Visual Essay

Inside a Different Kabul

Seven portraits from post-Taliban Afghanistan

by
• 771 words

When the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, Turkish-born French photographer Ahmet Sel settled into Kabul for three months to shoot portraits. At first he left his camera in his room because he didn’t want to be mistaken for a photojournalist. “People would have been afraid,” Sel said recently from his studio in Paris. Instead, he spent his days wandering the dusty streets and alleys of the war ravaged capital, getting to know the city and allowing locals to get to know him. “To understand the light, the climate, and the people, I walked a great deal among the ruins of the city, down little lanes in the working-class quarters. I observed the bazaar merchants, I listened to the Imam of the mosque speak of war; the war veterans evoke the memory of the resistance leader, Commandant Massoud. I became a fan of green tea, strongly recommended when it is hot, but also in winter when the snow falls on Kabul.”

Sel was frustrated by the generalized images of Afghans being exported by news media. He wanted to get into the guts and marrow of individual struggles, the spiritual architecture of post-war interior lives. How did people here perceive the future? How did they move beyond the emotional debris of deceased relatives, lost jobs, and bombed-out homes? Sel forged dozens of relationships that “ran deeper than photography.” He invited his new friends for a portrait session and together they would select an environment that was personally significant; a garden or room, or a familiar street. Sel provided minimal direction during the shoot, treating each portrait as a partnership. “Life can be normal,” he says, “and then in one moment everything can change into a nightmare. I believe some of the people I photographed killed others in the war, and many had friends or family killed, or were maimed. But we can permit optimism. These lives are larger than catastrophes.”

Photograph by Ahmet Sel
Shoukriya Zaladgoul is the ten-year-old daughter of a government officer, and a grade six student at the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan school. She’s an avid reader of Afghan literature, and she told Sel that her dream is to become a doctor so that she can “take care of people for nothing.” Her best friend’s name is Nazanine.
Photograph by Ahmet Sel
Farez installed this primitive Ferris-like wheel on a vacant lot in the Russian-built Micrayon quarter of Kabul. He fashioned the seats from scrap metal and pieces of wood. He calls his carnival attraction “a trip toward the stars,” and charges about four cents for a whirl.
Photograph by Ahmet Sel
Sabira Rahmani is a graduate of the Kabul Institute of Fine Arts, and is the deputy director of the Afghan National Gallery in Kabul. During the Taliban’s rule she was forced to leave the gallery. After their fall, she returned to find canvases torn up, hundreds of frames broken, and statues smashed to shards.
Photograph by Ahmet Sel
Mariam Salihi worked for twelve years in the office of Ariana Airlines, the Afghan national carrier. Since her husband’s death eight years ago, she has been living in a small room with her eight-year-old son, Massoud, in the suburbs of Kabul. During the reign of the Taliban she lost her job and sold everything she owned in order to survive.
Photograph by Ahmet Sel
Zilgai Tajahi is a kite merchant. On average, a kite from his shop costs two dollars. His top-of-the-line kite sells for five dollars and can reach altitudes of two thousand metres. He is a father of three, and has always dreamed of being an airline pilot. He was forced to close his shop when the Taliban outlawed kites, but he continued to sell them illegally to children.
Photograph by Ahmet Sel
Vahidullah is a twenty-two-year-old nurse at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul. All hospital personnel, from the night watchman to the chief surgeon, have war-inflicted handicaps. Vahidullah lost his left arm at the age of six. He was picking up what he thought was a toy in the street. It turned out to be a Soviet mine.
Photograph by Ahmet Sel
Noureddine Shamsi is a father of eight and was a fighter in the Afghanistan resistance against the Soviet occupation. From the stoop of his flower shop, Shamsi remembers the crowds of Russian soldiers, and shells exploding right in front of his door. Because most of his customers are women, during Taliban rule he lost almost all of his trade.