How Afghanistan Looks to Afghanis, Not Americans

ByShu-Yen Wei

Afghan Photography Network (APN) photographers share a common desire to portray the human aspects of life amongst military conflict beyond daily sensationalist media featuring the ravages of war although there is plenty of that in their work. They have faced life-threatening circumstances and physical harm to produce their images. APN also provides a professional support structure for the photographers, whose work have been featured in major news sources such as the New York Times, the Associated Press, and Kabul News TV as well as numerous art exhibitions. In a country with an 70%+ illiteracy rate, the pictures serve the much-needed purpose of communicating political developments to a struggling and uncertain populace.

Farzana Wahidy is one of the photographers within the APN and aims to accurately portray Afghani life and its women in her stills. Accordingly, her work ranges from the serious to the whimsical. In one picture, she draws attention to the juxtaposition of Afghanistan’s cultural conservatism and its thriving sex trade with a shadowed depiction of a prostitute adjusting her dark headscarf. But other shots feature a young woman blowing bubblegum while she cooks for her family, a girl brushing her hair in her brightly decorated room and, a child reluctantly being given a bath. Wahidy had illicitly attended underground school under the Taliban regime and became the first Afghan woman to work for Agence France-Presse and, later, the Associated Press. She displays her progressive views in a photo that shows the limited view from behind a burqa, which most women wear for personal safety even after the fall of the Taliban, and another of a seven-year-old girl focusing intently on her schoolwork.


APN cameraman Barat Ali Batoor's photojournalism project entitled "Child Trafficking in Afghanistan/The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan" depicts the bacha bazi phenomenon, in which poor young males are sold to entertain wealthy families where they are sexually exploited. Participants in the trade were once harshly punished under the Taliban, but the practice is rapidly growing again with the overthrow of the regime. Batoor discussed the need for local voices in covering such stories on Afghanistan: "You can feel the problems that a foreign journalist cannot feel."

Funded through a photography grant from the Open Society Institute in New York, his stills show two boys in their downward spirals of poverty, exploitation and drug addiction. The heart-wrenching photos show Shukur, 20, in full make-up and costume, stoically dancing among male crowds and Fraidoun, 13, begging on the street and smoking heroin. Batoor has stated that these photos only show a microcosm of the problem ingrained in Afghani culture, in which the symbols of wealth are predicated on physically and sexually abusing the poor and most societally vulnerable.


In contrast to Wahidy and Batoor's pictures of civilian life, Jawad Jalali, who is also managing director of the APN, has been absorbed for the past three years in a story on Afghan security forces. His team of photographers has travelled all over Afghanistan with the border police and military, even to areas of high turmoil, to document their capabilities and everyday operations for civilians to see. He described an instance where one of his photographers captured an image of a soldier shot in the leg that continued fighting. The soldier became an overnight hero as the photo circulated online and in national media. He feels the significance of his work in changing common perceptions, despite having to navigate dangerous terrain in doing so, since many "can not read and they get a lot of their information through pictures,' Jalali hopes to exhibit his current works throughout Afghanistan soon.

The photography described is a just small sampling of the work already produced within the Afghan Photography Network. The common goals of the organization, to accurately depict and expose life in Afghanistan domestically and internationally, merit attention and discussion. As the country faces an uncertain political future, the organization is sure to be a crucial source of public information, as well as support the growth and safety of its expanding slate of artists.