It was not so long ago that Fatimah Hossaini (no relation to Massoud Hossaini) was perched in Kabul’s cafes and driving through its streets with her friends before the Taliban took the city. Suddenly, the Parliament was overrun, flags were taken down, and the Taliban was going door to door looking for activists, journalists and NGO’s.
Hossaini is an Afghan artist, photographer, activist, curator and founder-president of the Mastooraat organization — a non profit activist platform for Kabul-based female artists. She left with a few of her journalist friends on an evacuation flight to Paris with just a suitcase, leaving her belongings, loved ones but also her dreams and unfinished photo collections behind. Her work has since been shown in galleries and publications in Europe, where she continues to push for the visibility of Afghan women and the nuances within their identities.
Fatimah is world-renowned and the winner of the Hypatia award — she dedicates her work to showing the beauty within her motherland of Afghanistan through the lense of women. “I’m alive!” she rejoiced in a TV interview on the Serbian news network N1, but the future and identity of the place she called home is being erased. IMAGO spoke to Hossaini about her work and her experience as a female Afghan activist and photographer.
Firstly, tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from exactly and how did you start focusing on photographing women in Afghanistan?
I was born in Tehran and I did one bachelor in Industrial Engineering and another in photography at the University of Tehran, and decided to return back to my motherland Afghanistan in 2018. I have worked and advocated on women and refugee rights on national and international platforms. I also taught in the photography department at Kabul university for almost one year and now I am working on my first photo book about unseen portraits of Afghan women in Afghanistan.
I always love to capture different aspects of women’s life and women are always at the center of my works — I love to reflect their beauties through my photos. Women of Afghanistan are mostly overlooked and their voices and faces are underestimated. When I was looking and searching to explore where I belong, I saw there are so many things about women in Afghanistan that the world never sees.
How do you see photography as a form of activism, and what do you hope to accomplish with your work?
The idea of the photographer as an activist is an appealing one. It means that photographs really matter, that they can lead to changes in representation, attitudes and policy. It transforms the photographer from a shutterbug to a prophet, someone with real vision and moral standing in the world, someone with power.
I know that the power of photographs is limited and is part of a longer process where politicians, writers, community figures or lawyers play a greater role. But I wanted to bring a little change at least through my lens. I tried a lot to change the cliched ideas about women of Afghanistan with Burqas and restrictions which the media always cover, and I always try to show and capture the unseen portrait of women in Afghanistan — To talk about their strength, power, liberty and beauties.
Photos have the power to change people’s minds and wake people up to things they aren’t aware of or are ignoring. They can make people feel a certain way, or just care a whole lot more depending on what they are used for. Photography is a really important tool.
Where were you during the recent evacuations? How have they impacted you and your close friends and family?
I was in Kabul, Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. It was such a fearful and heartbreaking time and I couldn’t imagine everything changed so fast. I was supposed to leave on Monday 16 of August but Kabul fell just one day before on the 15 of August and I got stuck in Afghanistan when everything stopped.
It was such a hard time and I think we, all the people of Afghanistan, were shocked and were in panic. My family doesn’t live in Afghanistan but they were panicking when I got stuck there and they couldn’t imagine the Taliban taking over Afghanistan again. Now I could leave for Paris with a French evacuation plane with some other artists and journalists. But I left everything behind in Afghanistan. My home, my photographs, my studio, my dreams and goals and whatever I and my generation worked for for over two decades.
You exhibited photos in 2018 in Kabul and around the world in a series called Beauty Amid War, which is now circulating in places like France and Italy. You also had an ongoing series called Pearl in the Oyster before the evacuations. How do you think the current situation will impact your work photographing women in Afghanistan?
Beauty Amid war was my personal project that I have been working on for over 6 years and of the most important part of it was Pearl In The Oyster, which was my first and now last photo series that I took from women in Afghanistan.
It was supposed to be published as my first photo book and I had only 5 more portraits to finish my photo collection and book when the Taliban took over Kabul and I was forced to leave Afghanistan. I don’t know when I will go back to my country again and if those women who stood in front of my camera will be in Afghanistan. This part of my work is unfinished and everything about continuing it is gone now. Leaving my photo project behind was one the hardest parts of fleeing from Afghanistan.
What is to you the most important take-away from this moment, especially for those on the outside?
It is still so hard for me to deal with this situation. I can’t believe what happened in my country. Taliban who killed us over 20 years ago, who killed my student at Kabul university, my colleagues in the media and so many innocent civilians are going to be in power. Taliban fundamental ideology never changed and they abandoned everything good in Afghanistan. The freedom of speech and the rights of women are the most vulnerable rights which disappeared once the Taliban took over Afghanistan. We have lost a great human resource in Afghanistan. The new generation after graduating from the most prestigious universities in the world came back to Afghanistan to build it, to bring changes and peace, but now most of them have left.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I just hope one day soon everything in Afghanistan will get back to normal and we all go back and live in peace.
Thank you to Maryam Majd for introducing us to Fatimah. Interview by Sofia Bergmann for our Afghanistan Stories: A Short Series. Fatimah Hossaini is a is world-renowned and the winner of the Hypatia award.