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Monday, July 16, 2018

A way in the dark: Meet Afghanistan’s first female professional photographer

Afghanistan’s first female professional photographer, Farzana Wahidy, on learning to become her own person in a troubled country, shooting under perilous conditions and why she focuses exclusively on women.

Written by Pallavi Pundir | New Delhi | Updated: November 15, 2015 12:01:00 am
Farzana Wahidy at a photo exhibition at Max Muller Bhawan in New Delhi. (Source: Express photo by Ravi Kanojia) Farzana Wahidy at a photo exhibition at Max Muller Bhawan in New Delhi. (Source: Express photo by Ravi Kanojia)

Farzana Wahidy’s childhood was pockmarked with interruptions. Under the Taliban regime in the ’90s, life was, what the Kandahar-born-Kabul-based photographer calls, an interminable “dark state”. One of Wahidy’s most vivid memories is from the time when she was 13 — she was beaten up on the street by a complete stranger for not wearing a burqa. “I wish I was a photographer back then. I was in a society that would have been interesting for the world to know now,” says the 30-year-old, who was in Delhi recently to attend the Delhi Photo Festival and an exhibition by Afghani photographers at the Max Mueller Bhavan.

Afghanistan of that time reeled under extremist prohibitions. Several creative pursuits, including photography, were prohibited. Wahidy’s father was a collector of cameras and made sure every other moment of their lives was captured. But under the Taliban regime, he had no option but to give up his passion. “We lost most of our family albums and photographs during the civil war. We had managed to escape before a rocket hit our home. Later, people entered and took away all the pictures,” she says. Yet, even as the regime took hold of the Afghan life, Wahidy’s father would take the family to photo booths, used primarily for ID photos, to be shot. “Just for memories of our family,” she says.

As the bitter wars in Afghanistan aggravated, Wahidy’s estrangement with her surroundings grew. But her impersonal relationship with the camera began to take a new shape. “I was used to seeing my dad taking pictures, but I thought I was too far away,” she says. As a young girl of 17, deeply affected by the world she found herself in, photojournalism appeared to be an obvious career option. “So much was happening around me, I had all these stories but I didn’t know how to express them. I picked photojournalism just for that,” she says.

As the Taliban regime ended in 2001, the camera was no longer a restricted item. Wahidy was one of the 15 students who enrolled at Aina, a photography institute run by Iranian- born photographer brothers Manoocher and Reza Deghati. A few years later, she emerged as the first female professional photographer from the complex, and often dangerous, contemporary photography scene in Afghanistan.

Out on the streets, be it in Kabul or in remote provinces, the exposure felt infinite, as opposed to the strictly private photo sessions that her family had indulged in. “When I was told to take photos for the first time, asking people if they want to be photographed was a very difficult task. It wasn’t easy for the people as well as it was just a few years after the fall of the Taliban,” she says. Wahidy’s father accompanied her on some assignments, and continued to do so until age tired him out.

Shahbib, a young Afghan singer in her house in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Source: Photo by Farzana Wahidy) Shahbib, a young Afghan singer in her house in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Source: Photo by Farzana Wahidy)

The involvement of Aina was tremendous, culling out some of the best known faces from contemporary photography scene in the country — including the Pulitzer Prize winner Massoud Hossaini (who is also her husband). The students started with the traditional box cameras, and then progressed to Zenit, the Russian brand of 35 mm SLR. Working with various international media organisations, these photographers found themselves risking their lives to present their war-stricken country to the rest of the world. “When we took photos, people thought we were foreigners,” says Wahidy.

Female photographers, especially locals, were hard to come by. Female subjects, even more so. Which was why when, in 2003, Wahidy stepped out to take photographs of the streets, a few people began to pelt stones at her. Another trip in 2004 took her to northern Afghanistan, where she was chased by a woman with a stick for taking too many photos of her. “The medium needs time and we need to create a connection between people and photography,” she says. The Afghan women, in the meantime, became Wahidy’s prime focus. “With mostly male photographers around and mostly outsiders, I thought it was an interesting time to focus on the women,” she says.

Wahidy’s interest in the women of her country takes an intimate shape. Her portraits come from her own sense of belonging, yet the need to uproot herself from that claustrophobic space gives it a sharp focus. “Photography is so powerful. Interestingly for me, it helped me travel, which made me feel free. Under the Talibans, I felt like a prisoner.” After a series of assignments on home turf, Wahidy left for Canada on a scholarship for a two-year photojournalism programme at Loyalist College in 2007. She returned to Afghanistan in 2010. Her first international story came in The Sunday Times (UK) in 2003 on a girl who was exchanged for drugs. Wahidy’s women, however, depict not just the private world they live in, but also the mundane and the daily. “I have added a new segment on the new generation of women to the series. This is a bridge between those who want to tell their stories and those who want to hear it,” she says.

With no formal documentation of the history of photography in Afghanistan, there are massive efforts to create a wholesome narrative, almost from scratch, to understand the medium and its context in the country. This holds importance especially for those who want to learn about the form. Wahidy is one of the frontrunners in this mammoth task. She is also involved in training young photographers, creating manuals on the methods of the medium and reviewing and lobbying laws such as the copyright law in Afghanistan, that has restrictions, punishments and ambiguous rules for those in the creative industry.

Afghanistan is still a risky terrain, especially in the provinces. Wahidy says she has faced threats, as recently as in 2013. “I was working on a project and this warlord was trying to stop me from finishing it. He kept calling and demanded a dialogue in private, but I insisted that the talks should happen through a union, which eventually Drawing Up the Capitaltook place. This profession has its ups and downs. Honestly, when I leave for assignments, I just leave a note for everyone because I do not know if I will return or not,” she says.

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