Alex Dudley served as an Army captain in Afghanistan from September 2010 to January 2011. While stationed in Zabul and Shah Joy provinces, he was inspired to take up photography and began snapping photos on local excursions to schools and town meetings. After leaving the Army in September 2012, Dudley now lives in Nashville, Tenn., and works as a Lyft driver and freelance photographer. When describing his time overseas to friends and family, Dudley says it is “easier” to show his portfolio than to talk at length about his deployment. Dudley shared his photos in The Washington Post Facebook group “After the Wars,” a group for those who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq to share their experiences.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
How did people react when you brought out your camera?
As soon as the younger boys saw me, “Mister, mister! Take my photo!’ The younger boys loved it. The adult men, as well. They’d see my camera, they’d mime for me to take their photo. None of the men that I photographed had issues with it. The older girls were very shy and would try to hide their faces. The younger girls didn’t mind. Of course I would ask before taking photos. I didn’t get any of the adult women.
Not only because they were shy — like, they’d see the camera, and point at me. I didn’t want to offend any of the men.
Tell me about the photos with the girls.
The photos with the girls were from an all-girls school we visited. There were a bunch of schools. We were bringing supplies and pencils. That was probably my favorite part of the deployment — if you can say “favorite part of a deployment.” Just seeing the girls have an opportunity to read and write and actually get an education despite, obviously, the Taliban oppression throughout parts of Afghanistan.
Do you think that photography played a role in your transition back to civilian life?
I got out in September 2012. And oh, it definitely did. I took almost six months to travel around with my camera, just taking pictures.
Prior to my deployment to Afghanistan, I was on the fence about staying in the Army, I just didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do once I got out. It was the photos that I took in Afghanistan that really inspired me to travel to Southeast Asia following my exit from the Army in 2012. Experiencing the culture in Afghanistan made me hungry for more foreign cultures.
Being there and taking photos also gave me an appreciation for what we have in America and what most Americans take for granted every day. In the U.S., people complain because they get stuck in traffic for too long or their favorite TV show gets cancelled. In Shah Joy, most of the houses were made from some sort of mud and straw combination, electricity was a luxury, and running water came from U.N.- and NATO-provided pumps. And that’s before you even talk about the Taliban, where they threaten to torture and kill the locals just for talking to the wrong person.
When you’re describing your experience in Afghanistan to people, do you show your pictures?
I think it’s easier. They appreciate seeing Afghanistan shown in a different light than what you see in the news, which is pretty much almost always just soldiers. They appreciate the closer looks at the tribal leaders and the girls in school. Honestly, I really don’t talk about my experiences when I was deployed very often. Most of my friends are military, so sometimes we swap war stories, but that’s really about the extent of it.
I wanted to ask in particular about that image you said was your favorite photo. That one of the girl in the pink shawl.
The reason that one stands out to me is that she was kind of caught off-guard. She almost seemed like completely alone, even though she was surrounded by people. Everyone else is in their own little world, either talking or writing, and she was staring right at me.