Kiana Hayeri has been living and working in Afghanistan for over eight years. Her photography focuses primarily on women and girls living in war conditions and in Islamic society. She is particularly concerned with capturing alternative images of people’s daily lives, documenting the impact of decades of conflicts, while also drawing attention to the stories, strength and dignity of the individual. Since August last year, when Western troops withdrew and the Taliban returned to power, the situation for women has worsened. After more than a year, it has long become apparent that numerous promises have been broken, human rights have been disregarded, and the conditions for women in particular are more devastating than ever. This makes pictures from the country all the more important. Despite the tougher circumstances, Hayeri wants to continue working as a photographer in support of women’s rights.
Could you briefly describe your LOBA series?
My work focuses on Afghan women; the same women who were put at the center of the war efforts to liberate them shortly after the Americans invaded Afghanistan. Today, many of these women feel that they have been abandoned and left behind. While I have covered the front lines and dramatic events of war, I have also tried to capture a different and alternative narrative for America’s longest war. The consequence of a single narrative is that it not only robs people of their dignity, but it impedes our ability to have equal compassion. Afghanistan is a place of extremes, the best and the worst of humanity live side by side. Fear and courage, despair and hope, life and death coexist.
Female inmates breakfast together in their rooms, during the month of Ramadan, with the food provided by the prison. Herat, May 26, 2019. After the fall of Afghanistan, the prison was taken over by the Taliban. Prisoners who have made it out, recently, have told human rights organisations about torturing. The safe haven has been transformed into a hell
A group of high school students walk a two-hour journey, everyday, through Fouladi Valley, to go to the closest school to their village. Bamian, September 3, 2019. The Taliban have now closed all secondary schools for girls, indefinitely
You were in Kabul last year also, and had to witness the return of the Taliban.
Yes, last summer we all watched in disbelief as 20 years of progress in freedom of expression, women’s rights and education were wiped away in 20 days, as the country rapidly fell into the hands of the Taliban. Today all those gains have been replaced with more restrictions, fear and uncertainty. Afghanistan is still a country with open wounds that is struggling to heal.
How did the title of the series come about?
The title was an expression that I picked up once from an Afghan therapist, while working on a story about the state of mental health amongst women in Afghanistan.
Which images did you choose for your LOBA series?
In this portfolio, you’ll find stories of women who found that murdering their husbands was their only way out of domestic violence, and who now, though in prison, have found peace. Stories of girls from some of the most remote regions who walk for hours, come rain or shine, to go to school. Stories of mothers mourning the loss of their teenage daughters who were brutally killed as they left their school in western Kabul. The story of a woman, whose four sons took different paths in life as they joined opposing sides of the conflict. She carries an open wound on her throat that doctors believe is caused by grief.
Afghan girls patrol, during an ambush scenario, at Marshal Fahim Qasim Military Academy, north-west of Kabul. February 20, 2019. Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, most women officers and soldiers were removed from service. Many have now gone underground
How have you experienced the last few years in Afghanistan?
That’s a very difficult question to answer; because I think those of us who live there had a different experience year after year. Our day-to-day life in 2014 was different from 2016, different from 2019, 2021 and today.
How has your work changed? What is no longer possible today?
Geographically speaking, I think it’s possible to travel everywhere, but people are just hiding in fear and often reluctant to speak. Also in the last month or so, the Islamic Emirate has gone the extra mile to make it very difficult to work. They’re not brave enough to cut our access, but they make sure they waste so much of your energy, time and resources that we give up.
How do you get in touch with the people you portray?
My local colleagues, and I myself, have built up a network over the years I’ve lived there. We just reach out, make phone calls, talk to people to find whoever we have to find. Sometimes you just have to show up in a place and hope for the best. It’s truly teamwork though. Some of the people I work with leave an impression on me, and those are the ones that I try to keep in touch with the most. Either through direct phone or Whatsapp.
Fakhria, her daughter Foroohar, and her friend Masooma wear masks for fun, and dance at the wedding anniversary of a friend. Kabul, February 18, 2021. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Fakhria, who often criticises the Taliban and stands up for women, had to flee the country
What responsibility do you see for yourself as a photojournalist?
With so many images created everyday, I think our role as photojournalists has changed. I remember Stephan Mayes once told me (paraphrasing a little here): the age of single images has come to an end. It is now a stream of images that builds narrative and tells stories. I think, as photojournalists, we have to be more thoughtful and form those streams of images, in order to change the public’s perception and change minds.
What does the LOBA Award mean to you personally?
It truly means a lot to me to receive it; especially as the jury mentioned that my commitment to Afghanistan was admirable and outstanding. I hope the award and the exhibition bring some attention back and keep Afghans, especially Afghan women, in the news a bit longer. I hope my photos help bridge the gap and humanize these people who have been stripped of everything they had.
Kiana Hayeri was born in 1988, in Tehran, Iran, where she grew up, before emigrating to Toronto, Canada, as a teenager. In 2021, she received the Robert Capa Gold Medal for her Where Prison Is a Kind of Freedom series, documenting the lives of Afghan women in Herat Prison. In 2020, she received the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award; and became the sixth recipient of the James Foley Award for Conflict Reporting. Hayeri is a Senior TED Fellow and works regularly for The New York Times and National Geographic. She lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram channel.
All images of the LOBA series and further information can be found on the LOBA webpage.
The LOBA catalogue 2022 also contains all images and an interview with the photographer.