France 24: How did you get into photography?
Zalmaï: It was no accident. I had dreamt of it since I was a child. When I was 15, a war broke out in my country. It was 1980, and the Red Army had invaded Afghanistan. I had to flee with my brother, without my parents. Several weeks later, I was in Switzerland, where I have an aunt. It was there that I studied photography. By 1989, I was an independent photographer. Today, I still am.
F24: At the Visa photo festival, you exhibited a series of photos of Afghanistan. What were you trying to convey?
Z.: I began working on that in 2001, after the fall of the Taliban. I returned to Afghanistan with the troops of Massoud [Ahmad Shah Massoud, a hero of the Afghan resistance]. The Afghans were the heroes of the 80s. The whole world used the country to stamp out the Red Army. Afghanistan is the cemetery of the empire. The Russians evacuated in 1989. At the time, the world lost interest. This indifference is still damaging our country today.
Afghanistan became a pawn at the mercy of greater powers, destroyed by civil war. It is a poor and mountainous country, but the geography is interesting from a strategic point of view. From 1996 to 2001, the people suffered while the world laughed. Until what happened in New York. Today, 42 nations take part in the fight in Afghanistan because of the neglect of 1989.
F24: Your exhibition is called “Promise and Lie”. What does the name refer to?
Z.: The international community promised between 5 billion and 6 billions dollars to rebuild the nation, which has a population of 25 million. The Americans spent 167 million dollars. But if they had given just a third of that from the outset, we would not have been in this situation. Afghanistan is a dying body. How can you reach the heart of a dying body?
F24: What might come out of the conflict?
Z.: The solution cannot be a military one. If we don’t address the people’s suffering, we will not win this war. It’s an endless war, it could last 40 years. The world has to change the way it sees Afghanistan. The Visa photo festival gave me a change to pass on my message: stop sending troops! Humanise the conflict. The West has to see beyond its military, strategic and financial interests.
As for the elections, I refused to cover them. If 30% of the population can’t vote, it has no legitimacy. Karzai will probably win, even though he’s already had plenty of time to change things in the country. But he hasn’t. The elections are a farce of democracy.
What is your treatment of the conflict as a photographer?
Z.: From 2001 to 2005, I worked on building hope among Afghans. There are more Afghan exiles than there are from any other country in the world. Five million of them have returned. To me, this is proof that they want peace; that they want to reconstruct the nation. But the international community didn’t know how to take advantage of this urge to return and fix the country. Since 2005 , hope has begun to fade away, little by little. I work without hope, and thus without colour. Afghanistan is losing its colours. The war has stolen them.
I capture the beauty of suffering. That’s the art of photography. It has to be beautiful to make people want to turn the page. I wanted to tell the story of a renaissance, and also of how it will be buried.
- Eclipse, Umbrage, New York, 2002.
- Return. Afghanistan, Aperture/UNHCR, Geneva and New York, 2004.
- Silent Exodus: Portraits of Iraqi Refugees in Exile, Aperture/UNHCR, New York, 2008.