This story was included in our November 2023 issue, devoted to some of the best writing The Walrus has published. You’ll find the rest of our selections here.

The background details in Ahmet Sel’s 2002 portrait series tell their own stories: a poster on a school wall warning children of potential mines, a flower shop in Kabul named Ittifaq—unity. One of the portrait subjects, Sabara Rahmani, is photographed among the ruins of the Afghan National Gallery, where she was the deputy director at the time. She still works there as a manager. Over the past two decades, she helped resurrect the gallery and even toured exhibits abroad. Since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, she and her colleagues have had to hide art that authorities might deem blasphemous, including work by women.

An artist herself, Rahmani has destroyed her own paintings to keep a low profile, but she tries to quietly support other women in the field. She’s seen the country’s potential in the past twenty years and hopes the world will try to help again. One day, she might even return to her art. “Why not?” she says. “Art is my love and art is my wish.”—Soraya Amiri, Journalists for Human Rights fellow, and Samia Madwar, senior editor, November 2023 issue

When the Taliban fell in Afghanistan in 2001, Turkish-born French photographer Ahmet Sel settled in 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 in an interview before this story was first published. 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.”

Black and white photograph of a young girl wearing a loose head scarf and dark clothing sitting on a metal bench in a classroom with stone walls.
Shoukriya Zaladgoul, ten years old when Sel photographed her, was the daughter of a government officer and a grade six student at the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan school. An avid reader of Afghan literature, she told Sel that her dream was to become a doctor so that she could “take care of people for nothing.” Under Taliban rule, girls are now prohibited from going to school past grade six.
Black and white photograph of a young man, standing outside with his arms crossed, in front of a small Ferris wheel made of wood and scrap metal.
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 called his carnival attraction “a trip toward the stars” and charged about four cents for a whirl. Under the current regime, such informal entertainment sites would likely be forbidden.
Black and white photograph of a seated woman wearing a head covering and dark clothing. Behind her is a tall, disorganized heap of damaged artwork and empty frames.
Sabara Rahmani was the deputy director of the Afghan National Gallery in Kabul. During the Taliban’s first reign, she was forced to leave the gallery. After their fall in 2001, she returned to find canvases torn up, hundreds of frames broken, and statues smashed to shards.
Black and white photograph of a woman wearing a head covering and leather jacket over dark clothing. She is behind a desk covered in paperwork and in front of a wall painted with artwork of an airplane in the sky.
Mariam Salihi worked for twelve years in the office of Ariana Airlines, the Afghan national carrier. During the first reign of the Taliban, she lost her job and sold everything she owned in order to survive. Now, she is back at work at the airline, and she says she is happy with her current job.
Black and white photograph of a man wearing a dark suit. He is sitting in a market stall decorated with kite-making tools and designs.
Zilgai Tajahi was a kite merchant. On average, a kite from his shop cost $2. His top-of-the-line kite sold for $5 and could reach altitudes of 2,000 metres. A father of three, he 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.
Black and white photograph of a seated man wearing light clothing, a sleeve rolled up to reveal a prosthetic arm with a hook on the end. He is in a room with a bookcase and a patterned curtain.
Vahidullah was a twenty-two-year-old nurse at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul when Sel photographed him. All hospital personnel, from the night watchman to the chief surgeon, had 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.
Black and white photograph of a bearded man wearing a hat, sitting in front of a flower shop. There are potted rose bushes to his left and right.
Noureddine Shamsi had been a fighter in the Afghanistan resistance against the Soviet occupation. From the stoop of his flower shop, Shamsi remembered the crowds of Russian soldiers and shells exploding right in front of his door. Because most of his customers were women, during Taliban rule, he lost almost all of his trade.
Ahmet Sel
Ahmet Sel is a photographer based in Istanbul.