Photographs from the centre of a tragedy

For photographer Massoud Hossaini, the personal and professional came to a head while shooting blast at Shia shrine.

    Hossaini first spotted the little girl in green while walking towards the Abdul-Fazil shrine in Kabul [AFP]

    When Massoud Hossaini arrived outside the Abdul-Fazil shrine in Kabul mid-morning on Tuesday he thought he would be there to photograph young Shia worshippers taking part in the Ashoura Day observances for the AFP news agency.

    As he walked towards the shrine, a little girl dressed in green - a traditional colour for Ashoura observances - caught his eye. He had no idea that amongst the very crowd he walked in was a bomber who would set off an unprecedented attack against Afghanistan's Shia minority.

    Hossaini continued to walk forward, taking snap shots along the way until he was knocked to the floor by the force of a suicide bomb attack in the holiest Shia site in Afghanistan.

    He pressed forward, walking towards the site of billowing smoke and ignoring his bleeding hand and the crowds of people running in the opposite direction. Amid the crush of people, Hossaini spotted the little girl in green whom he had told himself only moments earlier he would come back to photograph.

    This time though, she was covered in blood and crying.

    Hossaini too, found himself crying, more than he had ever cried in his seven years of shooting war and violence in Afghanistan.

    The images Hossaini took that day, as tears continued to flow from his eyes, would end up on the covers of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, all variations of that little girl in the green dress.

    Al Jazeera spoke to Hossaini after the blasts about being a 30-year-old Shia Afghan photographer on the scene of a violent attack on one of the Shia calendar's holiest days.

    You were a Shia on the scene of an attack at a Shia shrine. Was there ever any thought for you to stop photographing after the blast?

    Immediately after the blast I stopped and thought to myself that there would be another explosion, a shooting, or the police would harass me, but I knew I was there to do a job. I knew I was there to record that moment, so I stood there and started to photograph.

    The first thing that came to my mind was to record the emotions. The sadness. The crying. The panicked shouts against al-Qaeda.

    When I first got up after the blast I saw my hand was bleeding, but I got up, took my camera and ran towards the smoke.

    As the smoke cleared, I saw myself encircled by dead bodies. Women and children - one on top of the other.

    That was when I realised that I was at the exact spot that the bomb went off. Only 10 seconds before I was watching a peaceful ceremony and now I was encircled with bodies everywhere I could see.

    I was trying my best to record the emotion, what the people saw and how they reacted.

    What was your first experience of shooting a violent scene?

    I started shooting for magazines in 2004. This event though, was very important for me, because I was there from the moment it happened.

    In the past I would arrive on the scene after the event. This was the first time I was at a scene to experience the before and the after.

    I had seen that little girl in green while we were walking in, then I saw her covered in blood.

    Those images of that little girl are very important because they have come to represent that day in Afghanistan to the entire world.

    A stringer was able to track her down today at a hospital in the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital in Kabul. I planned to visit her in her home in the next two days to shoot a photo-essay of her life.

    Have you seen a change in your photographs in the past seven years - the subject matter, the mood, the events?

    When I started out it was more about war and destruction. Now I want to focus more on real life in Afghanistan. The emotion. I want to show the beauty of Afghanistan.

    As an Afghan photographing events in Afghanistan, how do you feel you approach your assignments differently from other photographers?

    Others normally think to get the best shots as a reflection of their professionalism. For me it's about everything.  Reflecting my professionalism, but also the emotions that I experience. The scene that I see. My priority is to reflect the pain that the people are feeling.

    Because I have a personal feeling for this place and the events in it, the photographs have more colour than if I were to photograph tragic events like these in other countries.

    Your online profile says you were born in a wrong place, Afghanistan, grew up in a wrong place, Iran, and are living in a wrong place, Kabul. What does that mean to you?

    When I was  born in Afghanistan (1981) it was all war. When I went to Iran I found myself in a completely functioning civil society, but it wasn't my society. I didn't identify with it. I felt out of place.

    Then I came to Afghanistan in 2002. I was hoping our country would be rebuilt, peace would be re-established, that we would have a civil society, education, and democracy. None of that happened.

    I left a war and came back to a war.

    The profile ends with "Let's see what will happen", how would you complete that thought in the seven years since you started photographing Afghanistan?

    I've seen many things - hope, fear, and fearlessness all in one. It's very complicated.

    Seeing this explosion only 15 metres away from me I realised for the first time that the danger, the death, and the violence are very physically close to me and my family.

    Would you leave Afghanistan?

    It's a very difficult question for me. Part of me, like so many others, wants to leave and live in peace.

    Then I ask myself, if  I were to leave, 'what would the name Massoud Hossaini mean?' Now it means a professional photographer recognised by the government. Everyone knows me as a professional Afghan photographer. They know I will be there to document the scene.

    If I leave what will I become?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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