The Side of Afghanistan That We Forget

Afghanistan is more than war. A conversation with New York Times photojournalist Kiana Hayeri reveals how photojournalism is shedding light on the country’s untold stories.

The Kabul streets still echo with life, as groups of people congregate and street vendors continue selling fruit.

Kiana Hayeri

The Kabul streets still echo with life, as groups of people congregate and street vendors continue selling fruit.

As the Taliban rages on, a 2022 poll found that nearly all Afghans — ninety-four percent — consider themselves to be “suffering.”

Plagued by decades of conflict, Afghanistan has become fractured. Since the first coup d’état in 1978, the country has seen countless waves of rebel insurgencies and military campaigns, turning the power struggle between the Afghan government and the Taliban into a humanitarian crisis with no end in sight. 

Afghanistan may be associated with war, terrorism, and instability, but Afghans are not passive victims of violence. They continue with their everyday activities — going to work, celebrating literature, cooking traditional Afghan cuisine, and more — tasks that in times of war become acts of survival. Even as bombs fall around them, they find ways to adapt. 

I had the honor of speaking with Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist for The New York Times who has been covering Afghanistan for the past eight years. In Kabul, photojournalism serves as a potent reminder that even amidst a humanitarian crisis, life goes on.

“I’m not a conflict photographer,” Hayeri noted. “I consider myself a visual storyteller who happens to live in a country with a lot of conflict.” 

Beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “embedding” is a term used to describe journalists linking with military units to report from the frontlines. While it has become the photography standard in war-torn countries, embedded journalism and its alignment with certain troops often signal a kind of confinement, where journalists may only be able to report one side of the battlefield. 

“Instead, I stay behind and photograph daily life,” she continued. “The problem with just showing the war is that it’s an incredibly one-sided narrative and robs people of dignity. Anyone who has lived in a conflict zone knows that life must go on, so photography involves showing the fuller picture.”  

Hayeri’s career in Afghanistan is owed to her personal roots. Born in Iran and having moved to Canada as a teenager, she grew to love photography because there wasn’t a language barrier preventing her from connecting with others. After she viewed another photojournalist’s work and decided to take on the same career, she returned to Iran to tell her homeland’s stories. It wasn’t long before she departed because of the Iranian regime’s political complications and intrusions on human rights. 

“Then, I was sent to Afghanistan for one assignment, and strangely enough, I felt safe there. It’s ironic, because violence was high at the time,” she said. “I found the country fascinating, and I loved how I could blend in and communicate with people. I learned that every time they leave, they end up coming back.” 

Living in Afghanistan requires taking on a different kind of understanding. Afghans may be caught in the middle of a seemingly endless conflict, but they themselves are not constantly engaged in it. Sometimes, in order to survive, they need to find a way to coexist with their enemies. “Something I’ve learned, living in this new society, is that underneath all the Taliban’s flaws, we still need to live alongside them, and talk to them sometimes. It’s complicated,” Hayeri added. 

War is changing. Developments surrounding technology, asymmetrical warfare, and international coalitions have shaped traditional notions of war into something more malleable — it is not a dated concept. Contemporary conflicts continue to erupt worldwide, and Afghanistan is no exception. 

Afghanistan’s struggle to achieve lasting peace has been characterized by its dynamic geopolitical landscape. Instead of a typical conflict between two state actors, Afghanistan has seen domestic security coalitions, international forces, insurgent groups, and terrorist organizations. Combining elements of conventional battle with asymmetric insurgent tactics has complicated warfare, and whether it is the 1979 Soviet-Afghan War or the Taliban’s new offensives, human and infrastructure casualties have failed to cease. 

The evolving nature of war calls upon a rethinking of the ways in which we depict war. War photography, in essence, creates a balancing test. In a 2018 essay, author Sean Sheehan examines photography in Afghanistan through a critical lens: should photojournalists exclusively cover scenes of suffering and anguish, or should they include photographs of beauty too? Does the latter inherently undermine the former? 

In Sheehan’s words, “How does a photographer truthfully (if that’s possible) and convincingly record such a charged subject as contemporary Afghanistan?”

Photojournalists across the world attempt to answer this question, but there seems to be no clear answer. Steve McCurry, for example, famously produces striking, head-to-shoulder portraits of Afghan individuals. His work is bold, humanist, radiant — in fact, his photo Afghan Girl appeared on the 1985 cover of National Geographic. Such recognition, however, doesn’t come without criticism. 

