When Connie Frisbee Houde looks through the lens of her camera she isn’t just taking a snapshot of life in the war-torn country of Afghanistan. Her goal is to capture the experience so she can share the moment with others.
She wants you to feel the emotion and spirit of the people she has photographed. And, most importantly, to come away with a sense of what their lives are like and how you can help.
Over the past 20 years, the Albany photographer has traveled around the world at her own expense and with relief organizations recording the work and everyday experiences of local people. Since 1990 she has been to Peru, Cambodia, Vietnam and has made several trips to Afghanistan.
Once she returns, she exhibits her images in venues hoping to raise funds to improve the lives of those she has photographed. Her most recent images will be on exhibit in June and July at the Photography Center of the Capital District of Troy.
Houde, a 61-year-old New York State Museum research and collection technician, hopes to take her fifth trip to Afghanistan in August with Fahima Vorgetts, the director of the Afghan Women’s Fund, a nonprofit based in New York City. Houde will be representing Women Against War, which advocates replacing military occupation with development and diplomacy.
Working together in April, the organizations dug a well for the rural community of Mir Taqi Shah in Logar province at an estimated cost of $10,000. The cost is high because the project includes a water system for a village of 120 families.
A well is seen as the first priority. Without clean water, the women and children suffer. She explained that 25 percent of children die from diseases such as dysentery before they are 5 years old.
Once clean water is available, women’s literacy classes, a cooperative for 40 to 50 women, a health clinic and schools for girls and boys are initiated as funds allow. “When I heard about this, I wanted to be a part of it. I feel like it is time to stop talking and start doing. We can’t keep dwelling on the politics. We have to put out energy into what is working and make a difference,” the gray-haired, blue-eyed Houde said.
In 2004 and 2005 Houde traveled deep into the heart of Afghanistan as a photographer for the National Organization of Ophthalmic Rehabilitation (NOOR), which sets up eye camps where local people can be seen by surgeons and doctors. Houde’s goal was to record the ongoing work.
“I wanted to show the nobleness of these people and their lands as they strive to keep their autonomy, culture and community alive,” she said.
Her photographs show the elation of people receiving a registration card confirming they will see a doctor, the worry of a father accompanying his blind daughter and women in burkas waiting to read an eye chart.
In addition, Houde has taken photos of Afghans going about their daily lives including weaving carpets and sewing of garments.
Houde has had a lifelong interest in textiles and earned her master’s degree in theater costuming. She has found that her knowledge of cloth has helped her start conversations with women she has just met.
“I grew up in Columbia County in a family that would visit historic sites. I was always interested in historical dress. My interest was on the social aspects,” she said, explaining that the clothing of a family and the fashions of the times spoke volumes about the people who wore them.
Professionally, her interest led her to a position as director of Cherry Hill, an historic site in Albany that has an extensive clothing collection belonging to the Van Rensselaer family, which was part of a group of wealthy and powerful families known as the Hudson River manor lords.
She also worked as an archivist for the city of Albany.
Then, in 1990, she experienced a personal crisis. Her childhood dream was to be a mother. Unable to get pregnant, she realized she needed to make a conscious change about what would be her future. She saw an ad in a magazine seeking textiles experts to travel to Peru. “I had tremendous support from my husband, Frank, and my family. I went and spent a month there,” she said.
Looking back, she said the experience was life-changing. “I was hooked on the idea that you could learn about a culture by looking at their clothing and how it was constructed,” she said.
Her fascination with textiles deepened when she tried to determine how a type of sling had been made. After several trips, she found someone who could show her. “It was an ‘Aha!’ moment. It became simple when I saw it through the eyes of local people and not through the eyes of a Westerner. I not only saw how to make the sling, but understood that the symbols woven into the sling were there to pay reverence” to their spiritual beliefs. “There was a sacred quality to it and I began to understand who [the makers of the slings] were as a people,” she said.
In her travels, she has been drawn to the issues of women and has found that her interest in textiles has helped her understand the culture of an area. In Afghanistan, many of the women weave carpets and cloth to sell. The money they earn buys them more than material goods. “Selling their work raises their self-esteem and the way they are viewed by the men in their families,” she said.
When Houde returns to Afghanistan this summer, she plans to go to Mir Taqi Shah, take images of the well’s impact on the community, and bring back stories of how their lives have been changed.
The first time she went, she said she had to go “to see for myself what was going on. Who knows why ideas pop into your head. I wanted to see first-hand. I didn’t understand why our response to 9/11 was guns and bombs. I understand that the attack took place on U.S. soil, but the strike was against more than just America in my mind.”
Her first visit was an “amazing lesson. Afghanistan is a country of ancient beauty. The people are resilient.” She is encouraged by what she’s seen. She said she has noticed improvements over the last decade such as electricity and Internet access and in the way women are treated. But she added, “There’s still a lot to do.”