Kiana Hayeri | Life on the ground in Afghanistan

Kiana Hayeri in conversation with Adam Ferguson

September 19, 2021In-Conversation

A Photographer’s Life on the Ground as Afghanistan Faces an Uncertain Future

Pictures by Kiana Hayeri
Interview by Adam Ferguson

Written as of August, 2021

Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Over the last week, Afghanistan has slipped closer to returning under the full control of the Taliban. Insurgents have overrun nine provincial capitals across the country in a major military offensive, a devastating setback for the Afghan government. After almost two decades of military intervention in Afghanistan, the U.S. has virtually completed its withdrawal. 

I chatted with Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photojournalist living in Kabul about what daily life looks like, and how long she thinks she can continue her work there.

Afghan soldiers inside one of the trenches built after their base was overrun by the Taliban, February 2020.

Adam Ferguson: Everything feels so urgent right now, especially from afar with the U.S withdrawal, the increasing control of the Taliban. What’s it like on the ground in Kabul?

Kiana Hayeri: The landscape is changing very fast. I find it a little difficult to follow. You go to sleep, you wake up the following day, and new districts and towns have fallen into the hands of the Taliban. It becomes very difficult to plan any trips outside of Kabul—everyone wants to leave. There is a mass exodus happening out of Afghanistan. I think Afghans were always itching to go, but now the level of desperation, it’s incredible.

Adam: After two decades of U.S. intervention, it’s hard to fathom.

Kiana: Some of these districts have always been relatively peaceful; the Taliban have never controlled them. It’s heartbreaking talking to people I’m close with in those districts. The fear they’re experiencing—especially for a few women that I know there that I’ve worked with—they haven’t left their houses in weeks and weeks.

Adam: You’ve had six trips canceled now. I’m presuming this was because the security situation isn’t good enough?

Kiana: Five of them because of security, one of them because the subjects disappeared.

Adam: I’ve read stories where people are going across the border to Pakistan and there are long lines at embassies for visas. It sounds incredibly desperate.

Kiana: At the passport office the line goes around and around and around the buildings. You used to be able to get a passport within five to 10 days. Now the wait time is one or two months because the office is so overwhelmed.

Two days after powerful triple explosions outside a high school in western Kabul killed at least 86 people, most teenage girls, families and friends visit the gravesite. May 2021.

Adam: And last week there was a car bomb attack on the minister of defense’s home? Right near your house?

Kiana: 350 meters from my new apartment. It was the guest house of the minister of defense. My window is near the attack site. it was really intense. I experienced it from the 7th floor, which was a brand new experience for me. I was out of the shower, watching outside, and there was this white light that went on. I saw the light first and then, within fractions of a second, the sound. It felt like the window actually moved to my face and went back. We all ran out—I have two other housemates, both journalists—to figure out what was going on. I counted four explosions, maybe there were more, and the gunfire went on till about midnight.

Adam: Did any of your windows smash in?

Kiana: We have blast film installed on our windows. But our neighbors, their windows are broken, so we were lucky. We used to have a lot of these attacks and we were used to it.

Adam: Can you tell me how you ended up finding yourself in Afghanistan?

Kiana: I first came here in 2013. I was trying to make a break into this industry—in Iran but it was very difficult. Friends of ours, Graeme Smith, May Jeong, they convinced me to move. I’ve been here ever since, seven years.

Adam: You have been covering the war, and more importantly, the civilians and the women amidst the war.

Kiana: I do cover the actual war when I’m on assignment. But the stories that really matter are the stories of people, human stories, because that’s what puts a face to something.

A young soldier hugs her mother before she returns home to Kabul. June 2020.

Adam: You’re Iranian-born but then emigrated to Canada?

Kiana: Correct.

Adam: How old were you when you moved to Canada?

Kiana: We landed in Canada when I was 13. Between 13 and 16, we went back and forth. We left my brother in Canada. I went back and forth, and then when I was 16, my parents left me with my brother in Canada. My mom was diagnosed with cancer, so she came back for her treatment, then my dad finally moved at some point.

Adam: Why did your parents move you from Iran to Canada when you were 13?

