For Robert Spangle, the well-known photographer whose work appears in British GQ, Esquire, and The Rake magazine, when I heard his latest photo book went out, it seemed a no-brainer to presume it’s a book about street style from the chicest districts in Milan, or Paris, or New York. But how boring would that be? Nowadays, you can easily find these fantastic street snaps on Instagram. So, the book is not about the ubiquitous fashionistas but a group of people whose culture of clothing remains untouched by the homogenised global trends – the Afghan men.
Why Robert Spangle, who seems specialised in fashion photography?
Robert took two separate trips to Afghanistan to complete this book: The first trip was in 2021 when the country was in the turmoil of five-sided power struggle between the Afghan Government, the Taliban, ISIS, ISAF (International Security Forces), and the criminal network Haqqani. “All of those factors created constant uncertainty and constant violence. You could be targeted by several of those groups… And because everything was so contested, it was impossible to really go outside of Kabul and maybe one or two other places in the country.” So, the second trip took place in August 2022, after the took over of the Taliban. “They seemed to be somewhat receptive to foreign journalists coming and documenting their culture.” So, with the permission and supervision of the Taliban, Spangle managed to travel to the majority of the country to document the local people and their culture.
As a photographer, Spangle’s work spectrum extends from fashion to the conflict zone. He shoots Fashion Weeks and Pitti Uomo while documenting Ukrainian warriors on the front line. While the war was ongoing, he flew to Italy for Pitti Uomo directly from Ukraine and picked up a grey flannel suit from his Neapolitan tailor for banquets and events in the evening. Before his career as a photographer, he took an apprenticeship with Savile Row tailor Maurice Sedwell. He studied fashion design and was once a member of the US Marine Corps and served two trips of duty in Afghanistan, where his bond with the country began.
A (Agnes Select)：Let’s talk about your motivation for creating this photo documentary book about the Afghan style.
R (Robert Spangle)：I have a lifelong relationship with Afghanistan. I realised Afghanistan, as a small landlocked country that doesn’t have a GDP or export worth mentioning, has been for 20 years now a geopolitical issue, a public policy issue for most western governments. But in that ongoing conversation and spotlight on Afghanistan, there’s never been an understanding, curiosity, or representation of Afghan culture. And also the personality and the spirit of the Afghans themselves. If you think about it, for a 20-year involvement, trillions of dollars, to not understand the spirit of the people that these policies are trying to help or shape. It’s quite foolish, and it’s also quite sad.
I mean, people know what Italians are like all around the world, right? They know what British people are like all around the world. They know what French people are like all around the world, even if they have never been to these countries. And outside of terrorism and a lack of women’s rights, I don’t think anyone really knows anything about Afghans.
So, the initial goal of this project was to represent one aspect of Afghan culture, which is their culture of fashion and the value of their culture of fashion and how they express themselves through their personal style, as a really long-term study. And hopefully, in that way, put it into a language so that people could understand the Afghan character and a little bit about their values. So that was that is the goal of the Afghan Style.
A: As you mentioned in Afghan Style, you think men in Afghanistan are the most stylised ones. And by saying “style”, it is not about sophistication but about character. So you think the character is what counts.
R: Absolutely. Character is like the structure that whatever fashion or style you have going on rests on. In the case of Afghans, they’re extremely self-possessed. They’re extremely proud.
A: What do you mean by self-possessed?
R: They’re completely comfortable in their own skin, and they have no insecurities. They’re not possessed by worldly concerns, even though they have some very serious ones. They have real confidence, like innate confidence. And you see it in children, you see it in like boys who are seven or eight years old. And you see it in guys who are very accomplished in Afghan society, like tribal leaders. But you also see this incredible amount of pride equally in guys who have very lowly forms of employment, like porters in a market, guys who are making deliveries in a market with a wheelbarrow or gas station attendants or street barbers. And because you can see it across the entire spectrum of Afghan society, you can call it a part of Afghan national character. Everyone I met, everyone I photographed, just looked at me as if it was entirely obvious that I’d flown completely around the world to come and photograph them specifically. And you never saw someone who was shy of a camera or seemed concerned that they were going to look bad or not be represented well. And really, you don’t see that at all in the West. People, they want to put on a very particular smile. They want to pose in a certain way, and they get very insecure and flustered. So that’s one really interesting point that I wanted to get across. It’s something I learned not on my first or second trip to Afghanistan 12 or 13 years ago.
