At the age of 25, having studied art and photography at Université Paris 8, Sandra Calligaro travelled to Kabul to fulfil her teenage dream of becoming a war correspondent. Having gone for a month, she ended up spending nearly a decade there. In the end, she brought back very few shots of fighting from this great adventure. On the contrary, touched by the country, she instead focused on daily life undermined by conflict, with a gaze that is lucid but always infused with modesty and tenderness.
Sandra has always been inspired by the work of artists and filmmakers rather than that of leading reporters. In fact, a quote from Nan Goldin, an American photographer who made her name in the 1980s by depicting her daily life, guides her way of thinking: “For me, taking a picture is the opposite of being detached. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress.”
Now back in Paris, Sandra still makes regular trips to Afghanistan. Undoubtedly because it was the place where she became a fully fledged photographer, she remains strongly attached to the country and its history. Her work has taken her to different parts of the world, but Afghanistan remains her main workplace and the beating heart of her work.
Her work frequently appears in the French and foreign media, and she also works with many non-governmental organisations. In 2012, she followed the migrant route in Northern France for Doctors of the World – France, which led to the web‑documentary Le Revers de la Médaille. In 2016, working for Action Against Hunger – France, she photographed internally displaced people in Afghanistan. The resulting work, Waiting for Hope, was exhibited in Kabul, Paris and Copenhagen. It was also published in Humanitarian Alternatives in 2017. Sandra has also worked as a director of photography in TV and film for the past few years. Career highlights include working on Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s latest film Woman. In 2022, she co-signed the documentary Les rêves brisés des Afghanes, broadcast as part of the French Envoyé spécial programme, and won a prize at the FIGRA documentary film festival.
Sandra is also doing more personal documentary work, which is showcased at festivals (including Les Femmes s’exposent, Visa pour l’Image, Circulations and Nuit de la Photographie in Arles). In Kabul, in the early 2010s, one of her main subjects was the emergence of the middle class, fostered by a strong international presence, which shook up the country’s cultural conventions, but is now endangered by the Taliban returning to power. The Afghan Dream project presented the daily lives of young Kabulis going about their ordinary business, in situations that anyone could relate to. The shots deliberately went against the grain of most of the photographs published by the media, which tend to focus on the sensational nature of the conflict. The project was awarded a grant by the French National Centre for Visual Arts (Centre national des arts plastiques) for contemporary documentary photography, and scooped a Bourse du Talent award. In 2016, publishers Pendant ce temps released a book bearing the same title.
15 August 2021 has become another date etched in Afghanistan’s turbulent history. However, this particular date deeply affected me. That day, on an otherwise normal afternoon in Kabul and practically without a shot fired, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American troops. Twenty years after they were overthrown.
As someone familiar with the country, after visiting for fifteen and having lived there too, I was stunned by the events, even though the warning signs had increased over recent years. Even though the country was getting bogged down in a growing insurrection. Even though the “religious students” – which is what the word Taliban means – were gaining control of more and more rural districts. Maybe my reaction was due in part to denial: how could the Afghan State collapse, given that $200 billion had been poured into the country? Yet the sudden return of the Taliban to Kabul seemed unthinkable to me, rather like science fiction. Yet they were there, the men clad in black holding their white flags. They entered the capital without the slightest resistance, taking control of Afghanistan in half a day.
A wave of panic took hold in all the country’s urban areas when the Taliban invaded the deserted presidential palace. The middle class and the intelligentsia, who largely emerged thanks to foreign capital, were terrified by this abrupt regime change. Viewed as heretics by the Taliban, what would be their fate? Apocalyptic scenes took place around the airport, where the American contingent was winding up the evacuation of its troops, embassies, non-governmental organisations, their nationals and employees. The whole world was deeply moved by images of crowds desperately trying to board aircraft moving along the runway in order to flee the country. The last flight took off on 30 August. Then silence and calm descended upon the city: Kabul was gripped by a wall of silence.
I travelled the country, shooting my reportage photography, over the following three months, from September to December 2021. I felt that I was exploring Afghanistan afresh. The lost dreams of cosmopolitan urban dwellers clashed, at the other end of the spectrum, with those who had fought jihad and come out of hiding. The return of the black turbans marked the end of fighting in the provinces. Overnight, villagers could once again use the local roads and make their way to hospital without risking an ambush on the way. I was able to travel to remote areas that I had been unable to visit for over a decade. Time seemed to have stood still there, and the war had left its mark.
The first months of the new regime were like a honeymoon period: relative freedom reigned. Time seemed to stand still and almost encouraged people to hope. In Kabul, the fighters looked victorious, but also surprised and stunned in their own way: they had never seen a city, women or shop windows before. Despite their inherent violence, they seemed dazed by the bustle that resumed in the capital. Women were back on the streets, without having to be accompanied by a male chaperone (mahram), unlike during the first Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001. Some women, such as teachers and midwives, were allowed to go to work. Who knew, maybe the Taliban had really changed?
At least war had ended in Afghanistan. For all that, the period was far from peaceful. The insurgents inherited a State that was not independent, funded for the most part by suspended foreign aid, with the regime not recognised by any country or international body at the time. The country plunged into a crisis, government employees’ salaries were paid sporadically while the rate of the Afghani went into freefall. In deepest winter and at the start of a new year, a famine was nevertheless averted by international emergency aid being shipped to the country.
However, as the months went by, the new dictatorship took root. Unsurprisingly, restrictions hit the media, music, girl’s education, women’s clothing and ability to work. The outline of Sharia law took shape, and gradually women were once again airbrushed out of the public arena: their hopes turned to dust, with deep-rooted depression taking hold of their spirits.
The promises of peace and security – the main thrust of the Taliban’s assertions – have also been derailed: Islamic State, still active in the country, is the regime’s new enemy, and continues to claim credit for attacks. There are also rumours that Taliban fighters are starting to desert the ranks in the north-central region where Panjshir resistance forces have still not totally given in. I wonder how this incredibly divided and wounded country can one day become peaceful.
Translated from the French by Gillian Eaton
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