Kiana: My parents applied for immigration in 1995, so I would have been seven at the time. They were granted immigration in 2002 when I was 13, so that’s when we moved to Canada. For better opportunities, you know? A better education for us. We didn’t have any problems in Iran, nothing financial or political or anything. Better quality of life, I would say.

Adam: Then you studied photography in Canada, or you studied fine art?

Kiana: I went to a high school like an art school, then to a photo school, a polytechnic slash fine art school. I knew from grade 11 that this is what I wanted to do.

Adam: While you were studying photography, did you know that you kind of wanted to return to West and South Asia to work?

Kiana: When I was in my third year of university, I returned to Iran in the summer and started photographing my childhood friends. I didn’t know what I was doing. I took this project back to Canada, and it received a lot of attention. So I went back to my graduating year and did another story about Iranian teenage girls who were immigrating out of Iran on their own, and I followed these girls around the world. But I’m very glad that I moved to Afghanistan and that I moved away from Iran.

Adam: Afghanistan has been photographed extensively pre-Taliban, but not much during the Taliban. After the U.S. invasion in 2001, there was a real saturation of images from a large contingent of photojournalists who flocked to the country during the invasion, and then the troop surge in 2009. Towards the end of my time working there consistently, around 2011, I struggled to see what I could add to the conversation or take pictures as an outsider that felt relevant.

How do you process that? What kind of things are you looking for to tell stories? What kind of images are you making?

Kiana: I think the fact that I speak the language and blend in gives me access that a lot of people don’t have. I’m able to go into somebody’s house and stay there for half a day, sometimes 24 hours, without needing anyone else with me. I’m a woman, so I can walk into pretty much all of the rooms in a house and take photos when I can. That has been very, very crucial to the work I produce.

I’m also so exhausted, Adam. I’m steps away from burning out, so I don’t know what gets me going at this moment.

During Ramadan, the inmates at Herat Women’s Prison break their fast together. May 2019.

Adam: I totally understand. I started working in Afghanistan in 2008 when it felt like such a different time in Kabul. Even after the U.S. troop surge in 2009 I was able to walk through the old city in Kabul, and people would invite me into their homes for tea. Travel outside of Kabul was relatively easy. The military embed policy was very open, so you could always visit remote areas with the assistance of the military or embed with specific military units. But none of that feels possible at the moment. Working in Kabul now, do you feel safe? Can you walk around the old city right now and blend in?

Kiana: With a camera or just as a person?

Adam: I guess you can blend in because of your Iranian heritage, and you said you speak Dari. What about with a camera?

Kiana: It has nothing to do with the Taliban, but the crime has gone up. People get robbed for much, much, much less. One thing that I feel has changed is the amount of harassment that I receive on the street. I fall into a funny, in-between state of being a foreigner and being an Afghan. I look Afghan, but with the way I walk, people definitely can tell there is something different.

I receive a lot of harassment, and a friend recently explained it to me. Millions of people have moved from provinces because of the war, drought, and lack of employment outside Kabul. These people don’t have the culture of living in a city and are not as accepting as Kabulians towards women.

It also makes me think about what could happen to the city if the Taliban return. People with very conservative thoughts are encouraged to express their dislike of you as a woman walking on the street. It’s very much the same thing that happened in America with Trump when he gave a platform to white supremacists.

Adam: Yeah, that does make sense. The climate makes all the extreme voices feel more comfortable voicing their opinions.

Can you tell me a bit about why you gravitate towards women’s stories in Afghanistan, and how you tell those stories?

Kiana: I think it’s very natural. I know the access that I have is unique. I know because I’m a woman, because I speak the language, because I, even superficially, share the culture with them. I also believe for the past year, two years, maybe even more, I’m the only foreign female photographer, full-time, based here. So a lot of assignments that come my way are women’s stories, it’s not like I specifically gravitated towards it. But I know the access that I have is unique so I definitely use it.

Adam: It was always so frustrating as a male photographer working in Afghanistan because there was a whole world that I couldn’t enter. Do you want to tell me the story about the women who were in prison for killing their husbands?

Kiana: In 2016 I was doing a story for Harper’s Magazine about single mothers. I was inside the prison because I had heard there are women who keep kids under the age of five with them and they raise them as single mums. While I was interviewing a woman, a conversation came up, and another woman from the other side of the room yelled at me. “Do you think I have anything else to lose? I’ve lost my kids, I’ve lost my life, I’ve killed my husband, I don’t have anything else to lose.” That stayed with me.

