As Afghanistan’s Presidential election approaches, the Taliban’s attempts to disrupt the electoral proceedings have grown increasingly violent. On Tuesday, Taliban militants attacked Afghan security forces at the national election offices in Kabul, killing five people. On Friday, also in Kabul, a Taliban suicide bomber and his associates killed two civilians at the guesthouse of a U.S. aid organization.
A few months after the start of America’s war in Afghanistan, in 2001, Jon Lee Anderson reported on the lasting effects of Taliban rule in Kandahar province, where the movement was born. Accompanying Anderson’s article was a series of photographs of Taliban soldiers, which the Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak, who travelled to Kandahar with Anderson, had come across in photo shops. Under the Taliban’s strict enforcement of Koranic law, photography and other visual representations of the human image were forbidden throughout the city. (In his book “Taliban,” Dworzak recalls seeing “a body builder advertising a gym had his head replaced by a map of Afghanistan; imported cosmetics ads had the eyes scratched out.”) But, despite this prohibition, Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, recognized that his soldiers needed passport photographs, and allowed a group of photo shops in downtown Kandahar to supply them.
Not long after the Taliban lost Kandahar, Dworzak and Anderson visited the Photo Shah Shop, which was owned by an Afghan named Said Kamal. Kamal told Dworzak that soldiers came in for a “flattering portrait, retouched by the photographer, secretly taken in the back room of the studio and decorated the best the photographer could manage.” The fighters posed in front of painted backdrops, with guns or flowers as props, and Kamal, who specialized in retouched photos, often added a halo of vibrant color in post-production. Dworzak writes that he was struck by the contrast between these stylized pictures and the public image of the soldiers. He gathered examples portraits from Kamal and other photographers in the city, who, he said, felt little compunction about selling the photographs of Taliban. “Most of them are dead anyway,” one told him.
Dworzak’s “Taliban,” which includes an excerpt of Anderson’s article, is available from Trolley Books. Above is a selection of the photographs that accompanied Anderson’s piece, along with additional portraits collected by Dworzak during his trip.
All Photographs ©T. Dworzak Collection/Magnum.