Bran Symondson: AK-47s, opium and the police in eyeliner

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The Independent Culture

In the lush, fertile Helmand River Valley, a sea of pink flowering poppies covers vast swathes of Afghanistan's most troublesome province. The raw by-product – opium – accounts for a staggering 90 per cent of the world's heroin supply. "It's an absolutely stunning plant," says the photographer and former British soldier Bran Symondson, "and everyone in the region is harvesting them. If you were to go in and destroy them, it would be like telling English farmers they couldn't grow wheat any more – you'd have riots on your hands – so we turn a blind eye."

It was during his last tour of duty training the Afghan National Police (ANP), which now patrols this province, that Symondson became fascinated with the force's distinctive ethos. So he returned last July, two years on, as a civilian photographer "embedded" with them to document something far more unique than the endless fields of opium.

Take a closer look at the man crouching among the greenery: the AK-47 is plain to see but you might also detect that he's wearing eyeliner. "Halfway through my tour, I noticed a culture within a culture," Symondson reveals. "I'd see two officers walking around with automatic rifles , holding hands – acting effeminately isn't frowned upon in their culture."

Indeed, some officers dye their hands and feet with henna; others dress their AK-47s with flowers and folk art. And, in a region of such extreme isolation, carefully presented young officers fraternise with commanders, and have a status similar to that of beautiful women. It is an odd position in a society in which homosexuality is punishable by death. "But you have to remember," says Symondson, "that once those guys don that uniform, they'll eat, sleep, fight and die together. They don't go home. It's a way of life."

Symondson's series on the ANP, 'The Best View of Heaven is from Hell', is on display at the Idea Generation Gallery, London E2 until 20 February (