Elena with interviewees, Kabul Afghanistan, 2019

Elena Gallina is an extraordinary young woman, although she’d hate me to say so.

Brought up in UN occupied Kosovo in the aftermath of the genocide, having worked in refugee camps across the Middle East since she was 17, the 24-year-old has turned her considerable talents to photography.

And her latest exhibition is the result of a trip to war-torn Afghanistan to give women there the chance to determine their own stories.

‘New Women’ opens today (Thursday 15 October) at The Jam Factory as part of Photo Oxford’s month long festival, which this year celebrates female photography.

Keen to change our perceptions of women, it was to Kabul that Elena ventured in the summer of 2019, amidst one of the worst summers for civilian casualties in Afghanistan’s history, while a peace deal was being hammered out between the US and the Taliban.

New Women exhibition

She wanted to prove that the women there were not the victims portrayed in the western media, but resilient, strong individuals by photographing and interviewing dozens of women about what beauty meant to them.

And while her mission may sound cavalier, it wasn’t. To assume so is to enormously underestimate Elena, who has more experience under her 24 year-old belt than those twice her age.

“No one just buys a plane ticket and wonders off to Afghanistan,” she points out. “I did months and months of research before I went, made lots of contacts, reached out to the local women’s groups there, worked out what I wanted to do and how to go about it, who to speak to. You have to be prepared, calm and focused. You have to know what you are doing,” she tells me.

Elena reading

When I ask her about the danger, she laughs and says: “Nothing I’d tell my mother or the media, but yes there were some moments that I’m not going to tell you about.”

Instead we can only deduce through her insightful body of work exhibited in The Jam Factory of Elena’s determination to get her message across, and ensure that these women’s realities were heard.

“I was humbled by their stories and their grace, the trust and camaraderie I experienced. Some of their tales will stay with me for ever. It was an honour,” she says. “I made so many friends when I was over there, friends for life.”

New women exhibition

Elena’s background however put her in good stead for Afghanistan, both growing up in Kosovo and working in Jordan. “It wouldn’t have been possible without my upbringing. It is second nature knowing how to navigate the streets and the military presence, the barbed wire, the snipers, the visual signs of conflict. So yes you have to be reckless but also intuitive and street smart too.”

And what of the women she depicts? “I just wanted to capture the essence of the women I got to know, to put them at ease.

“But it was a collaborative process. I didn’t want to capture an emotion they didn’t want to reveal or to depict them in a way they weren’t happy with.

“So I had conversations with women in Kabul of all ages, from different social and economic backgrounds, about their lives and what beauty means to them.”

Currently residing in Oxford, where she has completed a Masters in Economic and Social history and is curently completing an MBA as a Rhodes Scholar, the 24 year-old hasn’t lived anywhere for more than six months in the last eight years; “everywhere is home” she proudly tells me. 

New Women exhibition

The daughter of two American aid workers dealing with the aftermath of the atrocities in Kosovo, she said: “My family have always lived very hand-to-mouth so we saw a lot of the nitty gritty when we lived in Kosovo.”

Instead she left home at 17 to work in Jordan helping refugees on the Syrian border, and elsewhere in the Middle-East, particularly women and children in refugee camps.

So why has she chosen photography to get her message across?

“Having experienced language barriers, words always fell short,” she explains. “Language always has a part to play in getting the news and economic situation across, but photographs deliver that human side.”

Which is why her inclusion in the current Oxford Photo festival at The Jam Factory in Oxford seems so fitting. “I loved The Jam Factory straight away. It fitted so well. It reminds me of where I’m from with its white walls and Mediterranean feel, and it has a real community ethos, so yes it feels right to be having the exhibition there,” she says.

Elena in Dhermi, Albania, 2020

“And I’m excited about the people that will come to see my work and the conversations that arise from that. The exhibition has already started some really interesting debates about how to bring about a change in the conversation around women.”

And then she smiles: “But at the end of the day I’m just a kid with a vision”​

This exhibition is in collaboration with Photo Oxford Festival taking place in Oxford from October 16 to November 16. For more information on the festival and its events please visit www.photooxford.org

For details of the exhibition go to: https://www.thejamfactoryoxford.com/art-at-the-jam-factory

Or go to http:// elena-gallina.com