Photographer Kiana Hayeri got a story idea while watching an Afghan TV show called Shereen’s Law, about a divorced Afghani woman who raises her three children while working as a court clerk. The protagonist is easily recognizable to Westerners as a single mom. But in Pashto or Dari, the primary languages of Afghanistan, Hayeri realized, there is no term for “single mother.’’
After decades of wars and internal conflict in the region, “there are a lot of women who are raising their kids on their own,’’ Hayeri says. They may be referred to as widows or divorcees. “You define these women by the status of their husband, but not [by] being a mother.’’
But where there are no words, there are pictures.
In “The Mothers,’’ Hayeri’s photo essay published in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine, some of the women are widows who have lost their husbands to illness or war. Some have fled their husbands, while others have been abandoned. All of them are raising children on their own in a country that expects women to be part of a man’s household.
“Culturally speaking, there should always be a man in the house who is taking care of the family,’’ says Hayeri. In Afghanistan, a divorce is hard to obtain and women seldom get custody of their children. Widows find themselves pressured to marry their brothers-in-law or another man in their deceased husband’s family.
Hayeri, 29, was born in Iran, spent her teenage years in Toronto, and lived for two years in Afghanistan before settling again in Tehran. Last year, she showed her portfolio and pitched her idea about Afghan single mothers to Harper’s art director, Stacey Clarkson James.
“I was struck by the intimacy and tenderness of her work about women and children,’’ James said via email. “She wanted to take a closer look at the daily lives of these women, to show how they survive and care for their children. I knew from her existing work that these new photographs would focus on the women’s strength and dignity… I also had a sense that this body of work, about the strength of Afghan women from a woman photographer’s perspective, would be fascinating and unique.’’
Hayeri shot the story over two months beginning last August. In Kabul, she worked to find women with different circumstances and socioeconomic status—some with resources and others with virtually none. Everywhere, it was difficult to overcome the cultural taboo against photographing women’s faces.
“I would take my time, talk to them, explain who are my audience and where are these photographs going to be shown,’’ Hayeri says. “I basically become part of the family, to get them to trust me and get their guard down.’’
She photographed in Tapaye Zanabad, or “the hill that women built,’’ a Kabul neighborhood of mud houses that war widows built themselves, by hand. She went to Herat Prison, where women who are accused of “moral crimes,’’ such as having children outside of marriage, are imprisoned along with their children.
Photographing at the prison, which is located 400 miles from Kabul, “was an extremely bureaucratic process,’’ Hayeri says. A male guard escorted her to photograph women, but the 57 children who live in the prison were nowhere to be seen. “I begged them not to send a male guard with me, but they did,’’ she says. “The guy kept asking me, ‘Are you finished? Are you finished?’ ’’
Then she got lucky. A woman prison guard—a single mother herself, it turned out—asked Hayeri if she had photographed the children. After that, she was able to see and shoot the women with their kids.
The male guard wasn’t trying to prevent her from seeing children in prison, Hayeri says; he just wanted to go home.
“In Afghanistan, cultural taboos aside, they’re very open toward journalists. If they say no [to photography], it’s often because of cultural taboos,’’ Hayeri explains. “Whereas in Iran, it’s the other way round. It’s always the system that doesn’t want to show certain things.’’
With each of her subjects, Hayeri asked to see a photograph of the husband. “It was interesting to see what kind of photographs they had,’’ she says. In one of Hayeri’s images, children reach for a photograph of their father, killed in a suicide bomb attack, hanging high up on a wall. In another home, she saw an old photo of the married couple that, she says, shows a kind of open affection that is now a relic of another time. “In Afghanistan now you don’t see intimacy, you don’t see contact between husband and wife.’’
The essay that appeared in Harper’s includes ten images, portraying five different women, chosen from more than 100 images Hayeri submitted to the magazine.
She says she makes multiple edits before she submits a project: Any photograph worth looking at makes the first cut. In the second round, duplicate scenes are culled out. Then, she begins building a narrative and making sure that different types of photos—portraiture, still lifes, environmental shots—are represented. “Editing your own work is the most difficult task. And the second most difficult is captioning,’’ she says.
At Harper’s, the editing was “intuitive,’’ Clarkson James says. “Kiana sent work that described the situations of a group of different women, and we selected the best photo[s] about each woman’s life and arranged them so they resonated with each other page to page.’’
Though she had lived in Afghanistan in the past, work on “The Mothers’’ brought Hayeri a much deeper perspective. “Being able to get into people’s houses and live with them, it’s a whole different experience.’’ And it was often painful, she says, because many of her subjects were in such difficult circumstances. They often asked if Hayeri could help them. “I felt helpless many, many, many times.’’ All she could say was, “Let me photograph you but I don’t know if it’s going to make any changes.’’
Hayeri is continuing to photograph Afghan women for a year-long project funded by the European Journalism Center. Her subjects include women who are fighting a legal system that causes the hardship Hayeri witnessed among the single mothers she photographed. “We’re trying to portray women as active agents rather than victims,” she says.
When Hayeri’s photographs ran in the Toronto Globe & Mail, readers there started raising funds for some of the women portrayed, Hayeri says.
“You can’t change Afghan society with a camera, you can’t. But you can change the mindset of the people’’ outside of Afghanistan, she says, by portraying “a complete picture” of the country.
Too often, Hayeri says, Western audiences think of Afghanistan as synonymous with conflict and bombings. “Life in many ways is similar around the world, but you just don’t get to see it…How many people in the West take the time to think about how does a single mom live, how does a young person live? Life goes on, even though there might be a bomb that went off next door.’’