At the age of 25, having studied art and photography at Université Paris 8, Sandra Calligaro travelled to Kabul to fulfil her teenage dream of becoming a war correspondent. Having gone for a month, she ended up spending nearly a decade there. In the end, she brought back very few shots of fighting from this great adventure. On the contrary, touched by the country, she instead focused on daily life undermined by conflict, with a gaze that is lucid but always infused with modesty and tenderness.
Sandra has always been inspired by the work of artists and filmmakers rather than that of leading reporters. In fact, a quote from Nan Goldin, an American photographer who made her name in the 1980s by depicting her daily life, guides her way of thinking: “For me, taking a picture is the opposite of being detached. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress.”
Now back in Paris, Sandra still makes regular trips to Afghanistan. Undoubtedly because it was the place where she became a fully fledged photographer, she remains strongly attached to the country and its history. Her work has taken her to different parts of the world, but Afghanistan remains her main workplace and the beating heart of her work.
Her work frequently appears in the French and foreign media, and she also works with many non-governmental organisations. In 2012, she followed the migrant route in Northern France for Doctors of the World – France, which led to the web‑documentary Le Revers de la Médaille. In 2016, working for Action Against Hunger – France, she photographed internally displaced people in Afghanistan. The resulting work, Waiting for Hope, was exhibited in Kabul, Paris and Copenhagen. It was also published in Humanitarian Alternatives in 2017. Sandra has also worked as a director of photography in TV and film for the past few years. Career highlights include working on Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s latest film Woman. In 2022, she co-signed the documentary Les rêves brisés des Afghanes, broadcast as part of the French Envoyé spécial programme, and won a prize at the FIGRA documentary film festival.
Sandra is also doing more personal documentary work, which is showcased at festivals (including Les Femmes s’exposent, Visa pour l’Image, Circulations and Nuit de la Photographie in Arles). In Kabul, in the early 2010s, one of her main subjects was the emergence of the middle class, fostered by a strong international presence, which shook up the country’s cultural conventions, but is now endangered by the Taliban returning to power. The Afghan Dream project presented the daily lives of young Kabulis going about their ordinary business, in situations that anyone could relate to. The shots deliberately went against the grain of most of the photographs published by the media, which tend to focus on the sensational nature of the conflict. The project was awarded a grant by the French National Centre for Visual Arts (Centre national des arts plastiques) for contemporary documentary photography, and scooped a Bourse du Talent award. In 2016, publishers Pendant ce temps released a book bearing the same title.
Photo at the top: 7 September 2021, Kabul, Afghanistan. Three weeks after the Taliban seized power, few women are walking around Mandawi market. They are scared of the application of Sharia, the Islamic law that bans them from leaving home without a marham, a chaperone. However, during the first weeks of the new regime, the situation seemed rather more flexible than when the Taliban ruled the country in the late 1990s. Yet within a few months, the regime would only allow women to be out on their own close to home and ban them from flying unless accompanied. They had to conceal their faces in public, preferably wearing a long chador (garment covering the hair and body).
Photos and captions • © Sandra Calligaro
8 September 2021, Kabul. Pessar Lai was a police officer. He lost his job on 15 August 2021. He now sells Taliban flags outside the US embassy. His sons work with him. He earns around 200-300 Afghanis a day (€2-3). Behind him the symbolic first words of prayer have been painted on the embassy’s wall: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Other Taliban propaganda messages adorn the building’s walls.
15 August 2021 has become another date etched in Afghanistan’s turbulent history. However, this particular date deeply affected me. That day, on an otherwise normal afternoon in Kabul and practically without a shot fired, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American troops. Twenty years after they were overthrown.
As someone familiar with the country, after visiting for fifteen and having lived there too, I was stunned by the events, even though the warning signs had increased over recent years. Even though the country was getting bogged down in a growing insurrection. Even though the “religious students” – which is what the word Taliban means – were gaining control of more and more rural districts. Maybe my reaction was due in part to denial: how could the Afghan State collapse, given that $200 billion had been poured into the country? Yet the sudden return of the Taliban to Kabul seemed unthinkable to me, rather like science fiction. Yet they were there, the men clad in black holding their white flags. They entered the capital without the slightest resistance, taking control of Afghanistan in half a day.
