Remembering Shah Marai, The Photographer Who Shed Light On Afghanistan
His covert camera techniques defied the Taliban’s ban on photography.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer Shah Marai looks on at his home in Kabul. Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images.
Shah Marai, Agence France-Presse’s (AFP) chief photographer in Kabul, Afghanistan, was among the nine journalists and more than 20 others killed in a bombing in the city on April 30. He was 41.
The shock of Marai’s death in the attack shattered his colleagues and friends’ confidence that “no danger was big enough to overcome him.”
While the photographer will be remembered for his documentation of Afghan’s joyful and difficult moments, the local community reflected on Marai’s ability to live a life of kindness, as well as his wicked sense of humor.
AFP reporter Emal Haidary, Marai’s friend for 17 years, recalls that “we would start most of our mornings with the jokes he sent us on Facebook.” Marai’s habit of joking had no bounds, and Haidary recalls warning visitors or new colleagues not to mind: “He would often call himself the ‘grandfather’ of AFP Kabul and repeatedly told us stories of how he secretly took photos during the Taliban regime.”
Even after over two decades of working in a jarring environment, his demeanor went along his motto: “Kill the tension before the tension kills you.”
Afghan devotees greet each other after offering Eid-al-Adha prayers at the Shah-e Do Shamshira mosque in Kabul. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
Marai was a young man in late teens when he started his career with AFP in 1996 as a driver. The Taliban had isolated Afghanistan from the world and banned images of any living things, including humans and animals. But Marai picked up the camera and found ways to work discreetly.
Marai defied the Taliban not by force, but by using simple techniques. A big camera was too visible, so he sneaked a small one under a scarf he rolled around his hands. With his covert camera in place, he was able to capture a rare glimpse of how the Afghan people swung between resilience and submission as they lived life under the brute force of Taliban. He even photographed the Taliban as they prepared weapons and polished tanks in anticipation of the U.S. attack.
An Afghan policeman at the site of a suicide attack against a minibus carrying employees of popular Afghan TV channel TOLO which killed seven in Kabul on January 20, 2016. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
Though getting caught with a camera was always a concern, his youthful looks often saved him from suspicions of the Taliban, his friends from the time told me. He developed a sheer talent to maneuver a Taliban-held country and continued to bring photos from often impossible proximities, including the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the precarious violence that followed.
Allison Jackson, AFP Bureau chief in Kabul, told me that Marai cared deeply and worried about Afghanistan. In his two decades of work covering the war — the arrival and departure of U.S. and NATO troops, the violence, and insecurity — Marai always showed up for his job with curiosity and energy. “A few minutes before he was killed he shot video and then was on the phone to me explaining what he could see at the scene,” Jackson recalls.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]His colleagues looked up to him — he was their tribal elder.[/quote]
Photographer Andrew Quilty often saw him in the field, covering events or the aftermath of mass attacks. Marai had a kinetic aptness and an “innate ability to be the first on the scene,” Quilty says. “I guess he called it intuition. In this kind of environment, in particular, it is an invaluable quality to be so efficient and be able to respond so immediately.”
Quilty arrived in Afghanistan in 2013 and is one of the few foreign photojournalists to have stayed in the country for years. Since the attack, he’s noticed that journalists across the region are feeling shaken.
Afghan onlookers watch through the broken windows of a bakery at the site of a suicide car bomb near the international airport in Kabul. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
Pakistani journalist Umar Wazir, who often worked in Afghanistan and lost three friends, including Marai, in the attack, says it has frozen colleagues in the tribal areas in Pakistan who also work in similar dangerous terrains around terror groups. “All of us in Pakistan have been bolted,” Wazir says. “Can so many of us die altogether? It is unimaginable. Even for us.”
As journalists are targeted both in Afghanistan and Pakistan — often by similar means — Wazir echoes the concerns of those who work in the media there. “It cannot be true. If it is true, what does it mean? What comes next?”
Jawad Jalali, one of Marai’s friends, says the late photographer’s humor was deliberate and almost medicinal. “He was affected by the trauma every day,” says Jalali, “and that is precisely why he wanted to document Afghan life until his last breath.”
Jalali won’t forget how Marai looked out for his colleagues. In 2014, when journalist Sardar Ahmad was killed with his family during an attack at the Kabul Serena Hotel, it was Marai who lobbied for all journalists to boycott the Taliban. “He was the powerhouse for us. We relied on him,” Jalali says.
Marai’s conviction and courage were seen not only in his work but also in how he held the community together. Many of his colleagues depended on him when working in Afghanistan became too painful.
AFP photographer Shah Marai poses with colleague Massoud Hossaini at the AFP office in Kabul. Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images.
The constant violence in Afghanistan has forced many journalists to leave the country, but Jalali says Marai was a journalist for whom Afghanistan was the only homeland, a home he would never leave, and which he would witness until the end.
There WAs poetry in Marai’s life. He was a father of six and his family suffered from vision problems. Three of Marai’s brothers and two of his sons were genetically predisposed to blindness. Despite his family’s lack of sight, Marai was a man with many eyes. His work became a light in the darkness, making a world that was blind to Afghanistan able to see them.
Through the eye of his camera, Marai saw and helped others to see, too.
Marai — whose name means a sacred enclosure or temple — was indeed like a temple to Afghan people who knew him, many of whom indulged in his generosity. In his village of Guldara, “the valley of flowers,” Marai built a mosque. Villagers old and young enjoyed going to the mosque for prayers and communion.
One of Marai’s most joyful moments came only 15 days before the attack, when he had his sixth child. A friend recalls Marai’s exuberance that day: “Finally, after five sons, I have a daughter!”
Marai’s death, along with his colleagues’, has brought a darkness again to Afghanistan. Without journalists and photographers, what is left for the country is an unseeable, inarticulate, impenetrable, unconscionable world.
The many eyes of Marai have finally closed.
Afghan Shiite Muslims use chains and blades during ritual self-flagellation as part of Ashura commemorations at a Kabul mosque. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
A female Afghan boxer takes part in a training session at Ghazi Stadium in Kabul. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
Afghan bodybuilders participate in the Mr. Afghanistan nation-wide bodybuilding competition in Kabul. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
Afghans, who were displaced by Kunduz fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban insurgents, gather at a makeshift camp in the outskirts of Kabul. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
Afghan amputees practice walking with their prosthetic legs at a hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for war victims and the disabled in Kabul. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.
An elderly father mourns at the grave of his son in Kabul after he was killed in an attack by gunmen inside the Karte Sakhi shrine late on October 11. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.