In Conversation: Massoud Hossaini

Conflict & War | Peace | Reporting

In Afghanistan, as the nation rebuilds itself at snail’s pace and the media tests the limits of its newfound freedom, death and tragedy are part of everyday life. As part of a longer feature, I spoke with Massoud Hossaini a photojournalist based in Kabul. Hossaini’s family fled to Iran in the 1980s, where he grew up and stayed until 2001. The 30-something photojournalist studied journalism in Mashhad, Iran, and came to Kabul in search of his grandparents shortly after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Since then he has worked there for local and international publications, including the Agence France-Presse. He would win the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2012.

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A Hazara girl is seen at an orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2007. Source: Photo by Massoud Hossaini/AFP – Published in Herald.

Q. Why did you choose photojournalism?

A. I really liked photography. It is an exciting job and I like being part of exciting moments and capturing them. It was a hobby and then one thing led to another and I selected news photography. When I moved to Kabul, I enrolled at Aina, an institute that was providing training to aspiring photojournalists.

Q. Why did you move back to Kabul?

A. Mashhad in Iran is a small city and it has nothing to offer to an immigrant in terms of jobs. I started an underground publication for Afghans with a few friends and soon after 9/11 we criticised Iranian policy regarding Afghanistan. We were scared that our criticism would lead to a crackdown by the intelligence and security personnel, so we ran away. From Mashhad I went to Herat, then Kandahar and finally Kabul. The Taliban were no longer there so it was safe but everything was destroyed.

I was embedded with a big group of journalists covering the Kandahar Operation in Arghandab River Valley. I was supposed to accompany Joao Silva, a New York Times photographer, but changed my plans. That day he stepped on a landmine and lost both his legs. That was very disturbing.

Q. You’ve been in Afghanistan for a decade now. What changes have you witnessed while covering the politics of this country?

A. In 2001, it was not as unsafe. There was no war, just sporadic attacks. I still remember the first suicide car bomb at the culture ministry that killed 12 people. I was barely five minutes away and commuted through that area everyday. That was the first bomb blast I experienced. Then people were not scared, they were just afraid. Now before anyone leaves their home, they think and consider, “We can’t go to that area, an attack can take place.”

Q. Have you or your colleagues suffered bodily harm?

A. I have had minor injuries but nothing major. Last October, however, I was embedded with a large group of journalists covering the Kandahar Operation in Arghandab River Valley. I was supposed to accompany Joao Silva, a New York Times photographer, but changed my plans. That day he stepped on a landmine and lost both his legs. That was very disturbing.

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On an embedded mission with the US troops, seen here carry an injured colleague. – Photo by Massoud Hossaini/Herald

After every suicide bombing, the Taliban are around observing the aftermath. So the danger of being targeted then is very real. At times even if we arrive on the spot before the security forces, we can’t set about working immediately. There is also that risk of being kidnapped. When we cover insurgent areas, they have snipers around as well. My last embed was right before Christmas in Helmand, and I saw a 22-year-old British soldier shot dead in front of me.

Q. Foreign journalists want to come to Afghanistan and cover it. Do you think they have any advantage over local journalists?

A. It is not easy for foreigners to cover whatever we cover. The same goes for international troops. We [the locals] know what the problem is: take, for instance, the recent protest over the burning of the Quran. Now if the foreigners were to cover the mobs, they would be targeted as well. Whenever and wherever [the foreigners] want to move, they ask local journalists and fixers.

Q. What dangers are you most likely to face on the job?

A. After every suicide bombing, the Taliban are around observing the aftermath. So the danger of being targeted then is very real. At times even if we arrive on the spot before the security forces, we can’t set about working immediately. There is also that risk of being kidnapped. When we cover insurgent areas, they have snipers around as well. My last embed was right before Christmas in Helmand, and I saw a 22-year-old British soldier shot dead in front of me. The British army has pulled out of two locations in Helmand because they lost too many soldiers.

Q. Given the violence, how do you deal with trauma?

A. We went to a mass grave under a hilltop in Chamtala Desert, Nangarhar, north of Kabul, and a small hole led to it. It was a two metre by two metre space, filled with rotting corpses and bones. Nobody knew who those people were: mujahideen or civil war fighters. I was really upset at the sight. It does upset me when I see people in Kabul dying. The last bombing was at a supermarket close to my office; I would often shop there. An Afghan couple with their three children died in the incident. When I went there and saw them and their small child, whose entire body was burnt and his hair singed, I cried for them on the spot. And then some other colleagues joined in as well. We all cry when something bad happens, but we can’t do anything about it. We are helpless. We can go and post pictures on Facebook and blogs, but we can’t change anything.

This interview was first published under the title “Afghanistan: An Insider’s Perspective” in Herald in May, 2011

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