Afghan photographers shoot to glory

A band of photojournalists are winning praise and helping to keep the world’s focus on the embattled nation.

Afghan women in burkas

More than a decade after the initial fall of the Taliban, this year’s NATO summit in Chicago highlighted donor fatigue regarding the war in Afghanistan and the country’s expensive and reportedly corrupt aid projects.

As world leaders left the summit, the cost of that war to Afghans themselves was on vivid display in New York in the images of Afghan photographer Massoud Hossaini, who was on hand at Columbia University to collect his Pulitzer Prize.

Hossaini is one of a handful of young, talented Afghan photographers who, despite scarce funding, have gained international prominence with the encouragement of exceptional mentors. These photographers are now showing their embattled country to the world – unhindered by cultural and language barriers – through an Afghan lens.

“They were in shock,” recalls Manoocher Deghati, the Associated Press photo editor for the Middle East, of the Afghans he met in Kabul in 2001. “There was a big hope, of course.”

Massoud Hossaini won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2012 [Claire Truscott/Al Jazeera]

Afghans share a wrenching recent past. They have survived the Soviet occupation and brutal turf battles between mujahidin, which reduced Kabul to rubble.

When the Taliban seized power in 1996, it established the rule of law. But as freedom of expression and cultural creativity was forbidden under punitive edicts enforced by the “Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice”, public relief gave way to bitter disillusionment.

“Everyone was so tired of the war with the mujahidin and wanted security, but when they got security under the Taliban, they had no freedom,” explains 27-year-old Kandahar-born photographer Farzana Wahidy.

Wahidy says her father placed her in one of Kabul’s “secret” schools when she was a teenager. “The Taliban came to our courses a couple times,” Wahidy remembers. “We would immediately hide our books, put on our burkas to cover ourselves and pretend we were reading the Koran, instead of learning English.”

Fardin Waezi, a 31-year-old United Nations photographer, began his career at age seven with his father in their Kabul studio, rebuilt after its destruction by warring mujahidin leaders. They created portraits together with a large, antique box camera – taking photos, developing negatives, and producing prints.

Under Taliban rule, small headshots for government documents were an exception to their photography ban. Waezi manned a camera booth outside a police station, and secretly worked after-hours as a wedding photographer.

“I was jailed five times for taking photos,” he says. “One time I ran into a convoy of the Taliban’s ‘vice and virtue’ police. I was shocked to see them, and all my photos fell out of their envelope and onto the street.” The Taliban stared down at Waezi’s prints of dancing women. He explained he got them from Pakistan. “They tore up all the photos, beat me and put me in jail for a couple of weeks.”

Winning accolades

Today, Afghan photographers work for leading international news agencies and non-profit organisations, and are winning accolades.

But it has been a challenging road to get to this point. Hossaini and Waezi were the only self-taught photographers among the group converging in Kabul in 2001.

That cold winter, Manoocher Deghati, along with his brother, acclaimed photographer Reza, rushed back to Afghanistan to start up a media and photography school named Aina, which means “mirror” in Farsi. The Iranian-born brothers had photographed the country many times before, forging ties based on similar cultures.

“We thought now it is time to give something back to these people. All of them were hungry – really hungry in all senses,” says Manoocher, who photographed the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and was wounded in the Palestinian territories.

With Reza at Aina’s helm and Manoocher mentoring photographers, the brothers found a wrecked mansion in downtown Kabul previously occupied as a Taliban detention centre. They signed a lease with the exiled owner and slowly repaired the compound.

Broadcasting a date for aspiring photography students to apply, the brothers expected at most 50 candidates. Instead, Manoocher says, he awoke to find hundreds of people pushing against the Aina gate for a chance to learn.

“One boy said: ‘I’ve never done photography but I am a karate champion and I love Bruce Lee so much I keep a photo of him.’ He pulled out the photo and said, ‘This is why photography is important to me.'” Manoocher chuckles. “I picked him because I thought he might make a good sports photographer.”

“Farzana [Wahidy] was smart,” he says. “Farzana said: ‘I want to show the world not only the atrocities of my country, but also the good side. The real Afghanistan.'”

The students examined photographs first, before technically mastering indigenous box cameras.

Next Manoocher scoured the city for cheap Russian-made Zenith cameras to shoot with. “Some of them were not working, so I went to the only guy who knew how to repair Zenith cameras – in Afghanistan you have this kind of thing – and he fixed them all.”

