Last Updated on 03/23/2023 by Feroz Khan
“It was a great honor to document their accomplishments,” says photojournalist Andrea DiCenzo about her time spent with the Afghan Robotics girls team that visited the USA. What was initially meant to be a photo story spanning just a few days turned into an extraordinary three-week assignment capturing emotions and achievements. Andrea tells us what was special about it and how the girls explored the USA.
The Essential Photo Gear Used By Andrea DiCenzo
Andrea told us:
I love the Canon range, but I am a firm believer that it doesn’t matter what camera you use. I like cameras that work fast to get crisp, clear images and I like cameras that work well in low light because you get to work a bit more creatively. Beyond that, I’m not committed to any particular camera system
The Phoblographer: Hi Andrea. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Andrea DiCenzo: I am a photojournalist and editorial photographer currently based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I have moved around the Middle East a bit, having lived in Jerusalem and then Erbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq before calling Dubai home. I wanted to be a photographer at a very early age. I think photography has such magical qualities for us as kids or teenagers, and the awe and beauty of freezing a moment in time still inspires me to this day. My friend group in college was really into photography. This was back in the early days of Facebook and image sharing when all we had was uploading to Facebook albums. We’d always have our camera on us, documenting silly college-student antics and our seaside neighborhood in Santa Cruz, California. It was sort of competitive who would upload the best pictures from day trips and whatever we were doing. Very friendly competition. We all just wanted to be really good photographers, so we pushed each other and learned from one another.
I must admit I was not the best in our group. But I got a lot better with time and practice. Three of us went on to be professional photographers.
The Phoblographer: How did you come across the opportunity to cover this story? What were your first impressions about the chance?
Andrea DiCenzo: I was commissioned by The New York Times to document the journey of the Afghan Dreamers, a high school girls’ robotics team from Afghanistan, while they were in North America. My editor asked if I could make it to Michigan, USA, in 72 hours, as the original plan was to cover the team for a few days as they participated in a major robotics competition in the US and then travel with them to Afghanistan upon their return. However, after presenting the images and content we captured in just a few days, we realized the extraordinary nature of their mission and felt compelled to dedicate more time to fully capture their story.
The girls, who defied all odds to pursue a STEM education in a country like Afghanistan, were remarkable. At the FIRST Robotics Competition, only three out of 200 teams were all girls, and one of them was the Afghan Dreamers.
We followed their journey for about three weeks as they competed in various robotics competitions across the United States and explored new territories. It was a great honor to document their accomplishments, and the experience left us in awe of their perseverance and determination to overcome social barriers to achieve their dreams.
The Phoblographer: They must have been beyond thrilled to visit the USA and participate in this contest. Was the excitement always evident on their faces as you photographed them?
Andrea DiCenzo: Yeah, they were super excited to compete and loved being in the US. They even went to Canada, which they all seemed to prefer for some reason. But man, they were working really hard, and it definitely showed.
They were thrilled, exhausted, and sometimes just plain bored – you know, normal teenage stuff. And with six of them, not everyone was feeling the same way at the same time. It was a lot of pressure for these young girls, and some of them had trouble with English, which only added to the stress.
Did they express their first impressions of the USA to you? How was the overall reception of this team from the other participants?
Andrea DiCenzo: As their photographer and an American myself, it was fascinating to see the US through their eyes. For example, when we took the overnight Amtrak bus from Detroit to New York City, the bus made stops at several run-down towns throughout the night. The vending machines didn’t work; the bathrooms were dirty – it wasn’t a great experience.
But that’s also what I loved about traveling with them – they got to see the real side of the US, not just the touristy parts. Sahar, one of the girls, even tried to give her leftover pizza to a homeless person in New York City. It was clear that they didn’t really understand homelessness, and it was tough for them to see people who didn’t have anyone to take care of them. But honestly, I think most teenagers would feel the same way.
The Phoblographer: What were some of the stories from back home that they shared with you?
Andrea DiCenzo: The young women had been away from their families for an extended period of three months as they participated in robotics competitions and attended schools in the US and Canada. During this time, they undoubtedly experienced feelings of homesickness and missed their loved ones dearly, including their siblings, parents, and other family members.
When we met them at the conclusion of their trip, it was clear that they were eager to return home. Their deep love for Afghanistan was evident as they spoke fondly about their country and the importance of their families. Despite their enthusiasm for the exchange program, the girls remained devoted to their roots and longed to be reunited with their loved ones.
The Phoblographer: Did any of them want to explore the option of moving to the USA, or were they all just happy to be here for a short while?
Andrea DiCenzo: All of them wanted to move to the US! One wanted to move to the US as a first choice and go to school at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and the rest wanted to move to Canada or the US as a backup plan. These are smart girls, and they understand more than I can imagine that their beloved home country is not a stable place for them to live. And they want to pursue higher education. They can’t do that in Afghanistan.
Now that the Taliban is back in power, they have fled to safer countries with their families. It was difficult for them, but they are all out of the country.
The Phoblographer: Were you attempting to break stereotypes of Afghan children as part of this photo series? Tell us why or why not.
Andrea DiCenzo: That’s a good question. No, I wasn’t attempting to break any stereotypes. I was privileged to make images of girls who were breaking stereotypes of what we expect from Afghan children. That’s a huge difference. I was just along for their ride, if that makes sense. And I was trying to document that experience for these young women as faithfully as I could.