Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini, who has worked for AFP news agency in Kabul since 2007, won the Pulitzer prize in the category of ‘Breaking News Photography’ earlier this week. Hossaini is the first ever Afghan to win the highly prestigious Pulitzer prize, sought after by top journalists worldwide. AAN guest blogger Martin Gerner, a media trainer and filmmaker, has known Hossaini for several years, since working with him in one of the Kabul-based media NGOs after 2001. He describes how Hossaini was part of a generation of young and eager Afghan photojournalists who found a way to speak out and express themselves through the camera lens.
Hossaini, according to the Pulitzer committee, won the prize “for his heart breaking image of a girl crying in fear after an attack at a crowded shrine in Kabul.” The AFP photograph that was published on 7 December 2011, shows a young girl dressed in green, Tarana Akbari, screaming after a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in a crowd at the Abul Fazel Shrine in Kabul a day earlier. Hossaini was slightly injured by flying shrapnel while taking the picture. His photograph is part of a gallery of Pulitzer winning photos published here. For a background story to the picture seehere.
It is the first time that an Afghan photographer has been awarded a Pulitzer prize. At first sight, the verdict by the US-based jury does not look as ground breaking as the one in 2004, when Afghan filmmaker Sidiq Barmak won the Golden Globe Award for “Best International Film” for his fiction movie “Osama”. The Pulitzer Award for Hossaini’s work, however, signals the slow but steady acknowledgment by the international media community that many of the photographs published on the front pages of Western newspapers are the result of the hard, professional and dangerous work done by young Afghan photojournalists, male and female, who have specialized and matured in the decade or so since 2001, and whose names often do not get the attention they deserve.
In 2004, when I worked with Aina media NGO in Kabul,* Hossaini was about to complete a two-year training programme in photojournalism there. Together with his teacher, the students collected old 35 mm cameras, and even spare parts to repair some of the broken ones. The youngest course participants at that time were not even eighteen.
Hossaini’s first hands-on experience with a camera had been in Iran, where he and his family spent almost twenty years in exile before returning to his native Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. He described the months following his return: “At first, I would walk for hours through fields of rubble. I found children playing there and I tried to depict everything that I saw with my own colours. Despite all the destruction, Kabul at twilight has its own special light and dust, creating a unique beauty and aesthetic.”
Later he assisted in training courses at the Goethe Institute, before becoming a trainer for photojournalism himself. As the conflict in Afghanistan grew more inextricable, Hossaini increasingly photographed its consequences, sometimes participating in “embedded” photojournalistic missions with the foreign or Afghan military (see also his blog, mostly highlighting the period of 2010/11).
With traumatizing regularity, as the Afghan war unfolded, the slightly built 30 year old travelled to the sites of suicide attacks to earn his daily bread. It affects him: “I constantly witness people dying. And I constantly have to suppress feelings of agitation and sadness.” The photos he has taken of terrorist attacks have quite literally taken away his appetite. As a result of his work, he began to eat a largely vegetarian diet, a pretty rare thing in Afghanistan.
Hossaini sees himself as privileged in his role as a photographer: “What is so fascinating about my work is that within a single day I can portray the lives of simple people and also capture official political events.” He clearly works at a crosspoint between Afghan and the Western perspectives of news and photojournalism. And while taught by many Westerners over the past years, Hossaini, like many Afghan photojournalists, reserves some criticism for the way foreigners view and portray Afghans and Afghan society, a view that tends to embrace clichés of the wild, brutal, traumatized or backward-living Afghanistan.
We discussed this back in 2008 when – together with his wife Farzana Wahidy, herself an internationally awarded photojournalist from Afghanistan – I curated a photo exhibition in Berlin, supported by the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation. We had been trying to select pictures that would show and portray the other side of Afghanistan. Massoud, like other talented Afghan photographers, carried a relative frustration about the type of pictures that made it into the international media: “There are so many images of Afghanistan that the Western media would never show. Lots of them include pictures of normal, daily life.” While some of Massouds work focuses on war and violence, another part depicts the poetry and warmth that surrounds much of the realities of Afghan life.
Hossaini’s prize has been welcomed in the Afghan and international media. Before the Pulitzer Prize, he had already won the ‘Pictures of the Year’ International award for best news picture, and came second for ‘Spot News’ in the World Press Photo 2012 contest. The award, which is also the first Pulitzer prize for his agency, AFP, thus contributing to its worlwide image, is well-deserved. Whenever I met him, Massoud was working relentlessly for the office; often he would not take week-ends off or would work additional shifts. When possible, he tried to help and support the subjects of his photos. In the case of Tarana Akbari, he contacted her family a few days later and put her in touch with his brother, a doctor. “For the past two, three months, we have provided help to the family,” he says.
His motto: “I was born in a wrong place, Afghanistan. I grew up in a wrong place, Iran. I am currently living in a wrong place, Kabul. But let’s see what will happen next.”
The current text contains amended parts of a portrait on Hossaini by the author from 2006. Photo by Farzana Wahidy.
* AINA media NGO was founded in 2001 by Franco-Iranian photographer Reza Deghati as an international non-profit organisation dedicated to educating and empowering Afghan youth through the media. In its early years it was considered a groundbreaking media initiative with different hubs in the Afghan provinces. It lost some of its attraction from 2004 onwards, when it failed to keep pace with the steadily changing Afghan media scene.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020