A: The first two trips you went there were when you served as a Marine.
R: Yeah. And it’s something I only learned on my third and fourth trips when I was actually on the ground, as a journalist interacting with Afghans. And I think the fact that the West doesn’t understand that aspect of pride in the Afghans, which you can really see in the way they dress, the way they manifest their clothes, that’s one of the reasons our policies failed there. They are incredibly proud people, and poverty means a lot less to them than the absolute ownership of their lands and their villages and themselves. So, I think even though the book is entirely about fashion, it also kind of underlies not just misconceptions but gross strategic misconceptions.
A: Do you think that kind of character comes from the lack of communication with the outside, or it comes from their own strong culture?
R: Lack of communication is a real factor. The internet and things like that are not widespread. The vast majority of the country is still completely illiterate. So, their ability to communicate with the outside world is very, very, very minimal. They are more aware of the outside world now than they were 20 years ago, for sure. That’s part of it. There’s not as much sort of interest or envy or imitation that you see between other developing countries and the outside world. But I think a vast majority of it, 99% of what makes Afghans so stylish, is just their culture. They’re taught to be proud. They’re taught to be self-possessed. They’re taught to be very assertive, self-assured men from a very young age. And strangely enough, because essentially, Afghan society is all male, they really value a sense of style among each other. So, it’s a performance just for men. But like these guys, they pay attention not just to their clothes but to how their clothes are tailored, what fabric they use, and even how they’re grooming. Afghans pay a lot of attention to their hair and eyeliner. It’s very common to see them dye their beards and hair. And this is not just in Afghanistan but in other countries around it. Also, painting their nails with henna and have very particular shapes for their beards and things like that. So, it’s really in all of our focus. It’s not just clothing. It’s also grooming. And tribal identity in Afghanistan is also really important, and they differentiate themselves in that with their clothing. So, it’s not just their individual identity that they’re expressing. It’s also the tribe that they belong to… And it’s very much a performance just done for other Afghan men.
A: Compared with what people wear in Afghanistan, the fashion industry has made the whole world more homogenised. Everybody looks the same in metropolitan cities. How do you perceive this kind of similarity as a street photographer?
R: I think in that homogeneity, you get normal progress in fashion occurs quite quickly because it’s a global conversation. So, there is this new globalist fashion that’s constantly being created that’s really interesting and relevant. And I think, inevitably, the world heads this way, but at the same time, it’s also quite sad because you lose the artisanry, the crafts and at a certain point, culture itself when local ways of dressing are destroyed.
In Afghanistan, now, because there’s so little trade coming into the country and the country is so poor, probably 80, 90% of Afghans are wearing fully tailored clothing. You know, they get very, very cheap import fabric or locally produced fabric. They bring it to a tailor and have their clothing made. And I believe it’s the only country on earth where 99, 98% of the population really wears traditional cultural clothing and nothing else.
In that way, even though it’s an impoverished and desperate place, in a lot of ways, it’s probably the purest cultural study you could do on fashion in the world. I’ve never been to another country where most of the clothes were not a blend of Western clothing, homogenised clothing, or international clothing. So, Afghanistan is very special.
A: In your photo book, I saw an Afghan man wearing sneakers with the ASICS trademark in bright green. Also, a man with a motorbike wearing skiing goggles.
