It was 2009 and a depleted savings account was all Edwin Koo had to show a year after he left Singapore to work as a freelance photographer in Nepal. Hungry for photos, Mr. Koo joined friends traveling to Islamabad, two hours south of the Taliban insurgency occurring in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. But hundreds of photographs and a handful of interviews with Swati refugees left just three words, repeated over and over, echoing in Mr. Koo’s mind.
“Janad mo ubaylo” –– we have lost our paradise.
“It was strange,” Mr. Koo said of the Swatis’ fondness for a landscape he thought looked more like hell than heaven. “I would never think someone living in this part of the world could be so attached to their home.”
“Paradise” is the title of Mr. Koo’s recently published book, whose photographs, taken in and around the Swat Valley between 2009 and 2013, were initially a quest for utopia in Pakistan but became Mr. Koo’s mission to answer the question, largely for himself, what is paradise?
When Mr. Koo finally reached the valley in August 2010, flooding from the Swat River, responsible for the valley’s fertile lands and bountiful persimmon, apple and pear trees, had damaged villages and rendered plains unrecognizable.
“What man could not destroy, nature took,” said Mr. Koo, 35, whose photographs showed a Swati people dispossessed of normal life and settings. Paranoia about the Taliban was made palpable by sandbag bunkers manned by armed men at major road junctions. A leveled mosque, once five stories tall, was symbolic of lost landmarks(slide 3). This kind of melancholy begs for black-and-white, said Mr. Koo, who indulged his fondness for light and the ways it wraps and falls.
“I wanted a medium that allows the viewer to directly confront my subjects and allow those subjects to have their emotions come through without the veneer of color,” he said.
Though enamored of Swat’s unscarred plains and rivers, which Mr. Koo traveled three hours by foot to visit on subsequent trips, its inhabitants commanded his attention. Customs aside – photographing women after puberty is prohibited – the undying sense of hospitality from “people who have so little but give so much” astonished him.
During his time in the Swat Valley, he was frequently invited into homes for chai, a milk, sugar and tea concoction so sweet that Mr. Koo doubts it could ever be F.D.A.-approved. Once, Mr. Koo saw a child boiling water on a wood stove, looked upon by his father as light crept through a window. It evoked peace, tranquillity, a sense of family and respect; perhaps the Swati paradise he sought, even in a region devastated by the twin rages of conflict and nature.
“All human beings are hard-wired to look for paradise,” Mr. Koo said. “For the Swatis, maybe their paradise is mountains, rivers, fruit, family and familiarity.”
Mr. Koo’s own quest for paradise, shaped by frequent visits and a state of philosophical reflection he says Swati land elicits, strikes a more universal and theatrical tone.
“Swat Valley is my stage and the stories of the people are my script and what I want is to connect with these people who seem far away but are not very different from you and me,” he said.
“They are looking for paradise, and so am I.”