Farzana Wahidy is an award-winning Afghan documentary photographer and photojournalist. Born in 1984 in Kandahar, Farzana has been based in Afghanistan most of her life, primarily focusing on documenting the lives of women and girls in the country. Formerly a photographer for AFP and AP, her work appeared in the Sunday Times, ABC-TV, Le Monde 2, Polka Magazine, The Guardian, among others. She was a 2009 Open Society Institute grantee with her documentary project on Afghan women.
Caterina Clerici: How did you get started in photography?
Farzana Wahidy: At the time I started the photography training, I didn’t know much about photography — I didn’t know much at all, actually. The life I had under the Taliban regime as a young girl was very tough. Education was forbidden for women, so we had to take a huge risk to attend classes in underground [secret] schools. It was a lot of pressure and I wanted to find a way to let my feelings out.
I studied photography because I thought it would help me learn how to write better too. But, as I was learning, I started falling in love with it. Most of the people in my country can’t read or write, so photography can be used as a great format to communicate and share information. It has become the best way to express myself as a woman here, and also try to help other women in my community.
CC: When and why did you start focusing on women?
FW: I started around 2004 and I’ve been photographing Afghan women ever since. Sometimes, being a woman in this country means dealing with a lot of pressure, a lot of pain, and this forces me to take pictures. I find photography to be the only way to let it out and feel a little relieved. Especially these days, with so much going on in my country [the interview was conducted right after the May 31, 2017 attack in Kabul, that killed over 150 people], the only thing that gives me hope to continue my life here is photography.
CC: How was it to start working as a woman photographer in your country?
FW: At the beginning, it wasn’t easy. In 2002/03, there weren’t many women photographers in my country and a few crazy things happened, like people throwing stones at me. That’s because Afghanistan had always been photographed by foreigners prior to then, and most of the photojournalists seen there were foreigners, even the female ones, so it was very new for Afghan women to be seen holding cameras and taking pictures. It slowly became a bit more common, and now we have a lot of young girls who take pictures.
When I started though, since women photographers were not that common in Afghanistan, there was a very high demand for us. I started working with AFP and then I got a job at AP. At that time, in 2009/10, I was also covering the news, but my main focus and personal projects were on women.
CC: You decided to stop covering news to do more documentary and personal work. What made you change direction?
FW: One time, I think it was in 2010, there was an attack in Kabul. I went to the site of the attack and then to a hospital, and then I thought, “Oh my God, I want to leave. I don’t want to cover this anymore.” It was reminding me a lot of my childhood, growing up during the war in Afghanistan. I couldn’t eat for several days, couldn’t get rid of the smell of explosions. So I stopped.
Another reason was that a lot of photographers were covering the news, so I thought I should just focus on women in Afghanistan. In countries where a war is going on, the media always focuses on the war. And then women often get forgotten. I’m not saying completely, but they are affected a lot by it and are not as reported on as they should be. I think I felt responsible for them, and I still do.
CC: What are some examples of women being “forgotten” by the media?
FW: My last experience was two days after the attack that happened last Wednesday (May 31), during the demonstration that took place at the bomb site. I went there because I’m photographing a lot of women who are very politically active in Kabul and I knew they were going too. There was a group of women protesting during the demonstration, but because the protest got violent and there were casualties, no one talked about the women. I’m not saying the violence and deaths were not important, it should all be covered, but that’s not the only story that should come out.
CC: What are the main challenges and goals for you as an Afghan woman photographer?
FW: When I studied in Canada [Farzana received a scholarship to attend the two year photojournalism program at Loyalist University in 2007], I realized how photography in Afghanistan was behind, and how much we — Afghan photographers — still had to learn. So I decided to come back to Afghanistan and try to teach. I created a project and for the first time there was research on photography in Afghanistan. We realized that everything in Afghanistan had been photographed by foreign photographers, and only in a small part by Afghan male photographers. When you come from outside, you see things differently from someone who has been raised and living in a culture. I thought, “If I see things differently, I should show it.”
I think the life of Afghan women hasn’t been photographed or recorded as it should have been. If you study the history of Afghanistan at school, you only read about women from a very long time ago. But if you want to find a female role model among the women of our generation, it’s very difficult. As an Afghan woman photographer, I feel responsible to do something about it. Before, my goal was just to photograph a different image of Afghan women’s lives for foreigners. Now, I know that with photography I can do something for Afghanistan too: I have to record the lives of Afghan women at this sensitive time. I decided I will photograph Afghan women, not only in Afghanistan but also around the world, to bring a deeper understanding to the world of Afghan women. Women who have done something, who are recognized, but also who have a normal life, who are refugees. I want to record their lives so future generations have examples to look at. I want to make them part of our history.
CC: Do you think that photography can help bring change?
FW: Absolutely. Everyone in Afghanistan thinks that to bring about change they have to become politicians, and I think that’s wrong. No matter what you do, if you do it well you can bring change. If you go to a school in Afghanistan and ask girls ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’, they’ll tell you either a doctor or a teacher. And you know why? Because they don’t have role models; they don’t know they can become a lawyer, a judge, a photographer. With my work, I want to give them other examples so they can make decisions about their lives in the future — if they’re actually allowed.
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with thousands of photographers around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,800 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website,www.socialdocumentary.net.
Fall 2017 Vol. 3/No. 2
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Social Documentary Network Advisory Committee
Barbara Ayotte, Medford, MA
Senior Director of Strategic
Management Sciences for Health
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Catherine Karnow, San Francisco, CA
Independent Photographer and Educator
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Molly Roberts, Washington, DC
Senior Photography Editor, National Geographic
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Director, Contact Press Images
Jamey Stillings, Sante Fe, NM
Steve Walker, Danbury, CT
Consultant and Educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
Amy Yenkin, New York, NY
Independent Producer and Editor
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2017
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Photographers and writers featured in this issue of ZEKE
Barbara Ayotte, U.S.
Emma Brown, U.S.
Caterina Clerici, U.S. and Italy
Catherine Karnow, U.S.
Monia Lippi, U.S.
Younes Mohammad, Iraq
John Rae, U.S.
Sascha Richter, Germany
Gabriel Romero, U.S.
Anne Sahler, Germany and Japan
Astrid Schulz, England
Mick Stetson, Japan
William Thatcher Dowell, U.S.
Quan Tran, U.S.
Frank Ward, U.S.
Cover photo by Gabriel Romero from Liberation and Longing: The Battle for Mosul. A Peshmerga soldier in the Yazidi town of Bashiqa, Iraq.