It was, to this day, one of the most surprising stories I worked on. You go in with some perception of what a prison should look like, or how people in prison should behave. It was the opposite of all of that. These women were much freer, much happier inside the prison. The prison doesn’t really look like a prison. It was actually a bit of a struggle because my editors were like, we need some elements that show this is a prison. I was like, well that element doesn’t really exist. So yeah, that’s how this story came together. I think in total I did three trips to Herat and a total of 15 days and one sleepover.

 A grieving family walks behind a car carrying the body of a young girl. May 2021.

Adam: Kiana, it’s getting dangerous there—or at least it feels that way from where I’m sitting. Have you thought about leaving?

Kiana: Not because it’s getting dangerous. Living here full time is exhausting; the logistics of sometimes not having electricity, not having water. I’ve been saying this is my last year, this is my last year. I still want to cover Afghanistan but I don’t think I want to live here full time anymore. I need those time-outs. I want to leave, but it’s not related to the country becoming more dangerous. I made the decision way before that.

Adam: I totally relate as a photographer. When you’ve been covering something so intensely for so long, you need rest from it. I respect the hell out of you. It doesn’t look like you’re going to get a rest though. Are you going to stay and ride this out over the next couple of months?

Kiana: I will have to leave in October for a little bit, but then who knows? Let’s see where the country goes, things are changing so fast. But I might decide to pack my stuff and move into a neighboring country and then end up coming in and out. But it’s a very historical moment, for sad reasons. For me it’s emotional more than anything else, Kabul is home. The people around me that I will eventually have to leave behind, are family to me.

Adam: It’s incredibly sad. It really hit home when Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui was killed. How do you cope as somebody that’s taking similar risks in this environment? As a war photographer, when do you decide to leave? And how do you decide to stay?

Kiana First of all, I really dislike being labeled as a war photographer. I’m a photographer. I’m a visual storyteller who happens to be in a country that is at war.

Adam: And your work reflects that. It’s nuanced and intimate. Perhaps that is what a modern-day war photographer is, seeing the multi-dimensionality of conflict. It’s what happens behind closed doors and in hard situations, which feels more important with storytelling.

Kiana: How old are you if you don’t ask me asking?

Adam: I’m 42.

Kiana: I’m 33. I look at your generation here in Afghanistan; they were doing embeds back to back, even starting from 2002—going with foreign troops to places and showing only one side of the conflict. My generation finds the whole concept of the embed wrong. It’s very controlled; it’s very one-dimensional.

There is a considerable gap between my generation and the generation before me who was covering Afghanistan. What are your thoughts on that? Did you ever question what you were doing or if you were adding anything to the narrative? Or were you just doing it because everybody else was doing it?

Adam: I definitely did question it. I questioned it every single time I did one. The way I justified doing embeds to make work was that it got me access to parts of the country that I could never get access to alone—and with that access, I could often photograph civilians.

I’m thinking about one embed I did with the U.S. Marines where there was a civilian casualty; they mortared a house and killed a young girl. I was able to document that on a military embed, and I was able to publish that work in Time magazine. Part of that process enabled me to do work that was important and helped us understand the war.

Of course, the flip side was that I was photographing American soldiers most of the time. I was still participating in a narrative that supported the war. I felt like there was no way around it, and that was why I stopped doing those embeds in the end.

It was complicated, and it’s an excellent question to ask me. It’s also a tough one. I think a lot of work that got made was still valid—we still needed to understand what the American perspective on the ground was—but you felt like an invader. Have I answered your question?

Afghan soldiers Salma, 20, and Habibullah, 20, train during an ambush scenario on the outskirts of Kabul. February 2019.

Kiana: Yes you did, and thanks for your honesty.

Adam: I had a lot of stress and trauma to deal with after doing those embeds—not as much as the soldiers or many civilians, obviously. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a few friends would point it out. After I came out of trips to Afghanistan, I would drink excessively. I was trouble. I needed extremity even when I got home. It was difficult to have stable relationships because I would come back and be in sixth gear, you know? And it takes time to acclimatize and be used to a normal life without the things you’ve talked about—the loss, the stress, the heightened awareness. It took me a few years to unpack that stuff; it was difficult.

