Paradise on Earth
Paradise is a story about Swat valley, located in the northwest of Pakistan, within a mountainous belt called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan.
Civilizations flourished in the valley for thousands of years. It is said that early Aryans settled here from time immemorial, and as early as 300BC, Alexander the Great met the resistance of a local tribe called the Gauraioi on his conquest of the East. Buddhism thrived here for first millennia, and Swat became a centre of Buddhist studies during the Gandhara era. Later on, Muslim conquerors came, and Sufi holy men succeeded in converting the valley to Islam.
Swat’s summer pastures, rolling hills, and azure blue skies easily conjure a picture of paradise on earth. With the coming of Western explorers in the 20th century, Swat was nicknamed “Switzerland of the East”.
Change of Fortunes
Unfortunately, Swat’s fortunes took a drastic turn after 2002. A group of Islamic fundamentalists known as the Taliban began taking root in Swat, and eventually achieved complete dominion in February 2009. The world watched as the militants forced men to wear beards, closed down girls’ schools, and hang headless corpses of “infidels” in the town squares. Swat, once known as a peaceful haven, became synonymous with terror and religious fanaticism.
In May 2009, the Pakistan army finally decided to take decisive action against the Taliban in Swat. A short but bloody battle for Swat ensued. More then two million people were forced to flee the conflict, in the largest exodus in Pakistan since the Partition in 1947. The Pakistan army claimed victory in August 2009, after retaking major towns from the militants.
Search for Paradise
I started photographing the people of Swat when they were forced into exile by the conflict in 2009.
Almost every Swati that I met during the exodus would describe home as janad, or paradise. Deeply fascinated by the Swatis’ attachment to their land, I decided to visit Swat once the conflict was over.
When a semblance of peace returned to Swat, I made plans to photograph this earthly paradise. However, I was a month too late – the great flood had hit Swat and changed the face of paradise forever. When I arrived in Swat, only the ghosts of its glorious past remained.
Between 2009-2013, I visited Swat thrice, in hope of finding the original paradise. All this while, terror continued to lurk in shadows of its ruins. Reports of bomb blasts and targeted killings continued to plague the valley, the most notorious being the attempted assassination of teenage activist Malala Yusufzai in October 2012. Paradise was never the same again.
This is the story of my search for paradise on earth, in a place devastated by both Man and Nature.
About the author
He graduated from Nanyang Technological University School of Communication Studies (now known as Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information), specialising in journalism. An accidental photographer, he was first introduced to photojournalism in university. For his final year varsity project, he co-authored a photobook documenting the railway of Thailand.
The portfolio landed him a job as a staff photographer in a free daily tabloid in Singapore in 2003. Two years later, he began shooting for the Straits Times, the national broadsheet. In 2008, after five years as a news photographer, he quit the newsroom and decided to move to Nepal with his newly-wedded wife.
Based in Kathmandu as a freelance documentary photographer, Koo mainly focused on personal work dealing with issues of human displacement and the lost sense of identity. His pet topics include the Tibetan exiles, the Maoist guerrillas, and Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Occasionally, he photographed for international publications, but the young couple mainly lived off savings during the two-year stint.
In 2011, Koo returned to Singapore with the birth of his son. His first personal project in Singapore – dedicated to his son – was to document the historic 2011 General Election. Eventually, it culminated in his first solo exhibition – “Notes from a Singapore Son” – a body of work reflecting a tsunami of change in Singapore’s political landscape.
Koo’s work has been recognised internationally. In 2009, he was awarded The Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography. Earlier that year, his work on Pakistan also won a third placing in the UNICEF Photo of the Year.
In 2012, he was awarded one of Singapore’s most prestigious photography accolades: the ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu, which recognises an individual for an outstanding body of work in his photographic career.
Internationally, his works has also been exhibited at Breda Photo Festival (Netherlands, 2012); Visa Pour L’Image (France, 2012), Dali International Photo Exhibition (China, 2012), the Angkor Photo Festival (Cambodia, 2011), Photo Quai festival (France, 2011), and the Lumix Festival for Young Photojournalists (Germany, 2009).
Koo’s work has also been published in international titles such as GEO, International Herald Tribune, The New York Times and Le Monde. He is currently represented by French photo agency Cosmos.
Paradise is Koo’s first photographic monograph.