Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part photo essay that begins in Kabul. Part two takes place in and around Herat. In part three, our writer offers conclusions from her three-month experience as a female photographer in Afghanistan.
During the summer of 2010 in Kabul and my province of Herat I wanted to take photographs capturing the normal lives of the people. The pictures that are seen in the United States of Afghanistan are most often pictures of war. I wanted to show a happier side of Afghan reality. The weather was very hot and I had to take my photographs in the early mornings or late afternoons. I wore my back veil because I thought it would be more acceptable to dress like a Muslim girl, especially since many people knew I had dressed like that before I went to the United States. I thought I could hide my camera under my veil.
However my choice was a mistake. It alienated me from the normal Kabuli girls, as they do not wear black veils, and I discovered the black veil threatened the security guards. Girls in Iran wear black veils. It gave the guards excuses to stop me and accuse me of being an Iranian spy. It was already odd to see a girl with a giant camera; a girl with a black veil was a bigger surprise than they could swallow. I learned that a photographer must dress to blend into a community.
Security was the biggest barrier. My family added to my anxiety by saying that someone will kidnap me or take my expensive camera. I traveled with a family member; I never took photos in public alone. I learned I was more comfortable taking photos with female escorts, than males. I was more courageous with my brothers and father, but they were constantly nagging me about the security. The lesson I got from it was that it is easier to take pictures with women and use a cheaper camera. A photographer needs to have a free mind without worries to produce good images.
I can understand why my father was very worried. Being a female photographer is one of the biggest dangers in Afghanistan. Afghans believe that a job that makes a woman visible in public is a threat to her. My family and many Afghans are afraid of ignominy. A woman’s sexuality makes her vulnerable to possible violence. When a woman enters a public space, she enters a male-dominated sphere. If she is a successful woman, she can be a threat to many men. Afghanistan does not have many laws that defend women’s rights. If anything bad happens or someone sexually abuses a woman, people will blame her for appearing in public. They would say, “You could stay at home and prevent this incident,” or blame the family for being irresponsible and not controlling her. Afghan women have to go against many cultural barriers to appear in public and take photos. This vulnerability makes them more trusting in the eyes of many citizens, mostly other women. But in Kabul I was welcomed, and some men, including a man selling cheese, asked me to take their picture. It was a moment of joy for them; I could see their happiness. Or maybe it was just a change in their ordinary day.
Most of the men were simple workers. They would not pose for the photo but just stared at me while I was taking their picture. One man gave me a free juice when I took his picture.