Starheim ’14 shows photographs of Afghanistan experience

by Kourtney Kawano | 1/19/15 6:02pm

Even before setting foot in Afghanistan last summer, Rianna Starheim ’14 knew she was going to have an experience worth capturing on film. After a summer teaching 30 high school girls English, guitar and yoga, Starheim worked with the Dickey Center for International Understanding to put together her first photography exhibition, which provided a snapshot of her summer experience and shared what she learned about the Afghan culture. The 25-photo collection is currently on display in the Haldeman Center’s Russo Gallery and was featured as a highlight of the sixth annual Student Forum on Global Learning for Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

Starheim, who was an Asian and Middle Eastern studies major during her time at the College, spent the past summer conducting an independent project in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a teacher at the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, which inspired her exhibition. In addition to teaching, she helped develop human trafficking training for Afghan border police as an assistant to the director of Hagar Afghanistan, a non-governmental organization that fights gender-based violence and human trafficking.

Dickey Center student programs officer Amy Newcomb said that the exhibition is a way for Starheim to highlight specific stories she wants others to hear.

“Rianna has a special way of capturing stories and people with photography,” Newcomb said. “The space provides a way to process her summer overseas.”

While most of the images are playful shots of young Afghan boys and girls juggling tennis balls or practicing acrobatics that are meant to convey a message of hope in the midst of war, others show Afghan women painting their answers to the simple question, “What are your dreams?” Rather than materialistic wishes, one woman painted a tropical landscape, contrasting the dry environment in Kabul, while the other painted a large bird with opened wings, symbolizing freedom.

Dickey Center associate managing director Tom Candon said that the photos tell an intriguing story.

“There’s a disparity between the stark landscape of Afghanistan and the children practicing circus acts in the internally displaced persons camps,” he said.

Starheim said one of her favorite pictures captures Afghan students participating in the ice bucket challenge to raise money for A.L.S. research. The shot captures the moment just as the freezing cold water hits the heads of the girls and the obvious mixture of shock and excitement across their faces. This image further emphasizes the sense of kindness among the Afghan community, despite its unfortunate political and societal circumstances, Starheim said.

“I was excited about being able to share photos to give people an idea of what Afghanistan is like beyond war and violence,” Starheim said.

Starheim faced difficulty travelling to Afghanistan, because the College refused to fund her trip since Afghanistan is on the Department of State’s travel warning list. She said that she used her experience from travelling in Brazil, Morocco, Taiwan and India to help manage her experiences. Like her previous international trips, Starheim documented her life in Afghanistan with her trusty Nikon D3100.

While she did not take any photography classes during her time at the College, Starheim said she has loved photography since taking a class in high school and discovered that photography was a perfect way to chronicle her adventures.

She said her trip to Afghanistan was no different, as she found time to wander throughout the city to capture images of the landscape and portraits of her students.

By living and working with the teenage girls, Starheim said, she experienced the best way to see the country.

“I was able to see the world through their eyes,” she said. “I learned how much war affects the lives of every single person living there.”

She said that the girls with whom she worked ranged in age and socioeconomic background, giving her a diverse portrait of Afghanistan and its people. While some girls in the school came from wealthy families and others were orphaned from a young age or had relatives affiliated with the Taliban, all of them shared similar experiences in the tribulations of war and its effect on their peers.

Elena Zinski ’15, an Asian and Middle Eastern languages major at the College, said that she found the exhibit extremely powerful.

“The exhibition beautifully captures the playfulness of the children alongside their resilience,” she said. “I was left speechless.”

During her time at the College, Starheim was a member of Palaeopitus and interned for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.

Her exhibition will be on display throughout January.

A true aficionado of traveling, Starheim is already gearing up to spend time this winter in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for field research while completing her thesis on Syrian refugees.