CNN Photos

On top of the world, untouched by war

The photograph evokes loneliness.

Framed by towering snowcapped mountains, a tiny expedition of men and donkeys treks across a gigantic and beautiful valley in northeastern Afghanistan.

The image represents an unforgettable three-week adventure by French photographer Frederic Lagrange.

“That photograph puts everything back into perspective,” Lagrange said Tuesday from his Brooklyn, New York, studio. “You can imagine the rough environment and how difficult it is for people there to create a life for them and their families.”

He was struck by the widespread humanity and hospitality of people who live life amid such barren surroundings. There was much welcoming, Lagrange said. A lot of sharing. So much nurturing.

Lagrange’s journey was inspired by a 1958 book, “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” by English travel author Eric Newby. Newby’s description of the region’s landscape and people left Lagrange mesmerized. As Legrange said, Newby painted “a very vivid image of a kind of Shangri-La lost in the Hindu Kush mountains.”

Lagrange was hooked. “Obsessed,” as he put it. He had to see the place for himself.

In March of 2012, Lagrange crossed into Afghanistan from its northern neighbor, Tajikistan, to avoid the Taliban. This is how he entered the exotic and remote Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan’s narrow, elbow-shaped northeastern panhandle.

Helped by six ethnic Wakhi porters, Lagrange traveled by foot and donkey through some of the most brutally beautiful geography on the planet.

He captured much of this walkabout on film.

That’s right, Lagrange shot his photographs old-school on a Pentax 67 camera.

Film injects something very personal into the images, Lagrange said: “It adds texture without post-production. It’s respectful of color and density.”

The result, Lagrange said, was well worth the 90 minutes he was forced to spend convincing border guards not to X-ray his film.

Since the beginning of the Afghanistan war in 2001, the Wakhan region has managed to avoid major violence. But Lagrange said residents fear the pullout of NATO forces this year will make them vulnerable to Taliban attacks.

The region’s ethnic Kyrgyz villagers are especially on guard, Lagrange said. Long isolated, they’ve developed a culture suspicious of outsiders.

In one Kyrgyz community, Lagrange spent days trying to gain villagers’ trust so they would allow him to take photos. Many were painfully fearful and shy, including a young woman in a red headdress who he found milking a yak.

“You can see she’s looking but not wanting to look,” Lagrange said. “She’s curious, but there’s a bit of fear in her face. There’s shyness, and she’s dubious about what I was after her for.”

Another memorable moment took place on an icy mountain trail.

One of the expedition’s donkeys, carrying about 60 pounds of gear, slipped and lost its balance and began sliding down the mountain side.

“I saw that he was coming down on me,” Lagrange said. “I was on ice as well, so I moved very carefully. I grabbed him and stopped the animal, but I lost my balance, fell down and crushed my camera on the ice — and broke it.”

The porters gathered around Lagrange “looking very worried that I broke my equipment, but thankful that the donkey was still part of the expedition. It was funny.”

Later, looking out across Daliz Pass, troubles along the trail were soon forgotten. “Once you’re there, you’re almost 15,000 feet high,” he said. “You see the entire Hindu Kush. You see Pakistan. You see Tajikistan. You see almost into China. It’s beautiful.”

Lagrange said he wants to return to Afghanistan to reunite with the Wakhi porters he befriended. To thank them, he said, for showing him the roof of the world.

- Thom Patterson, CNN