James Robertson was looking for two things: an unusual ski holiday and a place where he could possibly make some good documentary photographs—something different from what he had been photographing for his job at an auction house in Edinburgh, Scotland. And once he discovered it was possible to go on a guided ski tour in the mountains around Bamyan, Afghanistan, he decided he couldn’t not go.
The skiing in these mountains about 111 miles west of Kabul is bare bones—no lifts, no groomed slopes, just the high-altitude mountains of the Koh-e Baba Range. The climb up is about an hour on foot.
On the second to last day of his ten-day tour in 2012, Robertson was heading down the mountain when he spied a figure in a red scarf on his way up. It was a local teenager dressed in normal clothes—no fancy boots, no gloves—carrying a pair of wooden skis. He had heard about young Afghans who fashioned their own gear out of wooden planks, metal, plastic, and rope—basically anything they could find. There is no native ski culture in Afghanistan, according to Robertson, so they were guided in their creations by what they had seen used by the few Westerners adventurous enough to make it there.
Whatever initial discomfort Robertson had felt about a perceived gap between wealthy Western tourists and local subsistence farmers dissipated with a shared enjoyment of the moment: “Skiing alongside these kids who are having as much fun as you are, on far less kit [gear] and in many ways skiing far better than you because they are used to those conditions, it’s brilliant.”
Robertson spent an hour or two with the youths making a series of photographs that showed a lighter side of a country most often talked about in terms of war—a testament to a spirit of ingenuity and making your own fun with what you have. And he made the kind of photographs he had been hoping for.
By 2014, enough media outlets had published these photos that he had money to return to Bamyan and continue fleshing out the story of this burgeoning ski culture. In the two years that had passed, the Afghan Ski Challenge, an annual competition organized by the Switzerland-based nonprofit Bamyan Ski Club, had gained more traction among the local population. Robertson saw fewer people on wooden skis and more on donated ones, and he saw a few girls training in preparation for the race. (Robertson says Bamyan is more forward-thinking than other parts of Afghanistan. Still, the girls can ski only in certain parts of the valley and are taught by female instructors.)
He also reconnected with Alishah Farhang and Sajjad Husaini, two local ski guides he’d met on his first trip. They, along with race organizers and participants, were celebrating with kebab following the competition when talk turned to the Winter Olympics and the possibility of having an Afghan ski team. Robertson began looking for ways to cover this next part of the story and, thanks to a grant from the VSCO artist initiative fund, is now following Farhang and Husaini—chosen for their experience and skill—as they train for the 2018 Winter Olympics. He spent time earlier this year documenting their training in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and will continue with them on their path, hopefully all the way to the games.
See more of James Robertson’s work on his website. Thanks to money raised by the Bamyan Ski Club bar in St. Moritz, there are plans to get a ski tow to Bamyan, making the ski areas more accessible.