to eye care?

  16. Chandi
    April 12, 2015

    Love your spirit and commitment on taking on such a bold venture. Keep the flag flying for the unknown and most forgotten.

  17. Bill Bowers
    April 12, 2015

    It’s wonderful to see children like this from a war torn nation far away. It helps to make you realize that they are no different than our own.

  18. Jeanne Melanson
    April 12, 2015

    This is an excellent project to show the world! The children must be so proud, especially the girls! It’s sad the girls ‘disappear’ after they reach puberty but perhaps that will change one day too. Bravo!

  19. Janice Bower
    April 12, 2015

    Ruvan thank you so much for this wonderful project. Like you I had the pleasure of living and traveling in the Middle East for several years. To see the enthusiasm on those faces is priceless. Hopefully as more children in conflict areas become educated, they will take on the roles of finding a more peaceful and permanent solution to their countries conflicts.

  20. Yvonne Harwood
    April 12, 2015

    What a wonderful project; a great idea. The project, in portraying the faces, personalities, hopes and dreams of the individual child to our consciousness is very impactfull. I takes us closer to and educates us in a new way about the trials others undergo of which we have little concept. I thank you for this gift, as I’m sure each of those children and their families do too.

  21. Robert
    April 12, 2015

    The girls should be able to finish school.They also should be able to able to wear the hijab, only if they choose to wear it.The girls along with the boys are the future of Afghanistan.

  22. Laura Schaub
    April 12, 2015

    What a wonderful story! I’ve worked with students in our country for many years, helping them produce yearbooks. This story and the photos emphasize the importance of the preservation of memories. Cheers and high fives to this photographer/reporter for showing the world about the importance of yearbooks.

  23. Barbara Murphy-Bridge
    April 12, 2015

    Brilliant Ruvan, totally brilliant !

  24. Shirley May
    April 12, 2015

    Wonderful story! You have made a memory in these children’s lives! All are so precious and genuine! Great Work!!!

  25. Adam gardizi
    April 12, 2015

    This was a beautiful piece and people who like this idea should look into TIE (Trust in Education). A program run by retired lawyer, Budd McKenzie which seeks to educate girls and boys in Afghanistan to help the country develop vs. The middle eastern version of the dark ages that it has been drifting into.

  26. Mark Allen
    April 12, 2015

    Wonderful photos. I lived and worked in Afghanistan for five years. I look at these photos and they make me smile, but also make me feel a bit sad wondering about their futures.

  27. Jhansen
    April 12, 2015

    That’s why photography (and photographers) are so important. Congratulations.

  28. Ioram
    April 12, 2015

    Beautiful project. I just feel so sad at watching the girls whose lives are to be truncated by puberty…. Breaks my heart.

  29. Van Vollmer
    April 12, 2015

    The school and Ruvans efforts ,and the Girls will have a positive effect on the history of the world than any thing the current President
    of the United States could wish he
    could do.

  30. Alaa
    April 12, 2015

    Afghanistan, great land, great people and bad rules

  31. Praveen P Prabha
    April 12, 2015

    I love to see the smile in these inocent childrens…..

  32. Melissa Arra
    April 12, 2015

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful and important project with the world – both for the students and teachers of Mir Bacha Kot and people around the world who may not have the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan and see for them selves that there exists light and hope. And that change lives around us all the time and through thousands of tiny instances, a new world is born.

  33. Fornik Tsai
    April 12, 2015

    They are the hope of Afghanistan.

  34. Mahendra Perera
    April 11, 2015

    Ruvan, congratulations on your great work. The divisions and prejudices of the human race saddened me. Your work will do much to see some of the rifts. I got to North your work because your dad and I were classmates and he sent me the link and I am privileged to view your photography.

  35. Ita
    April 9, 2015

    Truly much of happiness for the child who once called out for”Ta” to carry him, now he carries so many children in his masterpiece yearbook and heart.kudos,Ruvan.

  36. Sheila Ryan Hara
    April 9, 2015

    As a former Yearbook editor in high school, I am in awe of your project and what is is seeking to achieve.

  37. Aaron Angel
    April 8, 2015

    As a left-handed individual, I have to say how amazed I am with the last photo in the article. As if it were not fascinating enough to witness Afghani schools teaching girls, but to see a left-handed Afghani girl learn to write is wonderful.

  38. Richard Leece
    April 8, 2015

    It’s great to see these very happy faces and to see so many girls in the Class One group. It’s sad not see any girls in the Class Eight, but good to see some older girls practicing their writing in class. Keep up the great work

  39. Shai Cohen
    April 8, 2015

    What an inspiring document, so well written and presnted , the Apple doesn’t fall far the tree it soars.

  40. chen s ming
    April 8, 2015

    Wonderful to see the happy faces of these children who can attend school!

  41. mmnatumi@gmail.com
    April 7, 2015

    Simply Amazing images.

  42. Robin Korevaar
    April 7, 2015

    Wonderful post, thank you for making this contribution to the children, the school, and for sharing it. I was privileged to work at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in 2014 and likewise appreciated the commitment and joy towards schooling in the student population, and the overall openness to conversation and connection in the general population with whom I engaged. The guest house staff and I enjoyed several photo shoots! It has been a pleasure staying in touch with the people I met. I am glad my son understands the nuances of the region from my experience and can raise an eyebrow at black-and-white statements he hears about Muslims or the Middle East… Keep up the good work!

  43. Anna
    April 7, 2015

    Education is a global human right. Hope to see more projects like this. It is especially important for women, and its wonderful to read the focus on this being delivered on a ground level. There are so many communities that are in urgent need of help, I hope this photos reach many eyes and inspire many hearts. Wonderful work.

  44. Alice Temnick
    April 7, 2015

    Sadly, twice as many boys attend the school in Mir Bacha Kot as girls.

  45. Wajma Stockton
    April 7, 2015

    Beautiful pictures! So inspiring to see the smiles on the student’s faces. These pictures remind me of the Afghanistan that my parents grew up in before the Soviet invasion, where both genders shared a classroom.

  46. Nimal
    April 7, 2015

    Thank you. What a nice way to record hope in the faces of children. reminds us of our tasks and duties to help realize them. Thank you Ruwan

  47. Tejal M Gala
    April 7, 2015

    Its always refreshing to share positive stories about places always under controversy and adversary. And what better way than to showcase it through the happy faces of children.

  48. hamid
    April 7, 2015

    That was great but most of them from schools of rural. and it make me happy.
    Thanks again for posting this.

    April 7, 2015

    greeting…love to see the smile in these inocent children ,why other people dont understand ,we dont need war ,and hostility but we need love and brotherhood..every life on earth has birth right to live in peace and enjoy the gift of mother nature….

    may god bless them all

    sandeep from india

  50. Parwana
    April 7, 2015

    These photographers are a reminder that hope always exists in Afghanistan in the smile of these kids and in the light of their eyes. Very inspiring, indeed. Thanks!

  51. Bob Maginnis
    April 7, 2015

    I look forward to a time when the girls aren’t forced to wear a hijab.

  52. Donna
    April 6, 2015

    One of my favorite Proofs. Such a wonderful idea so beautifully carried out with purpose. Meaningful at so many levels to so many people.

  53. Garrett Soulen
    April 6, 2015

    These pictures are truly special. The children look healthy and happy. A pleasure to see bright faces considering what’s going on in their country. Awesome.

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