Lost Dreams

Lost Dreams

Jenny Matthews, 2024 Finalist

"Lost Dreams" is a proposal to return to Afghanistan to continue documenting the lives of women, early 40 years after my first of several trips there. When the lockdown began in 2020, I began working with images from my archives; I printed them on cloth and then embroidered on them – both to honor and protect the identities of the women in the photos. Each image is dedicated to a specific group of girls/women. With Lost Dreams, I hope to return to Afghanistan and to work with women in photography and embroidery workshops, facilitated by a local partner.

Afghan woman with embroidery. Dedicated to female artisans – kite makers, seamstresses, jewelers, carpet makers

Afghan woman with embroidery. Dedicated to Victims of violence and those who killed brutal husbands. Hospital wards bear witness to women disfigured by violent husbands, whist many women languish in prison for fighting back.

Afghan girls with embroidery. Dedicated to Teachers, pupils and students Enormous advances have been made in education, especially for girls - a moment of pure delight for me was seeing a group of girls work out what to do with skipping ropes after a morning of hard study. A few weeks later their new school was burnt down. In May 2021 a suicide car bomb in Kabul outside a school killed 55 people and injured over 150, mostly schoolgirls. Now only the youngest girls are going to school and university education is strictly segregated. Many female students are too fearful to even attempt to attend.

Afghan woman with embroidery. Dedicated to mothers.

Afghan woman with embroidery. Dedicated to Women married when children

Although the minimum age for marriage is 15 many children are married to settle debts and disputes, and poor families often end up selling daughters to older men, who frequently mistreat them.

Afghan women with embroidery.

Dedicated to young women with dreams of studying and becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers

Afghan women with embroidery.

Dedicated to beauticians and hairdressers. The beauty salon had become both a provider of work for thousands of young women and a welcoming female space, an opportunity to relax and indulge, especially before a wedding. One of the first acts of the Taliban as they retook the country was to obliterate the poster adverts for salons.

Afghan woman with embroidery.

Dedicated to women doctors and gynaecologists.

Afghan woman with embroidery.

Dedicated to women who have lost their jobs and are now languishing at home.

Afghan girl with embroidery

Dedicated to young girls with an uncertain future.

Afghan woman with embroidery.

Dedicated to widows who were working for foreign aid organisations and have now  lost their jobs.    

Afghan girl with embroidery

Dedicated to young girls confined to their homes.

Afghan woman with embroidery.

Dedicated to women who sew - patching and making clothes, and embroidering.

Afghan woman with embroidery.

Dedicated to women farmers who grow fruit, work in the wheat fields, and look after animals.

Photographer's Statement: 

In the course of working as a documentary photographer for a number of aid organizations I was privileged to meet Afghan women from all walks of life and economic backgrounds who survived the vagaries of different governments. Under the Soviet occupation I met and photographed women building houses and serving in a village militia. During the 1990s when the Mujaheddin factions tore the capital apart I spent time in hospitals with the International Red Cross as well as many widows trying to survive on food distributions. I went to Bamiyan just before the Buddhas were blown up in 1998 and I photographed the moment in 2001 when the Taliban left and women rediscovered make-up, music and a certain freedom. On my last visit in 2011 I photographed inside a women’s prison as well as women in Parliament and those running businesses.

I have previously run photo workshops in Kabul with school students (girls and boys) and they produced remarkable insightful work.

We will together create a series with added embroidery. I want them to take pictures of objects/people/places that are important to them and we will then work together to turn these into embroideries combining traditional stitching with freer colourful embellishments .

Since lockdown in 2020 I have travelled less, and have been working with images from my archive. One particular series, Facial De-recognition, concerns images of women from Afghanistan and was made in response to the Taliban take-over in 2021. Once again, women are being forced to disappear from view. As girls are denied education and women lose their jobs in most sectors, I have printed photos from my archive onto linen/cotton, painted out the background in the original photos, and then added embroidery to both honour and disguise, and differentiate between past and present.

Alongside recent exhibitions of my work in the UK I have run embroidery workshops – the most rewarding being with Afghan, Syrian and Ukrainian refugees. Sewing brings women together: time to chat, reflect and create. I want to create this as a context for working in Afghanistan.

JennyMatthews's picture

Since 1982, Jenny Matthews has been documenting social issues in Britain and abroad. For over 20 years she produced work on the theme of “Women and War”, which resulted in a book and touring exhibition in 2003. Matthews has continued to document the lives of women in places affected by conflict, and staged a large exhibition of her work at Street Level Gallery, Scotland in 2024.

Matthews was a founding member of Format Photographers Women’s Photo Agency in 1983, and then a member of Network Photographers. She joined Panos Pictures in 2005.