Close-up portrait shots have sparked controversy about their impact on the subject. In regard to the degree of privacy in these environments, many have come to realize that “haunting eyes” may not be fearing war, but instead the unfamiliar, foreign photographer in front of them. Glamorization becomes an issue as well: it is difficult — and even arguably problematic — to find the devastations of a war-torn country aesthetically pleasing. “The question as to whether McCurry’s beauty illuminates or obscures remains open,” wrote Sheehan. “To me, his pictures’ unbroken radiance appears suspect.”

When individuals are repeatedly photographed in the same portrait setting, it also becomes formulaic and, according to critic Teju Cole, “astonishingly boring.” In his 2016 New York Times article “A Too-Perfect Picture,” Cole writes that even in McCurry’s wider landscape photos, “the result feels like a certain ideal of photography: the rule of thirds, a neat counterpoise of foreground and background, and an obvious point of primary interest, placed just so.”

Photojournalism intends to communicate reality, but in a setting as complicated as Afghanistan, what is reality becomes unclear. Constantly walking the line between humanizing and dehumanizing, “perfect photographs” like McCurry’s no longer capture the full picture. Pure compositions have become antithetical to authenticity. 

As a result, these competing interpretations have not steadied war photography’s balancing scale. It may never be successfully steadied. However, they attest that if journalists want to reverse one-sided perceptions of Afghanistan, simply photographing the country and its people is not enough; it involves how they photograph. 

From photographing for The New York Times to the Washington Post, Hayeri has covered a wide range of what living in a culturally conservative Afghanistan looks like. She focuses on women’s issues — from using swimming pools as a way to cope to running the nation’s only oncology ward, Afghan women and girls are fighting to survive, for themselves and for each other.

“The world keeps talking about girls’ education, but women in Afghanistan have a lot more problems: poverty, abusive husbands, strict fathers,” said Hawa Gul, 40.

Some of Hayeri’s other works feature a photo essay of Afghanistan’s post-9/11 generation, where she juxtaposes Western activities with unique Afghan experiences to shed light on the contrast in lifestyle. “Youth listening to music and playing soccer is popular in the West, but for minors in a country like Afghanistan, they’re also trying to cross borders or avoid getting deported. That’s something people in the West don’t experience,” she said. 

At the same time, using common shared experiences is impactful in its own way. “As someone in the United States, if you see a malnourished child in Afghanistan, it’s difficult to really connect with the photo. On the other hand, if you see a mother kissing her child, that’s something more relatable. Thinking about empathy is important when trying to use photography to appeal to a nation that is too far away from us,” Hayeri explained.

“As a visual person, I’m sensitive to many things I encounter,” she said. “I capture the mundane. Things like kids in a kindergarten eating apples — there’s nothing special about that. But it’s a slice of life. Photojournalism, to me, is about showing the human side of the story.” 

A Glimpse Into Local Life

Many restaurants in Kabul have closed, but the Andkhoi Tordi Pulao Restaurant is one that stubbornly survives. Even though the loss of customer income has decreased business by 40 percent, the chefs still go through around 90 pounds of rice every day. “People need to eat,” said Amanullah, the pulao master.

Afghani pulao, or Qabili Palau, is widely regarded as Afghanistan’s national dish: rice is thoroughly seasoned with spices like cumin and cardamom, and then cooked with raisins, carrots, nuts, and lamb or beef. 

Working at Andkhoi Tordi is a labor of love, and the restaurant is reflective of Afghanistan’s diverse cultural landscape — pulao’s indistinct origins have rendered it a cultural mesh of Central Asia. Afghanistan’s refugee crises and internal displacement have been on global display in recent years, but the country has been home to a diverse range of ethnic groups for over a century. In the 1920s, for example, many Turkmen and Uzbek peoples arrived in Afghanistan after the unsuccessful Basmachi Revolt to seek freedom from the Soviet Union. 

Andkhoi Tordi’s owners are Turkmen; the restaurant’s sesame oil is sourced from their home province of Jowzjan and makes its 15-hour trip to Kabul every few days by bus. Occupying most of the arable land in Northern Afghanistan, Turkmen and Uzbeks make up the majority of farmers across the nation. 

Since its takeover, the Taliban has extended its probe into Afghan daily life — one of the most underlooked yet damaging effects of which is the prohibition of eating traditions. Men and women no longer dine together, and music no longer rings out in public spaces. But it doesn’t stop the Afghan way of life: cooks continue to assemble meat skewers, children play outside, and customers still show up daily at Andkhoi’s doorstep. 

