May 14, 2010 / 5:13 PM / 7 years ago

Exhibit reveals common threads in Philadelphia, Kabul

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - Photographs by high school students in Philadelphia and Kabul, Afghanistan will be displayed in exhibits opening in both cities on Friday in a project designed to bring together two very different cultures.

Twenty-one students collaborated in the project to depict everyday life in their cities and to find the common ground in experiences such as work and play and to dispel misconceptions about each other's societies.

At the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, dozens of photographs are displayed in pairs that illustrate comparisons between the views of the world discovered by the teenagers.

A picture of an Afghan boy carrying a metal plate of donuts on his head is paired with a shot of a Dunkin Donuts store in downtown Philadelphia, while a dramatic shot of Kabul street vendors stirring steaming pots of food is matched with a view of a typical American suburban kitchen.

On a more somber note, a woman covered in a blue burka is pictured hunched over a brick platform in what looks like an attitude of grief. Its counterpart shows an African American woman covering her face with her hands.

But the 10 students from Marefat High School in Kabul did not dwell on the conflict and destruction that has ravaged their country for decades, and where U.S. forces continue to fight Muslim militants.

The Afghan students' photos offered the Americas students a fresh perspective on a country commonly depicted by the western media as war-torn and corrupt.

"I got to throw away all the stereotypes and all the feelings I had, especially about the Middle East," said Ian McShea, 17, one of the 11 students from Philadelphia's Constitution High School. "It's important for our generation to communicate on a global scale."

The students, some of whom had never held a camera before, were taught the techniques of documentary photography, and spent time in their communities looking for images of freedom, religious expression, protest, and other civic themes.

But some of the photographs simply highlight young people having fun. They include a shot by McShea of his friend doing a backflip on a suburban street, paired with an Afghan scene in which a child is clinging upside down to the canopy of a street vendor's cart.

During the photographic project, the Afghan school was attacked by mobs because it was teaching students to oppose a national tradition that condones marital rape, said Tom Davidson, principal of Constitution High School, a public school whose curriculum emphasizes civics and leadership.

Davidson said the students involved in the project had been "profoundly" affected by the experience, but that its benefits of international understanding extended to the entire school.

David Eisner, chief executive of the National Constitution Center, said both groups of students discovered things about the other's country that they had not previously suspected during the nine-month project, and especially during a visit by the Afghan students to Philadelphia in March, when students curated the exhibitions.

American students showed their admiration for the Afghans' ability to overcome the significant challenges faced by their country, while the visitors quickly understood that in America it's acceptable to question authority, Eisner said.

"The U.S. students were arguing with National Constitution Center officials, and the Afghans at first looked askance at that," he said. "Each group was fascinated by the other."

The exhibition, "Being 'We the People': Afghanistan, America and the Minority Imprint," runs at the National Constitution Center until September 26. It includes an interactive installation in which visitors can select U.S. photos to match those from Afghanistan.

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