by Adrianne Bee | photos by James Lee
Unlike so many photojournalists, James Lee (B.A., '09) didn't carry his camera to Afghanistan to focus on the American military mission or combat. "I didn't travel all the way to Afghanistan," Lee says of his recent four-and-a-half-month journey, "to take pictures of people from Texas." He went to capture images and stories of mothers and children, teachers and police officers, tailors and bakers. "Afghanistan is full of people with challenges presented by conflict but also everyday challenges," he says. "It's not just a place where war is being fought. There are other dimensions."
In search of these stories, Lee embedded with the Afghan National Security Force and the International Security Assistance Force and traveled across four provinces. Along the way he got to know the names of Pashtun poets and read the Quran. He fielded questions about American culture in general. Do you force your parents to live by themselves? And questions about specific Americans. You're 40? Why aren't you married with children yet?
Lee asks a lot of questions himself -- something Burcu Ellis, one of Lee's professors in the international relations program, appreciates during class discussions. "I feel very lucky to have James in the classroom," Ellis says. "We rarely get someone with this much field experience. It's almost like having another teacher in the classroom."
International relations has been more than a major for Lee, who earned a bachelor's degree in the program and is working on his master's. It's also an apt description of his photographic mission. Starting with his first trip to the Middle East as a photojournalist -- a 2007 visit to Iraq where he previously served two tours of duty as a Marine -- Lee has used his camera to forge new connections between people separated by thousands of miles, and chasms equally wide when it comes to culture, politics, education and religion. He's eager to finish his degree and return to Afghanistan, where he hopes to continue taking photos and recording stories. "The people I met there were appreciative of foreigners taking an interest in their lives and culture," Lee says.
Capt. Stoney Portis, commander of a U.S. Army unit Lee traveled with, was also appreciative. He told a Ventura County Star reporter that Lee's insights into local culture helped break barriers of distrust with the Afghan people and led Portis and his soldiers into "circles they we were not usually allowed into." Trust is something that can be seen in Lee's photographs, points out Professor Ellis. "You see children and women, very close snapshots taken in a place where people do not typically want to be photographed," she says. "Quite often they are looking directly into the camera." For Lee, earning that trust and carrying personal stories of Afghanistan home has been well worth the risks that come with traveling through a war-torn country. "Am I willing to risk my life for photos? For me, the answer is yes," he says.
After other jobs -- ocean lifeguard, police officer and construction worker among them -- Lee finally feels at home with photojournalism, a career he has pursued without any formal training minus a few journalism courses at SF State, and none of them in photography. "The journalism faculty provided me with a solid foundation," he says. Today, he draws from those journalism classes all the time, including Venise Wagner's course on ethics. Among its lessons: Act independently, minimize harm and seek truth.