Kiana: How are you doing now?

Adam: I’m good now. I think there are parts of me that will be forever changed by the work I’ve done. It wouldn’t be normal if that weren’t the case. I said no to a lot of work. The Arab Spring happened after I stopped doing all those embeds, and I was offered a couple of assignments. But I knew that if I dove straight into those next conflicts, I would have compromised my sanity and sense of stability. I said no to that whole period of international reporting because I needed to protect myself.

Kiana: There are things that broke me. I made a post about this on Instagram. I had been embedded with this group of young kids, 14 to 20-something, for a day on the front line in Badakhshan. I was on my way back there. I had made prints for them with several copies because I thought they would want to share if they had a fiancé. I went to the airport, checked in, went to the gate, and then we were delayed. Then the agents said the flights were canceled until further notice. As I’m leaving, I call my fixer. Within two hours, I learned all of those kids, all of them, were killed by the Taliban the night before. That really broke me. I don’t even know.

I don’t think I take a lot of crazy risks. But one thing I’m careful with is my mental health. I can see how slowly, slowly I’m sinking into darkness, and that is one thing I need to be careful with. I need to keep checking in with friends and do my therapy. I’m very open about it.

Adam: There’s a long toll when photographing trauma and conflict. Apart from therapy, how do you manage that?

Kiana: I’m learning to take days off, which I probably wouldn’t do a year ago. Or take a week off and get away from Afghanistan, those things I try to do. Working out helps a lot.

From the outside, you use the word conflict a lot. But maybe because I’m living in this place, even day-to-day life is dark. There’s no fighting in Kabul, but it’s still dark. I was out with a few friends at brunch, and one of them learned right there that his friend had been assassinated. I watched him go through all his emotions as he got up and left the table. Loss is such a normal part of daily life; people are losing loved ones on a daily basis. At some point, that’s exhausting.

Adam: I told a colleague just a few weeks ago that I don’t think there’s a career anymore as a war photographer. (And I’ll use this term again even though you have issues with it, and I’ve always had issues with it—but it is still a term that is used in a mainstream sense.) I think the generation of photographers who inspired me to be a photographer mainly covered conflict. I told my friend that I don’t think there is a viable career anymore because there are shrinking budgets with magazines. International travel is more complex; there are many reasons why that industry isn’t as robust anymore. But here you are.

Kiana: I intentionally have put myself in a unique position; that’s why I’m able to do it. Again, I’m the only female photographer on the ground who’s based here full time, who speaks the language, who blends in. I’m intentionally putting myself in this position. I thought my value as a photographer was always associated with Afghanistan, but then my mom’s cancer returned last year, and I returned home for two and a half months and started getting assignments in Canada.

One of the reasons I call myself a visual storyteller is because if you remove me from Afghanistan, I’m still able to do my work. I’m still able to tell stories through photographs.

Adam: Is Kabul going to fall?

Kiana: I think Kabul will fall. The question for all of us is when? I would like to hope it will hold up a little longer.

Female high school students inside Marshal Dostum School, where over two dozen girls from Taliban-held districts have come to study. Their families came to Kabul so the girls can continue their education. May 2021.

Adam Ferguson (b.1978) was born and grew up in regional New South Wales, Australia before studying photography at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.

Ferguson first gained recognition for his work in 2009 when he embarked on a sustained survey of the US-led war in Afghanistan. Since that time he has worked internationally with a focus on conflict, contributing to The New York Times, Time Magazine and National Geographic, amongst others.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York and is working on two monographs: a war diary of his time in Afghanistan and a critique of contemporary regional Australian identity.

You can find Adam on instagram @adamfergusonstudio

Kiana Hayeri (b.1988) is a Senior TED fellow and a regular contributor to The New York Times. Her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Foreign Policy, Washington Post, NPR, Monocle Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, The Globe and Mail, among others.

Follow her on Instagram @kianahayeri where she shares bits and pieces of daily life as she travels, explores and tells stories. Kiana is based in Kabul, Afghanistan, covering the region.

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