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Afghanistan: Photographing a High-risk Country

Afghanistan: Photographing a High-risk Country

The MuCEM in Marseille features a splendid exhibition of contemporary Afghan artists. They share the experience of living in a country fraught with danger and terror. Two among them are photographers.

He smiles ear to ear when you meet him, but there is sadness in his eyes that speaks to the constant anxiety that accompanies life in Afghanistan. Now, seated at a café terrace in Marseille, nearly 3.5 thousand miles from his country, Mortzea Herati talks about his past. The son of a studio photographer who did identity photos, he had not planned on working with images. But when he was a teenager, the Talibans demanded that he—and not his father—take their photos, since, they believed, his vision was purer, more innocent. This is how he took his first photos. Gradually, he became aware of the power of the medium and began to work on personal projects.

The boys from the river. Series I 2016 © Morteza Herati

The river

“To live in Afghanistan means taking risks and being constantly in danger,” Herati replied when asked whether doing this job was too difficult while a civil war was going on and bombs could explode at any moment. “But although times are tough, I don’t really think about it on daily basis,” he added.

In order to understand his own origins better, he set out in search of traces of his childhood. He used to swim in a river, the Hari Rud, which skirts the southern edge of Morteza Herati’s hometown, Herat. As he was revisiting the place, he came across a band of little boys who, just like he used to, were swimming and playing on the riverbank. “Most of these kids work for a living,” explained the photographer. “These moments in the river are among the rare occasions when they can enjoy being children.”

Walls of Herat © Morteza Herati

The wall

Armed with his camera, Morteza Herati created two photographic series. One in 2016, in black and white, the other in color, in 2018. Each series shows boys leaping into water, delighted to be able to forget their everyday worries in the simple act of diving. “These places are incredibly peaceful,” recalled the photographer.

Morteza Herati is the author of yet another series featured further on in the exhibition. It shows a wall in the city of Herat. The wall used to be covered with religious precepts until the residents, in an act of rebellion, began to scribble slogans, phrases, symbols. Faced with the persistence of these acts of written protest—a proof of a growing revolt—the authorities decided to paint the wall white and thus erase the original religious inscriptions.

Police Officer 2010 © Farzana Wahidy


Morteza Herati’s photographs find echo in those by a female photographer, Farzana Wahidy. The latter documents the life of women, focusing on the experience of wearing the chadaree, as the burqa is known in Afghanistan, a robe which covers the entire body except for the eyes which are veiled with a grille. One image captures young women’s playful mien in a beauty parlor, while another, evoking the violence they suffer, shows a woman scarred with burns self-inflicted out of desperation. 

Farzana Wahidy is also interested in marriage, a key event in the lives of most Afghans who sometimes go into debt to stage a memorable ceremony. The photographer took a portrait, for example, of a couple just after the wedding ceremony. They seem almost defeated by what they just went through, and one may wonder if they married for love. Another young couple pose in the ruins of a bombed-out building—the former Palace of Peace…

Marriage 2008 © Farzana Wahidy

A nightmare

The images by these two photographers are displayed among the work of other artists selected by the exhibition curator, Guilda Chahverdi. She juxtaposes unsettling visions of a country permanently under threat. Being an artist means being a fighter, an idea that is expressed with intensity by all the artworks, whether using the medium of writing, video, performance, storytelling, or painting.

The work of the painter Mahdi Hamed Hassanzada is particularly thought-provoking. Once a resident of Kabul, prior to his forced exile to Istanbul and later the United States, the artist did a series of paintings permeated with terror of a life at the edge of abyss: one picture is haunted by a demon from Persian fairytales, another shows the tortured face of a nightmarish figure. These paintings are an honest and unmediated expression of the torment of a creator whose very freedom to create is fettered. 

Breathing 2007 © Farzana Wahidy

By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

Kharmohra: Art under fire in Afghanistan

November 22, 2019 to March 1, 2020

MuCEM, 1 Espl. J4, 13002 Marseille

Exhibition catalog published by Actes Sud

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