At the same time, Kabul is a place of brilliant minds. At the Kabul Public Library, Haidari Wujodi spent decades at his quiet window desk as a poet and librarian. Born Ghulam Haidar in 1939, he used literature to bridge the divine with the country’s harsh realities: “We don’t need philosophy for this — even a kid knows that we haven’t reached that common sense worthy of humanity,” he said

Despite only having a sixth-grade formal education, he dove into the world of books from his childhood home and an apprenticeship for Sufi Ashqari, a renowned mystic poet. Afterward, he held poetry readings twice every week for over thirty years, dissecting and explaining Rumi’s poetry verses in the context of philosophy and spirituality. In a country like Afghanistan, where the literacy rate has increased incrementally yet still hovers at 37 percent, these read-aloud sessions transcend language barriers and preserve oral tradition. 

Mr. Wujodi passed away in June 2020, from COVID-19. His corner of the library was “an oasis at the center of chaos,” journalist Mujib Mashal wrote. Even when government officials offered him more prestigious positions, such as leading an educational foundation, he refused, instead opting to stay at the Kabul Public Library and stop by the foundation’s office for an hour at the end of every day. 

Aside from writing his own poetry in Persian, Mr. Wujodi’s presence in the library represented a refuge for those from all walks of life: whether it was musicians seeking lyrics, students searching for dissertation sources, or even street vendors needing simple words of hope, he used the power of words and language as a force for unity. Now, his literary legacy remains, leaving behind a reminder of how important it is to not just write, but to listen. 

The Afghanistan that Mr. Wujodi bid farewell to is vastly different from the one today. The lasting impacts of COVID-19 and the Taliban’s tyranny meant that the role of books and literature in Afghan communities — the guiding creed of Wujodi’s life — has been severely undermined. Bookstores have closed. Storytelling and poetry reading sessions do not see any visitors. The Taliban has barred women and girls from seeking education. 

For writers and poets in Afghanistan, what else is there to do but write? What else is there to do except speak up and tell their stories? 

“As a writer, I had every reason to speak up,” wrote author and activist Homeira Qaderi in a 2022 essay. “As a woman, I knew that, by keeping quiet, I would have imprisoned not only myself but also those 11 other women who helped me in the cultural transition. I had no choice but to leave Afghanistan.”

Hayeri also no longer lives in Afghanistan permanently, writing in 2022 that she “hardly could remember how life was before the Taliban came back into power,” that “it was as if they had never left.” 

She now lives in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Part of leaving Afghanistan meant that I had to emotionally distance myself from the country. That I found very difficult, because we all had a little bit of hope that things would get better, but they never did,” she said. 

Afghanistan’s literary world is fragile — it is not the first time the nation has seen a mass exodus of novelists and intellectuals. In the early 1970s and 80s, the Soviet invasion had caused a severe brain drain as well: “Everyone went to some unknown corner of the world,” Qaderi added. “The earth just swallowed these war-weary writers; the scribbles of their pens dried up and vanished in the dust of tyranny.”

Still, many don’t have the resources or means to leave. For those who are trapped in the midst of the turmoil, remaining in the country becomes an act of resistance in itself. While evacuating is on the itinerary for many, others are staying by choice in order to preserve their homeland and its culture. A 2010 ethnography study found that in Afghanistan, an environment with high degrees of violence, poverty, and powerlessness, ordinary life ‘hurts.’ This hurt can become fused into the social experience, and in these cases, culture is integral in functioning both as an anchor for resilience and an anvil of pain. Navigating the uncertainty that comes with living in a conflict-ridden environment signals a shared hope that Afghanistan still has a path to peace. 

Hayeri’s work reminds us that countries in war and crisis are not characterized by it. Afghanistan is a country stricken by loss, but in the face of vicissitude, loss is combated with resilience. By documenting the mundane, we unravel Afghanistan’s silences. 

A camera usually stands for clarity and transparency, but depending on what setting it is in front of, it can also blur the lines between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, right and wrong. Critically, however, it invites us to consider how photojournalists can accurately represent the complexities of war through visual storytelling; thinking about the ethical questions is part of the necessary discourse that comes with progress.

Afghans are suffering, but they are more than people who suffer. Among doctors, cooks, teachers, poets, mothers, and fathers, they are warriors, too. 

“Instead, I stay behind and photograph daily life,” Hayeri continued. “The problem with just showing the war is that it’s an incredibly one-sided narrative and robs people of dignity. Anyone who has lived in a conflict zone knows that life must go on, so photography involves showing the fuller picture.”