The View From The Swimming Pool

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

The story behind the photo.

Swimming Pool Hill

Kabul, Afghanistan

Shot - August, 2005

The photo was taken on August 13, 2005 on Bibi Mahro hill, a.k.a. Swimming Pool Hill, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Olympic size pool was built by the occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s. The hill was also a good spot to look out for Mujahideen fighters.

Mujahedeen rebels in the mountains in Kunar Province in May 1980.Credit...Associated Press

The pool was never intentionally filled as it was impossible to get that much water to the top of the hill.

The Taliban did find a use for it and carried out executions of accused homosexuals, intellectuals and political prisoners by pushing them off the 10 meter diving platform. That's a drop of around 15 metres to the bottom of the empty pool. If the accused survived they were deemed innocent.

It brings to mind the unwinnable trials by ordeal alleged Witches faced in Medieval Europe.

Water test used at part of witchcraft trials in the 17th century. Illustration from Ludicium aquae (trial by water), 1613 edition

Water test used at part of witchcraft trials in the 17th century. Illustration from Ludicium aquae (trial by water), 1613 edition

Either that or the accused were lined up against the wall at the deep end of the pool and shot.

I was in Afghanistan for the third time. I had finished working on an assignment photographing stuff to do with the re-building efforts around the country. I was on my own, released from the three meals a day in the contractors’ fortified compound in the middle of Kabul.

Kabul in the summer was an unpleasant place, hot, dusty and smelling of faeces. Any open space was a convenient public lavatory. The Shalwar Kameez worn by many men made it simple enough to squat in the open and retain some modesty. There were plenty of open spaces as a fair portion of the city was still in ruins from the factional fighting that erupted after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Kabulis went upto Swimming Pool Hill to get away from the heat and stench of the city. I did the same that afternoon. The sun was setting, the light was beautiful and the temperature less oppressive than the city below with a welcome cooling breeze.

As I wandered around groups of boys arrived from the neighbourhoods around the hill, released from their chores or after their homework. A battered soccer ball appeared and they played in the empty pool, a summer evening ritual repeated in neighbourhoods all over the world.

The man in the photo made a convenient focal point for this particular image. He was not unfriendly or unwilling to be photographed. I have several frames of him looking at the camera. I chose this one as I didn’t want the image to be a portrait of this man.

I wanted a photo of this folly, this Olympic swimming pool, built by an invading army who were intent on subduing this land, like those before.

And who failed, like those before.

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