This image was taken in , a province in north-east Afghanistan with the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. There are 6,500 deaths for every 100,000 births. Women marry very young, and it’s so remote that getting professional healthcare is almost impossible – it takes two or three days on a donkey to reach the nearest hospital. I went there in 2008 to shoot a project for and found a lot of orphans whose mothers had died while having them.
in Badakhshan rely on their mothers-in-law or “birth attendants” in the community to help them through pregnancy and birth. I visited one attendant at her home, where she was weaving carpets, and I drank tea with her family and neighbours. Her name was Hanifa and her daughter Siamoy was sitting there breastfeeding in this beautiful light. My pictures often start with a conversation or a cup of tea, rather than the lens: I don’t believe I have the automatic right to take anybody’s photograph, and I hate the idea of stealing a shot. So, only after a while did I pick up my camera.
I took about 10 frames of Siamoy. People say this image looks religious, kind of iconic, like a , but I’ve never seen that. I think it’s something more simple: there is a beauty to Siamoy, a power and serenity showing something dignified about motherhood.
At the time, Oxfam wouldn’t publish it because they thought it would cause offence. NGOs have strict ethical guidelines on taking pictures, which I absolutely agree with for the most part, but this I found extraordinary. The breast has become so sexualised, many don’t even see it as part of motherhood. You can see the top of Siamoy’s breast, but that is no more than you could see in the UK walking down the street.
I shot lots of beautiful photos on this trip, so I didn’t think it was a very significant picture – until I sent it to . They selected it as one of their top 10 photographs of 2008, which generated a lot more awareness about maternal mortality than perhaps an NGO campaign could. It has elicited quite a response. People have even painted it.
I’ve always loved working in . It is harsh but beautiful, with its mountain air and rugged landscapes. But I’ve never been back to Badakhshan. I wanted to, but in 2010 the Taliban began to attack NGO workers in the region. It is now almost no-go.
Fine arts at University of West England, Bristol.
“My experience and my environment.”
“I won the in 2010. I am the only journalist to ever win it.”
“I’ve been under fire a lot, targeted by the Taliban, and held as a political prisoner by ’s militia in Liberia.”
“It’s not just about getting a good picture. Seek out interesting storylines.”