Our Journey

Shabana Zahir, Afghanistan / Greece

Shabana Zahir, Afghanistan / Greece

Shabana is 20 years old, she came on foot from Afghanistan. She has been stuck in the Diavata refugee camp in Greece for two years and she discovered photography during a course organized by an NGO. At first she chose to follow the course to escape the boredom of life in the camp: a succession of days one the same as the other where time and life seem motionless.

The Italian NGO „A hand for a smile – for children“, gave her access to photography, whereupon she captured everyday life in the refugee camp as well as the emotions and longings of its residents in an expressive way. The school for photography, which was founded by photographer Mattia Bidoli – he also accepted the award on behalf of the young artist – with the support of the local NGO, has been around for almost a year now. There, the students approach a multitude of topics that have shaped them photographically – it is often the suffering they suffered on their flight.

There is a gap in the wall and she wants to go through it. There is a status that she experiences as a stigma: refugee. And she would like to burn that word. There is a tent in which a woman sits, a sign in her hand with a demand all too familiar to refugees: “Stay home”. There are books in her hands. Books and hands wrapped with barbed wire – a reminder of the ban on learning for girls in her homeland, from where she escaped. There is a cage that is opening. A kite that no iron-barred gate will stop. A shawl flapping in freedom.

Sorrow, resistance, longing, hope. In a very direct way, a young woman, so far completely unknown in the photography community, has translated her thoughts and feelings into pictures. It is Shabana Zahir, born in 1998 in Baghlan in northern Afghanistan.

Her father left the family when she was very young. When she was 16, her mother decided to flee the war with Shabana and two siblings. To set out for peace.

Shabana Zahir. In Farsi her surname means “belonging to the night”. It was at night that her flight began. It lasted for months. Across borders, barbed wire, mountains. Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey. In Turkey Shabana worked as a waitress in a small restaurant and learned the language. Then she came to Greece on a boat. In the hope of getting to Western Europe, to Germany, along the route through the Balkans.

A hope so far dashed. The refugee camp of Diavata near Thessaloniki. Two years of agony. Feeling wordless and useless. Until the small NGO Una mano per un Sorriso, a hand for a smile, introduced Shabana to photography. To a new way of expressing herself. To speaking in pictures.

An option that Shabana Zahir would be banned from under a Taliban regime (a threat the Afghans are currently facing again). Which makes her love photography all the more.
For her it is a way to make a little peace with all the discord. Photography, someone wrote about her, for her does not mean to present beauty. But to present all the non-beautiful in a beautiful way.

It can be assumed that Shabana Zahir will not one day join one of the large photo agencies. Maybe she will never have an exhibition, a publication in a major magazine. At the moment she still photographs almost like a child writing up its dreams in a book of fairy tales. A beautiful book of fairy tales. An evil book of fairy tales. It isn’t subtle, the way she photographs. And yet it has a specific kind of poetry.

And, most of all, it expresses the burning desire, in a young woman who has experienced more drama than anyone of us, to find peace. Not just for herself. But for all her sisters and brothers in sorrow. (Text by Peter-Matthias Gaede)

Discover more: Shortlist 2021, Winners 2021