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Pathan Warrior Tribesman, Khyber Pass

  • Dorothea Lange, Pathan Warrior Tribesman, Khyber Pass.

Selected by Elizabeth VanWormer
Assistant Professor of Practice
School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Perhaps it is the stillness of this image that holds me—the creases written across skin, the threads of the fabric woven in and out of view, the sliver of land frozen at the subject’s shoulder. The Pathan warrior watches across decades and continents, and, behind him, I hear the wind sweeping through the Khyber Pass. I feel the breath of the Hindu Kush on the old caravan road, winding back and forth through the low-lying fields and arid hills, past the herbal arms of junipers, the reach of shale and limestone. Maybe the warrior pictured here heard the climbing of ibex, the cries of rock partridge, the verses calling for understanding drifting up from the shrine of the poet, Rahman Baba. 

I think of the woman operating the camera’s shutter, whose words and work ask us to see beyond ourselves, to understand other lives and lands. Dorothea Lange tells us: “The good photograph is not the object. The consequences of the photograph are the object ...”* Like her images from years spent documenting migrant workers in the American West, the photograph pulls me in and challenges me to imagine lives in a place I’ve never known. A place marked by the long echos of conflict—Persians, Greeks, Moghuls, British troops, and, now, American military convoys on the path linking Kabul and Peshawar. Lange’s photograph of the Pathan warrior makes real for me what countless news reports on war, terrorism, and politics could not. 

Images unremittently flood our days and screens telling the stories of migration, of warriors, of conflict, of people longing for home. And some, like this by Dorothea Lange, hold us long enough to open our minds, to ask us to listen, to let us care. 

Will we be the people in whom Rahman Baba believed when he said: 

The heart that is safe in the storm Is the one which carries other’s burdens like a boat.† 

I imagine them, the warrior and the photographer, looking across the lens, across languages, across cultures, and I hope. 

* Ann Whiston Spirn, Dorothea Lange’s Photographs from the Field, University of Chicago Press, 2008.

† Rahman Baba (1653-1711), Sow Flowers (poem).