A wave of panic took hold in all the country’s urban areas when the Taliban invaded the deserted presidential palace. The middle class and the intelligentsia, who largely emerged thanks to foreign capital, were terrified by this abrupt regime change. Viewed as heretics by the Taliban, what would be their fate? Apocalyptic scenes took place around the airport, where the American contingent was winding up the evacuation of its troops, embassies, non-governmental organisations, their nationals and employees. The whole world was deeply moved by images of crowds desperately trying to board aircraft moving along the runway in order to flee the country. The last flight took off on 30 August. Then silence and calm descended upon the city: Kabul was gripped by a wall of silence.
10 September 2021, Kabul. Civilians and Taliban mix at Friday prayers at Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque. Since the return of the latter to power, more people have been coming to the mosque, even if it is unclear whether the Afghans are coming to practise their faith or out of fear of reprisals. On that day, the prayer hall was full, so the believers said their prayers in the mosque’s garden.
11 September 2021, Kabul. In response to the women’s rights protests held throughout the country over the previous days, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan held a conference with religious students at Kabul Education University. According to rumours, most of these young women were forced to attend and cover their faces with a niqab.
11 September 2021, Kabul. The conference at Kabul Education University was followed by a procession, which took place amid tight security to prevent any protests. Most of the very young fighters were delighted to be in the city. They often come from provinces where they lived partly in hiding.
I travelled the country, shooting my reportage photography, over the following three months, from September to December 2021. I felt that I was exploring Afghanistan afresh. The lost dreams of cosmopolitan urban dwellers clashed, at the other end of the spectrum, with those who had fought jihad and come out of hiding. The return of the black turbans marked the end of fighting in the provinces. Overnight, villagers could once again use the local roads and make their way to hospital without risking an ambush on the way. I was able to travel to remote areas that I had been unable to visit for over a decade. Time seemed to have stood still there, and the war had left its mark.
14 September 2021, Kabul. Niamatullah, 22, guards the recently renovated Darul Aman Palace, located south of the city centre. The young fighter is from Logar Province, one of the provinces neighbouring the capital. He has been a member of the Taliban since he was 12. Did he really have any choice? He told me that he was happy to be guarding the palace, that peace was important to him, and that all he wanted was to “develop and improve Afghanistan”.
12 September 2021, Kabul. Kabul’s theme park, City Park, has lost 80% of its customers since the Taliban came back to power.
The first months of the new regime were like a honeymoon period: relative freedom reigned. Time seemed to stand still and almost encouraged people to hope. In Kabul, the fighters looked victorious, but also surprised and stunned in their own way: they had never seen a city, women or shop windows before. Despite their inherent violence, they seemed dazed by the bustle that resumed in the capital. Women were back on the streets, without having to be accompanied by a male chaperone (mahram), unlike during the first Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001. Some women, such as teachers and midwives, were allowed to go to work. Who knew, maybe the Taliban had really changed?
8 October 2021, Kabul. Qargha Lake on the outskirts of Kabul remains a very popular outing for Kabul residents. But visitor numbers have dropped: at the entrance, the ticket sellers sell on average three times fewer tickets than before the comeback of the Taliban. However, as the weeks went by, visitors returned, and the Taliban mingled with visitors.
At least war had ended in Afghanistan. For all that, the period was far from peaceful. The insurgents inherited a State that was not independent, funded for the most part by suspended foreign aid, with the regime not recognised by any country or international body at the time. The country plunged into a crisis, government employees’ salaries were paid sporadically while the rate of the Afghani went into freefall. In deepest winter and at the start of a new year, a famine was nevertheless averted by international emergency aid being shipped to the country.
However, as the months went by, the new dictatorship took root. Unsurprisingly, restrictions hit the media, music, girl’s education, women’s clothing and ability to work. The outline of Sharia law took shape, and gradually women were once again airbrushed out of the public arena: their hopes turned to dust, with deep-rooted depression taking hold of their spirits.
18 September 2021, Kabul. A girls’ classroom at Malalaï High School, following morning lessons. There was supposed to be a full final year lesson taking place at this time of day in the classroom as part of the afternoon session. However, since 15 August, in Kabul education has been closed to girls over the age of 11.
22 September 2021, Kabul. Sahar, 19, a young radio presenter, was relieved to be able to return to work a few days previously. She stands here in front of the pardah, the curtain separating the area reserved for women from the section reserved for men. Recently fitted in the radio station’s premises, this screen enables women to come to work. A few months later in May 2022, a law ordered female TV news anchors to cover their faces while on air.
