Flowers, guns, and stereotypes
French photojournalist Oriane Zerah’s pictures draw attention to the beauty that exists alongside tragedy in Afghanistan
“People in Afghanistan love flowers,” says Kabul-based photojournalist Oriane Zérah as she walks me through her photographs of Afghan men posing with flowers. Zérah, who is currently in New Delhi for the opening of her latest photography exhibition — Afghanistan: roses under thorns — at the Galerie Romain Rolland, Alliance Française de Delhi, explains why she chose flowers to represent the country that has been riddled with violence and wars for almost forty decades.
In the Khost province for example, the men have a tradition of adorning their pakols (traditional men’s hat worn in Afghanistan) with flowers. Sometimes, they even wear flowers in their hair. What’s interesting is that in the West, flowers are linked to femininity, but in Afghanistan, Zérah noticed, that flowers are effortlessly embraced by men.
“People generally have a negative image of Afghan man. Because of the country’s history, he is seen as a warrior who represents hyper masculinity. My representation of the Afghan man wearing flowers on his cap and hair is an attempt to break the stereotype,” she says.
“I was evacuated when the Taliban regime took over because there was anticipation of a civil war, but since there was no war, I came back three weeks later and pursued my project. Strangely, I didn’t face any problem. In fact, I was allowed to travel to regions that I didn’t have access to earlier,” says Zérah as she points to photographs of army men posing at the Kandahar airport with flowers adorning their rifles.
Weapons, she explains, have been a part of Afghan life for generations, and the contrasting image of these men carrying both the weapon and the flower together stayed with her. On the one hand, there is life, hope and fragility, while on the other is a horrifying reality that is quite the opposite. “It was a question in my head whether I wanted to include Taliban in my project or not, but they’re Afghans after all, and they do represent the current state of things in the country, so it was important for me to capture it,” she says.
There are hardly any panels featuring women. “One cannot photograph women on the streets of Afghanistan as easily one can photograph men. Since my project was essentially in public spaces, the men on the streets excitedly agreed to pose but there were very few women who agreed to come on camera. We know why. It’s not that they’re absent but they’re definitely much fewer in number, in public, and when it comes to talking about the country too,” she says.
“My project started before the Taliban regime in the country. Afghanistan has always been a very conservative country but the new regime still brought about a major shift for the women around me. The only positive change is that the war is over. Unfortunately, for the women and the younger folk, things are not good. For educated women living in the city, who live an urban life and have aspirations to work, it’s really tragic. I am not sure how much of this situation will change in the times to come.”
Even so, Zérah is hopeful. Through her photographic work of capturing Afghans with flowers, she intends to draw attention to the beauty that coexists alongside the tragic reality of Afghanistan. “The need for beauty is even bigger where there is violence all around,” she says.
Oriane Zérah’s photography exhibition, Afghanistan: roses under thorns is on for viewing at Galerie Romain Rolland, Alliance Française de Delhi, until 30 September 2023.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.