As a young man living in Kabul, Zalmaï witnessed several seismic shifts that devastated and destabilized his country. The photographer left Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1980, finding refuge in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he became a citizen. Nine years later, he started working as a freelance photographer for publications including the New Yorker, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, and La Repubblica. His book Dread and Dreams, published in 2015, covers ground that we’ve seen before—Afghanistan post-2002 invasion—and yet the photographer’s personal connection to the country offers a depth and perspective that elevates this project to important new heights.
The format of Dread and Dreams is unique. The book contains two distinct bodies of work, and yet it is split into three sections—two are shot in black-and-white, while the third is shot in soft color. Zalmaï alludes to this division in his brief written introduction: “After the Taliban fell, there was a period of great hope. You could see it in people’s eyes…But the hope in their faces started fading away. With the Western intervention, Afghanistan’s reality—its needs, its history, everything that makes it Afghanistan—was forgotten.”
Zalmaï’s remarkable work delves into wartime Afghanistan on a human level—and yet the human experience in Afghanistan from 2008-2013 is constantly shifting and unstable, precarious as a result of the influence by external and internal political factions. As such, Dread and Dreams presents a variety of experience that is unsettling at the outset. The book’s layout mirrors this erratic and constantly altering existence: it opens with a selection of black-and-white images, then shifts into color, then abruptly reverts to black-and-white until the book’s end.
The first black-and-white section presents life outside Afghanistan’s cities. Men wander vast, limitless landscapes dotted with stubby scrub brushes; a woman leans dramatically forward as if struggling to make headway, her black robes flowing around her body, the home around her reduced to rubble. Immediately apparent in this first section is the military presence in the land: in the book’s very first image, six figures traverse a small valley. Three are Afghan men in robes; the remaining three are soldiers. At first glance, only one soldier in the front of the frame jumps out at the viewer: his attire and posture make him conspicuous. On closer inspection, however, two faint figures in the background swim into view: they, too, are soldiers, but they’ve permeated deeper into the landscape.
Zalmaï’s point is well taken. The invasion makes itself felt again in an image a few pages later: a soldier’s body—heavy, covered with equipment and claustrophobic—takes up most of the frame, while an Afghan man and boy look on in the distance. The juxtapositions across the first section are striking: images of daily life and routines—sheep grazing, trading—are followed abruptly by photographs of soldiers stepping into homes or patrolling with weapons at the ready.
Zalmaï’s color images start about a third of the way through the book. They are prefaced by a frontispiece reading “Dream: to contemplate the possibility of doing something or that something might be the case,” and indeed, the images seem like apparitions after the bleak, colorless images in the first section of the book. Here, the photographer presents his vision of modern Afghanistan. The setting is new: instead of dust and expansive landscapes, we find ourselves in a city, replete with convenience stores, developments, and businessmen strolling the streets. Everyday life—indicated through color—begins to permeate Zalmaï’s world.
Small details surprise and enthrall: a dining room with perfect white lace tablecloths and a utopian, pastoral wall decoration is like a vision from a dream; modern clothing jumps to the fore in pops of bright color. There are signs for Coca-Cola and other consumer products. In one image, a two men speak on a rooftop. One is dressed in clothing similar to the garb that swathed the first section of Dread and Dreams, his colors muted; the the second man sports a graphic t-shirt and contemporary belt in a deep, bright red.
And yet, even in this “Dreams” section there is evidence of the country’s ongoing strife. In one striking quadriptych, the faces on posters have been violently scratched out, leaving them unidentifiable. “Dreams” ends suddenly, without warning (how’s that for symbolism?), a pitch-black spread overwhelming the viewer’s vision. All of the color that flooded the previous pages is smothered and overcome. We’re back in the country. Endless rows of sagging tents and crumbling houses fill the pages—confronted anew by death and refuse as well as a hovering, ominous feeling of unease and danger. In one particularly striking image, a sprawling pattern of gravestones blends seamlessly into a hillside covered with run-down houses. There’s a clear narrative here, a sense of imminence as well as inevitability. The life captured in “Dreams” is encouraging, but what about those who are still suffering?
In his introduction, Zalmaï notes, “this work is not about war, but war is my work.” His aim was not to photograph the war in Afghanistan—he “wasn’t in Afghanistan to take pictures of the fighting, the soldiers, the planes, the tanks”—and yet these realities are inexorably embedded in the fabric of his country. It’s impossible to capture one without the other bleeding into the corners of the frame. They are tangled, interdependent—much like the relationship between “Dread” and “Dreams.” They are counter to one another and yet intertwined.
How can the country truly begin to move forward while leaving so many of its people behind? With Dread and Dreams, Zalmaï has produced a remarkable and noteworthy book on an imperative question that still demands answers.
Dread and Dreams
Hardcover: 144 pages
Available for purchase on Daylight’s website.