Farzana Wahidy is only 26 but she’s had a storied life. As the first female Afghan photojournalist to work for international wire services, she taps into her own difficult years sneaking a secret education under the Taliban.
KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–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 colorful and always stirring” women.
She is the first female Afghan photographer working for international wires such as Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press.
Her work earned her the 2008 prestigious Merit Award from the All Roads Film Project, sponsored by the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.
Wahidy says that for her photography is a “responsibility, since I know what it’s like.”
Born in Kandahar, she was about 6 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 said.
But no childhood memory beats the one of the night when the Taliban took control. “I was 13 then,” she recalled. “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 often women affected by the Taliban regime who are covered in swathes of cloth. She sometimes shoots photos from behind a burka headcovering, showing the world as seen within its criss-cross strips of cloth.
“I was working on a photo story for AP,” she said. “I was trying all angles and then I remembered wearing the burka myself. It was like being in prison. I shot it in front of a shopping center and today that photo is symbolic of everything that I wanted and couldn’t have.”
Memories Before the Taliban
The Talibanisation of Afghanistan began when Wahidy was barely in her teens, but she was sustained by memories of the time before then.
“During the communist regime girls went to school. Women taught in universities and moved around without headscarves. One of my neighbors (a teenager then) had lots of lovely clothes. I still remember her dressing up to go out,” she said.
Wahidy was helped by having an encouraging father who was also an avid photographer. She grew up watching him work.
“He was the most open-minded person in the family. He believed in educating his daughters,” she said proudly.
That’s how her rendezvous with the now-famed secret schools of Afghanistan began.
“When the Taliban came to power my mom 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,” she recalled.
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. A program on BBC Radio informed them of secret schools for girls.
“We knew we had to get into one,” she said. “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.”
A Risky Venture
It wasn’t easy. On their way to the apartment where the classes were held they had to hide their books. If the Taliban saw what they were carrying they could be publicly flogged. Then her father lost his job as a solider in the Communist Part Army that governed Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover. 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 neighborhood 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 Quran. 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 said.
When the Taliban was finally overthrown, Wahidy and many of her contemporaries rushed to take various catch-up 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 said.
She wound up hearing about a photojournalism course. She applied and was accepted into the AINA Photojournalism Institute, Afghanistan’s first photo agency.
Then she won a scholarship that paid her way to attend a school in Canada and a whole new world opened up.
An Appreciative Market
“Afghanistan isn’t an easy place to work. Here I was directly exposed to a market that appreciated your work,” she said.
She submitted a photo to a college photography contest open to students in the United States and Canada and won the top prize in portraiture.
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 said.
She hasn’t ever been to professional psychological counseling to help her cope with what she has survived and keeps seeing. She says her best friends are always on hand whenever she wants to 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 said.
Being a woman in this field comes with its own set of disadvantages, she says, as most men, especially in the conservative areas of Afghanistan, say she shouldn’t be a photographer. But what keeps her going is the unbridled enthusiasm she gets from her female subjects.
“‘Look at you,’ they say,” said Wahidy, “They love the fact that I have a job and a life under my control.”
Check out Farza Wahidy’s Web site: http://www.farzanawahidy.com
Source: Women’s eNews