The budding photographers traversed the provinces, from the then-peaceful Panjshir Valley to the volatile eastern province of Nuristan – where they fled a village one night in fear of being killed by al-Qaeda. 

Documenting critical issues

Fardin Waezi began his career at age seven, in his father’s Kabul studio [Farhid Tabesh/Al Jazeera]

Afghan photographers now form a small, tight-knit community. Those interviewed emphasised wanting to help other Afghans learn the craft, and to document issues most critical to them.

Wahidy has cautiously shot photos in places as precarious as violence-prone Kandahar City, but steers away from war photography. Instead, she uses her access as a female to focus on the grim challenges Afghan women face in a heavily segregated society, including those imprisoned for “moral crimes”.

This year she was nominated by Reza as a notable photographer for the pages of Smithsonian Magazine. “I think of photography as an international language,” she explained. “I find it a way to share the stories and problems that are happening in my country to other people in the world.”

Waezi first encountered Manoocher while working with his box camera in Kabul’s muddy streets. Fascinated with the antique’s ingenuity, Manoocher asked to take a photo. Waezi replied: “You are a modern photographer with a digital camera – can I take yours?”

Since teaching Aina protégés about the box camera, Waezi mentors photographers at Kabul University, and emphasises the importance of capturing the effects of conflict.

“I have taken many pictures of places destroyed by war,” he says. “Because every day this country is changing. I photograph old buildings and towns that will be destroyed in a few months. We need to record the past, the now, and the future.”

For Barat Ali Batoor, a self-taught photographer who grew up as an Afghan refugee in Quetta, Pakistan, a slot in an Open Society Foundation mentorship project for Central Asian photographers proved a rigorous exercise, and kickstarted his career.

The 28-year-old spent months working to gain access to the hidden, notorious underworld of bacha bazi, which translates to “boy play”. Well-known for being practiced during the mujahidin era, the tradition of private parties with food, alcohol, hashish and young, dancing boys to provide entertainment has endured.

“I was about to give up. I was very disappointed,” Batoor says, until a dancer finally invited him to a party for handicapped mujahidin fighters.

Incredible achievements

Central to his story were the boys he followed. Feradon, 13, was kicked out of his home, and was preyed upon by a pimp who used him for prostitution. “To escape that reality he started using heroin. Now he is an addict,” says Batoor. Two of his older subjects found dancing the only way to make a living.

The exhibit was shown at the Afghan Cultural House in Kabul in 2011. “It was the first exhibition of its kind,” Batoor says. “They were afraid because it is quite controversial and sensitive in Afghanistan.” One year later, the Washington Post published his series of photographs online.

This is the role of the photographer, to feel anxious and feel guilty. This is what you see working in Afghanistan.”

– Manoocher Deghati

Unlike the others, 30-year-old Massoud Hossaini loves to shoot breaking news and the ongoing war. Returning to his native Kabul from Iran in 2001, he was mentored at Aina. Now an Agence-France Presse photographer, he is a slight man with an infectious laugh, and more than 200 military embeds under his belt.

The photo that catapulted Hossaini to fame and won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize has profoundly affected him. Taken during a suicide attack at the annual Shia Ashura ceremony in downtown Kabul in December, it shows a screaming 12-year-old Tarana Akhbari in a bloodied green dress, surrounded by children’s bodies.

“I have always gone to Ashura every year,” he says. “I didn’t think this would ever happen.”

“I ran inside the smoke and looked down and saw a big group of dead bodies. It was really, really horrible,” he says. “Somehow I decided to just start recording, it was a kind of reaction. Okay, should I help or take pictures? I was crying… I saw the colour I was focussing on before the explosion and it was Tarana. I saw her in green but she was bloody.”

Injured by the blast himself, Hossaini finally returned home that evening and called his wife, fellow photographer Farzana Wahidy, to tell her he was okay.

“I couldn’t sleep that night. Whenever I would close my eyes I would go to that scene again. What should I do? Why didn’t I help anybody? This has changed my life,” he says.

Since then Hossaini has forged a close relationship with Tarana and her extended family, visiting regularly and raising funds on their behalf.

“I am very proud of Massoud. I saw the photo right away and thought this is a very strong photo,” says Manoocher. “I think it’s good he feels guilty, and he helped the girl. This is the role of the photographer, to feel anxious and feel guilty. This is what you see working in Afghanistan.”

Manoocher smiles. “It was time for Afghanistan,” he says. “It was an interesting and incredible adventure. Seeing these people and how they transformed – from where they were, to where they have reached. Incredible.”

Source: Al Jazeera