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Mark Svendsen 
Afghanistan Before the Wars

On View:  January 9th – February 16th, 2024

Opening: January 25th - 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

The Little Gallery, OSU,  210 Kidder Hall

Refugee Girl

Afghanistan has not always been a battleground. Before the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973, two progressive kings, Nadir Shah and his son, Zahir Shah ruled the country prudently, supporting education for both boys and girls (separately), and encouraging foreign assistance to develop roads, airports, irrigation, electricity systems, and other basic infrastructure. The 44 years of their combined rule is often regarded as the country’s modern golden age. Life was difficult and sometimes harsh, but the country was at peace and progress was afoot. The coup d’état instigated by Zahir’s cousin, Daoud Khan, brought an end to that period and set in motion a series of wars and foreign interventions that lasted until the American withdrawal in 2022. It was followed by the harshly-repressive fundamentalist regime which rules today.

Unfortunately, all that most Americans know of this country has been gained from news stories, photographs, and video segments from this latter period, which are dominated by violence, destruction, and destitution. The other Afghanistan, the one that existed before the wars, is largely invisible in these accounts. That Afghanistan, however, comprised a beautiful and austere land of high snow-covered mountains, tumbling mountain streams, emerald-green fields of irrigated wheat and rice and arid deserts. Most Afghans were rural in that era and made their living as farmers and shepherds, merchants, and crafts-men and women. The country and its people were remarkably self-reliant, though living standards were, for most, extremely basic. 

Refugee Girl 

The exhibit will feature photographs of this earlier Afghanistan and its people. It will draw from a collection of pictures taken between 1968 and 1973; digitized, restored, and re-edited in 2022 and 2023; featuring children, tradesmen, markets, nomads, artisans, and teahouse life. It includes an image of the larger of the two immense seventh-century Buddha statues in Bamiyan before they were destroyed by the Taliban. 

The exhibit will consist of matted and framed color inkjet prints, generally with frame dimensions of 16” by 20”, though selected images may be larger. Pictures were originally shot on Kodak 35mm Ektachrome and Kodachrome slide film, first with a fixed-lens Nikon and later with a then-state-of-the-art Minolta SLR. 

With respect to male outsiders, Afghans of that era were friendly, tolerant, and hospitable. With regard to their elders, they were extremely respectful. With regard to girls and women, men in that male-dominated society were repressive and often cruel. Particularly in rural areas, women and older girls were cloistered and, when venturing out in public, were fully covered. Even though covered, the taking of their pictures was strongly discouraged. As a result, while the exhibit does include several images of girls and women, most images feature men and boys. 

The fundamental reason for assembling this exhibit is to acquaint Oregonians with the native beauty of Afghanistan and the universal humanity of its people, and to impart a sense of what life there was like when the country was at peace half-a-century ago. With America’s longest war there recently ended, this is a perfect time to look back on what were simpler and less fraught times in that nation. It is also a chance to share with new generations a story that will soon be gone from living memory. 

The Photographer
Mark Svendsen

Mark Svendsen retired from a fifty-year career in international agricultural development in 2021. During that time, he worked in more than 35 developing countries for the World Bank and a variety of other international development agencies. Although he has taken pictures for more than 50 years, he has, during the past five years, engaged in a more focused development of his photographic and post-processing skills. He is a member of Yaquina Arts Association Photographers (YAAP) in Newport, where he serves as Vice-President.  Scores of his images have won local club recognition and advanced to regional competitions hosted by the Columbia Council of Camera Clubs (CCCC) where he has received a number of Award of Merit and Honorable Mention citations. He has also received awards from Nature Photographers of the Pacific Northwest (NPPNW) in their annual competitions. 

Dr. Svendsen began his international career as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching high school mathematics and science in Afghanistan after receiving his B.A. in physics in 1968. He returned to Afghanistan for a second assignment in 1971 in a food-for-work program, a response to a drought-induced famine, and remained for an additional year as a Peace Corps staff member. It was during these two period of residence in Afghanistan that the pictures in the show were taken. He went on to earn a Master’s degree in water resource systems engineering from Colorado State University and Doctorate in international water resource management from Cornell University. 

Svendsen’s recent photography has focused on landscapes and wildlife. His most recent excursion was a 10-day wintertime photoshoot in Yellowstone National Park, where he shot bison, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, bobcat, moose, and red fox. He lives outside Philomath with his extraordinary spouse of 48 years and a pair of canines. 






Selling Uzbek Nan


Pilgrim By Shrine


Schoolboy Selling Salt


Big Brother Little Brother


Kochie Mother With Sick Child


Bamiyan Buddha


Refugee Girl


Boy in Gaudi

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