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How to be a photographer in Afghanistan

Interview: Felix Koltermann / adDecember 1, 2015

German-Afghan photographer Lela Ahmadzai tells DW how she stays safe while working in Afghanistan and how she's molding a new image of the country. Her works are now on show in Berlin.

A photo by Lela Ahmadzai of a woman in Afghanistan playing soccer, for her photo series "A WOMAN'S GOAL", Copyright: Lela Ahmadzai
Image: Lela Ahmadzai (Ausschnitt)

DW: Pictures from Afghanistan in the German media mainly show war and violence. What image do you want to convey with your work?

Lela Ahmadzai: I've been working as a photographer in Afghanistan since 2003. I don't like to portray bloody scenes or women wearing a burqa. Such cliché pictures are frequently requested, but I avoid giving in to such expectations. Since I've experienced war myself, I know that bombs and missiles aren't exploding all the time. Through my long-term documentation, I can show a different picture while telling stories about people's lives.

In your exhibition "Undaunted: Four Women in Kabul" you portray four women from different social classes, including a baker. Why is it important to you to give her a voice?

The simple woman represents the majority of women. The changes experienced by her are minimal, meaning, for example, that her children can go to school now, or that she may still work as a baker. Unfortunately, Afghan women tend to be exploited for issues of power- and then dropped. I'm afraid that this is happening again with the withdrawal of NATO. The baker cannot get away from Afghanistan, because she does not earn enough money to flee. The other three protagonists would have the opportunity to leave the country because they come from the upper class. Some of them have already done that. But such women are a minority in society.

In addition to your own work, the Willy-Brandt-Haus is also showing pictures of your colleague Anja Niedringhaus, a German photographer who was killed in Afghanistan in 2014. What does her death mean to you?

I'm very sorry that another journalist has lost her life in Afghanistan. It is especially painful that Anja Niedringhaus was murdered in the very country that she was always enthusiastic about. Above all, the warmth of the Afghan people had impressed her. But unfortunately, being a journalist is dangerous. The policeman who shot her was sentenced to life in prison. At the opening of the exhibition, I asked Anja Niedringhaus's mother why she was against the death penalty. She told me that one shouldn't repay something evil with evil.

You travel to Afghanistan several times a year. What do you have to keep in mind when it comes to your work?

I need to pay attention to many things. There are, for example, completely different cultural customs. When I arrive at a new place, I have to stop and get permission. For me this is a bit easier, because I, unlike many colleagues, do not need a translator. Equally important are my behavior, how I'm dressed, and how I greet the elderly. Once access has been granted, the work goes smoothly, and I am allowed to come back, which facilitates more intensive work.

Does that mean that the challenge has more to do with culture rather than security?

The security question is of course always there. I never talk about my travel plans before I fly to the region. I don't post anything on Facebook, and I do not tweet. In short: absolutely low profile. I spend a lot of time in the region with friends and relatives. That is a good protection measure as, after more than 30 years of war, they have a good grasp of the situation.

Sometimes they say, "Lela, today you should not go anywhere." Although usually I don't know why. I simply accept their advice and trust them. Intuition is an important factor for security in Afghanistan.

You are co-owner of 2470media, a production company for multimedia storytelling. Is multimedia storytelling the only way to survive in the market?

The market has become more difficult, unfortunately. That concerns not only photojournalism. Multimedia stories do not necessarily sell better. Beautiful stories with interactive elements like, for example, in "The New York Times" or "Guardian" are ad-ons to attract readers. But they're not selling well and editors are not compensated for the costs. At 2470media we also accept commercial orders in order to finance research that would not bring in a lot of money. Working in a team is very important. That's the only way to implement large-scale projects like this exhibition.

Many of your pictures tend to be multimedia presentations on the Internet. How much importance do you attach to an exhibition?

I love exhibitions because the photographers play a more important role there. It may be nice to discover my pictures online or in a print magazine, but that's a fast-paced world. With exhibitions it's different - the viewers have made a conscious effort to come see the exhibition and take time to look at the pictures. That is great because in this way, my pictures are given more appreciation.

The exhibition "Undaunted: Four Women in Afghanistan" by Lela Ahmadzai can be seen until January 24, 2016, in the Willy-Brandt-Haus in Berlin right next to the exhibition "Beloved Afghanistan - Photographs by Anja Niedringhaus."