R: Yes. So the Perahan o Tunban, which is their traditional suit, essentially, they wear this all the time. But even with that, you’re still seeing outside influences. So, when the Soviets came, there was a bit of adoption of waistcoats. Because they’ve got great pockets. Why not? They can go over the Perahan o Tunban, along with that was jackets, like single-breasted jackets, those are pretty popular in Kabul, but not in many other places. Because of the war of the last 20 years, you have a huge amount of military surplus coming from the Western military: a lot of field jackets and military-style shirts, with goggles in the photo you talked about, and military boots. So those things have been adopted because they’re left behind, essentially.
For shoes, Afghanistan, and I’m pretty sure, has no industry for manufacturing shoes. Everything has to be imported from elsewhere. So, shoes, for a long time, have been something that they’ve taken from other places. But especially with the young street kids wearing probably knockoff Asics. You see them coordinate very traditional outfits around their sneakers. Which is really interesting. I’ve never seen sneaker culture like that anywhere else.
A: What can we learn from the way Afghans coordinate fashion and tradition?
R: That’s a good question. And the way I formatted the book is as an encyclopaedia, and working with my publisher, we found an old French encyclopaedia that we really liked the proportions of the layout. So we took that as our sort of format. And I learned quite a lot from the author Alan Flusser, who wrote the book Style and the Man. And he had a very scientific and objective approach to how men should dress. And it’s just based on classicism. And the Afghans got a similar approach because they were removed from fashion. So, the book’s first chapter is about the silhouette, then its colours and texture, and then its culture and context. Because these are the universal atomic elements of personal style. And the book is laid out in a way that you can look at the most foreign alienated and isolated culture on earth, look at the silhouette and look at the colour and look at the texture and apply that immediately to your own style and your own wardrobe. I think another sort of sad aspect of the misunderstanding of Afghans is that we missed a really great opportunity to learn from them.
A: From your description, the fundamentals are similar to the tailoring world. People into tailoring pay attention to the silhouette, the cuttings, and the fabrics.
R: Yeah, absolutely. And they have their version of tailoring. You have guys who sell fabric, and this is much more of the way tailoring was in England or Italy many decades ago. You could go to places that sold bolts of fabric and buy what you wanted. So, they have that, and then they also have many tailors, and the tailors will take your measurements, and you’ll have a talk about what kind of proportions you want, what details you want, based on the tribe that you’re a part of or the area you are in. It’s very common for Afghans to have different Perahan o Tunban of different tribes. And Afghans that I met really enjoy dressing up as another tribe. It’s like a game they like to play. And it’s just something that I’ve seen guys enjoy, like most guys probably have something in their wardrobe, like a very strong, defined British Savile Row style suit that’s very constructed and severe. And this is a good thing to wear for a serious occasion. And they probably also have something from Naples that’s lighter and more fun and rounder and has a bit more colour to it.
A: Being a fashion photographer and also a war zone journalist, how do you balance your mindset to adopt both?
R: I think the internet has flattened the world. So, all of these things are occurring simultaneously all around the world. You have a land war in Europe while you have a fashion week going on. And you have a million other things going on in the entire world. I think if you just want to focus on fashion and that kind of the fruits of peace, you’re a little bit removed from reality. Similarly, if you just want to focus on war and oppression and destruction, you’re also removed from reality. Because that’s not what humanity is, and that’s not what the world is. For me, I need the balance of these two things, and they also inform each other. So, it’s a balance, but it’s also checks and balances. It’s a way for me to know that the theories that I am testing or coming to or improving on are really valid and that I’m not just performing like an echo chamber. We live in a world where it’s very easy to get specialised. And specialisation is for insects. It’s not for human beings. I think you should constantly be trying new mediums, new formats, and new subjects at a minimum.
A: What do you mean by “specialisation is for insects”?
R: Specialisation is for insects. Like you look at insects or birds that are designed to do one thing and one thing only. Like, track a very special nut with their beak. They don’t last that long. Human beings are not in the position because they’re really good at swimming or climbing or being strong or being intelligent because we can do all of these things.