Farzana Wahidy loves to capture women on film. Armed with her camera, this 26-year-old photojournalist from Afghanistan finds inspiration in chronicling the lives of her country's vastly beleaguered but "hugely intriguing, wonderfully colourful and always stirring" women. As the first female Afghani photographer working for international wires like Agence France Presse and the recent winner of the prestigious Merit Award from the All Roads Film Project sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Wahidy says that for her photography is not just a medium of expression but "a responsibility since I know what it's like."
Born in Kandahar she was about six when her parents moved to Kabul where she grew up. "Everything I remember from my childhood is about war, about being afraid and moving," she says. But no childhood memory beats that of the night when the Taliban took control.
"I was 13 then," she recalls, "No one could sleep. Our house was near a police checkpoint. We had to move to the safety of my uncle's house. That night there were nearly 30 of us together. Later, as we walked back to our home I could feel the Talibs standing around giving us strange looks. I felt weird. My mother said that from now we would have to be careful about our headscarves."
Wahidy's subjects are usually those that were most affected by the rules of the Taliban regime. Her women are covered in swathes of cloth, their world seen through the crisscross of the 'burqa' (veil). That's why one of her most famous pictures shows a world view from inside the veil. But her exploration of the subject goes further. "I was working on a photo story for AP (Associated Press)," she says, "I was trying all angles and then I remembered wearing the 'burqa' (veil) myself. It was like being in prison. I shot it in front of a shopping centre and today that photo is symbolic of everything that I wanted and couldn't have."
The Talibanisation of Afghanistan had started when Wahidy was barely in her teens but she was sustained by memories of the time when women were free. "During the communist regime girls went to school. Women taught in universities and moved around without headscarves. One of my neighbours (a teenager then) had lots of lovely clothes. I still remember her dressing up to go out," she says.
For Wahidy coping was easier because her father was a liberal. "He was the most open minded person in the family. He believed in educating his daughters," she says proudly. That's how her rendezvous with the now famed secret schools of Afghanistan started. "When the Taliban came to power my mum died and my dad was put in prison. This was easy to do in those days. Anyone who didn't like you could say things like, 'he has guns in his house' and that was it. They beat father badly. He couldn't walk for months. When we heard they were looking to lock him up again, we knew we had to escape."
They ran away to their hometown in Kapisa and it seemed to Wahidy and her sisters that they were completely cut off from the world. It was a programme on BBC Radio that told them about these secret schools that were operating for girls. "We knew we had to get into one," she says, the fervour still evident in her voice, "but my dad refused. Then I got sick and the doctor said the only way to cure me was to make me happy. My cure lay in school."
But this was easier said than done. Travelling for 45 minutes to class (held in an apartment) was tough. They had to hide their books. If the Taliban saw what they were carrying they could be publicly flogged. The final straw was their dad losing his job. The girls now had to help at home. That's when they got the idea of opening their own school. At age 14, Wahidy became a teacher.
"We started teaching neighbourhood children. Several times the Talibs would get suspicious and come to check. The children would quickly hide their books. We would say we were learning the Koran. We were lucky no one sold us out. Everything like Math and English was taught. We would change our clothes and pretend to be different teachers to keep things lively," she says.
When the Taliban was finally overthrown Wahidy and everyone else around her rushed to do the various bridge courses that would help them carry on their education. That's when another blow fell. "My dad had no money to pay for us. We were a large family. So I started working again," she says.
One day at the institute she worked she heard some colleagues talking about a photojournalism course. The deadline was close and she filled out the form in pencil. She was accepted into the AINA Photojournalism Institute, Afghanistan's first photo agency. Of course, Wahidy's introduction to a camera was from her father, an avid photographer, but those photos were lost when a rocket destroyed her family home.
The scholarship she won to study in Canada exposed her to a whole new world. "Afghanistan isn't an easy place to work in. Here I was directly exposed to a market that appreciated your work. I was so pleased when I won the Gold award in the Portrait category in the College Photographer of the Year competition held by the University of Missouri [the competition is open to students from USA and Canada]," she says.
Today, in an environment where women in the media are often killed - the recent murder of Shaima Razayee popular television host being a case in point - Wahidy's images are more than just a record of a fraught Afghanistan.
After nearly four years in the field she says shooting suicide bombings and attacks are still tough. "When I see pieces of human flesh and torn limbs, I am reminded of the wars of my childhood. I hate that. That's when I feel I should take more photos to put into 'words' my feelings," she explains. She hasn't ever been to professional counselling but her best friends are always on hand whenever she feels like a chat.
Wahidy loves all her pictures. "Even the bad ones," she smiles. But some experiences are truly unforgettable. "I will never forget shooting in the burns ward of a hospital I was working in once. One woman who had set herself on fire was bought in. I wasn't allowed to go close to her but the smells, the sounds and the atmosphere will remain with me forever," she says.
Being a woman in this field comes with its own set of disadvantages. "Most men, especially in the conservative areas of Afghanistan, say I shouldn't be in this field," she says. But what keeps her going is the unbridled enthusiasm she gets from her women subjects. "Look at you they say," exclaims Wahidy, "They love the fact that I have a job and a life under my control."
Now that the Taliban have supposedly left, have things in her country gone back to normal? "What destroyed Afghanistan isn't just the Taliban," she articulates, "But yes they were the ones that have caused the most damage. It was during their time that disregard for human rights hit an all time high. They have caused so much harm that it will take years for things to get normal again."
See more of her work at http://www.farzanawahidy.com/.
By arrangement with WFS