April 15, 2015 / 6:19 PM / 2 years ago

Joyous Kabul girl skateboarders defy war, light up London exhibition

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Wearing scarves under helmets that look too big for little girls' heads, and knee protectors strapped over colorful dresses, the Afghan girls on skateboards seem a world away from the insurgency battering their country.

The skateboards may have seen better times, but the photographs in this London exhibition catch the joy and passion in the eyes of the girls riding them, casting away the hazards of life outside the skateboard park they visit several times a week.

"I've always felt from the start that the girls are the story," Jessica Fulford-Dobson, who photographed the Kabul skateboarders, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday.

"It was wonderful to come uplifted from ... a part of the world you only hear the grim news from."

Fulford-Dobson first photographed the girls in June 2013, after approaching Skateistan, a non-profit which uses skateboarding as one of the ways of empowering Afghan youth through sport and education.

"I felt very privileged that they chose me," said Fulford-Dobson, for whom it was an eye-opening trip in many ways.

"I remember one morning I heard a rumbling and I thought it was thunder because I had never heard bombs before."

Fulford-Dobson won the second prize in the Taylor-Wessing Photographic Portrait competition in 2014 with 'Skate girl', one of the portraits from "Skate girls of Kabul" that are displayed in the exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London this month.

"It's very rare that you go somewhere where there are 300 girls a week skateboarding," Fulford-Dobson said.

"They arrive, the minibus picks them up, they come running in excited. More excited than your average school child because ... the other days they're just working in the streets."

More than half the students who come to Skateistan are from low-income families and 40 percent of them are girls, some working in the streets.

"You can see by their hands when you look closely, the hands are a telltale sign that these girls are doing a lot of manual work in between their schooling," Fulford-Dobson said.

While some of the girls look like little rebels, others look as if they're having the best time of their life. Some already show signs of leadership that Fulford-Dobson said is what the project aims to nurture.

"When you watch them skateboarding you see they are natural leadership material and have the power to say 'Move away, I'm coming through'. The others are looking up to them," she said.

Reporting By Magdalena Mis; Editing by Tim Pearce

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