Kabul, 13 September 2021. Suhaila, 23, and Zeinab, 24, are both fourth-year photography students at the University of Kabul, but there is very little chance of the art department reopening, and even less of the girls being allowed to continue their studies. The two friends attended a protest to see what was happening and to take photos. They are not really “activists”, but they were with the other women: “Since the Taliban came to power, we are dying a slow death staying at home every day; it’s better for us to protest for our rights on the streets, even if it is dangerous.”
10 October 2021, Kabul. Women brandish placards and chant slogans in a protest for their rights in Shahr‑e Naw Park in the city centre. Refugees from northern Afghanistan who have lived in the park since August mingled with the crowd. The demonstrations and any media coverage were forbidden. However, while controlling access to park exits, the Taliban did not intervene. They were trying to restore the image of the regime, which had been heavily criticised by international bodies. This relative tolerance would not last. Since then, any demonstrations opposing the regime have been systematically and brutally dispersed.
9 October 2021, Kabul. Zuhlia, one of the demonstrators, who is now unemployed, and her youngest daughter: “When I get up in the morning and look at my daughters, I say to myself that I have no option other than to protest and fight for my rights, and their rights.”
15 December 2021, Kabul. Four months after their return, the Taliban have banned girls from attending secondary school in the capital. Every afternoon, Morsal, 17 (in the middle, wearing a black headscarf and marking a student’s work), teaches classmates from her neighbourhood in her living room. They are almost the same age as her. In some provinces, such as Kunduz, the Taliban have authorised schools to reopen. However, in Kabul and in most provinces, schools remain closed.
14 October 2021, Kabul. The front of a beauty salon. The owners have covered the photos of women wearing make-up on the Taliban’s orders (left). The photos that have not been covered (right) have been defaced with black graffiti.
16 December 2021, Kabul. A view of one of the walls protecting the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, the new name of the former Ministry for Women’s Affairs. The mouth of a woman in this drawing done under the old regime has been covered in black paint. Shoja (meaning “brave women”) is written above in Dari.
11 November 2021, Kabul. Khail Bibi poses with her two daughters in their tiny wattle and cob house in Bagrami refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul. She is from Kunduz, where her husband and youngest child were killed during a Taliban offensive on the city in 2019. She can no longer work as a cleaning lady and has no more income: her two young girls are reduced to begging. To get by, they collect rubbish and rely on the generosity of their neighbours, who buy a small amount of wood for winter from them.
12 November 2021. Tahir, 12, collects rubbish in the south of the city. His father doesn’t work, so Tahir provides for his family.
14 November 2021, Kabul. A long line of people waiting for food to be handed out by an Afghan non-governmental organisation with the support of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in eastern Kabul. The humanitarian aid distributed in winter 2021-22 prevented a major disaster, even if the situation remains extremely worrying.
1 December 2021, Kabul. Early in the morning, before the shops open, unskilled men gather at the city’s roundabouts, hoping to secure a day’s work.
10 December 2021, Sangin, Helmand Province. A bastion of Taliban resistance, the region was for a long time difficult for foreign journalists and humanitarian workers to access. The infrastructure in the market is dilapidated: the town was largely destroyed during the fighting that began in 2006 and pitted the international coalition forces and the Afghan army against the Taliban insurgents. The school has been destroyed, and lessons are held outdoors.
The promises of peace and security – the main thrust of the Taliban’s assertions – have also been derailed: Islamic State, still active in the country, is the regime’s new enemy, and continues to claim credit for attacks. There are also rumours that Taliban fighters are starting to desert the ranks in the north-central region where Panjshir resistance forces have still not totally given in. I wonder how this incredibly divided and wounded country can one day become peaceful.
Translated from the French by Gillian Eaton
1 November 2021, Kandi, Badghis Province. Mohamad, 57, has always lived in this small village in Western Afghanistan. The population has gradually left due to conflict and drought. Last summer, ten families migrated to Qala-e Naw, the provincial capital.
7 November 2021 in Kapisa Province. Hekmatullah, 25, guards the former Nijrab military base, occupied in the past by French and US forces, and subsequently by the Afghan army. The young Taliban grew up in the opposite valley, against a backdrop of fighting. As a teenager, he never imagined that one day he would be inside the base – and in charge of it.