Ishaq Ali Anis is a 28-year-old photographer from Afghanistan. In this blog he describes The Taliban take-over of Kabul and his escape to Paris. 

Ishaq Ali Anis stands on the top of the ancient Ghulghola City in Bamyan.

My journey into photography began when I was living in Quetta, Pakistan. I would take photos of anything that interested me: clouds, gardens, flowers. It was nature that drew me in. 

In 2013 I applied to study graphic design at Kabul University, as there was no specific department for photography. In the middle of my first year, a lecturer announced that they were going to select ten people who were interested and create a photography class.  I was the first to raise my hand.

Employees work in a busy confectionary shop in Kabul Old City, Afghanistan. Ishaq Ali Anis / Arete

Working as a photographer, particular events stay with you. In 2016, I went to photograph a protest against the planned route of some powerlines. During the protest there was an explosion.. I was blown off my feet by the force of it. Luckily, I was not injured or killed, but I lost some really dear friends that day. It has been years and I still cannot bring myself to look at the photos.

When Covid happened, I was very afraid. I was living at my brother’s and barely left the house. Despite my precaution I got infected. Everything was suspended and I had to use  my savings to get by. As time passed, I obtained some translation jobs, which I did from home. The pay was not particularly good, but it was something. But being a photographer in Afghanistan has always been difficult. Most people do not care about photography, even the media use photos from the internet without paying copyright, so I’ve always done other things to sustain myself.

Before the Taliban took over, I was working for Safeer Media and we were living in their offices day and night.

One day, there was a big Russian tank close to our offices. I was amazed by this, I had no memory of the Afghan military using Russian tanks, but there it was, fully functional. I asked, where did it come from? The people around it said someone had just brought it and left it. It was terrifying. It showed that the Taliban were in our parts of the city even if we could not see them.

A photo shows a fully functional Russian tank parked in front of a military school in Kabul 100/200 meters away from Ishaq Ali Anis's offices in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ishaq Ali Anis / Arete

When the Taliban took over Kabul, it happened very unexpectedly. I thought the residents or the Afghanistan National Forces would hold them back and expected at least six months of resistance. But  in a matter of 24 hours, they were at the gates of the city.

The day of the takeover every road was blocked. I went to the bank, but they were sending everyone away, saying there was no money and that everyone needed to return home.

A landscape photo shows the day after the Taliban entered the city and the fighters have blocked the entrance to the presidential palace perimeter in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ishaq Ali Anis / Arete

After that day, everyone went into hiding . The roads were completely deserted. I had been living in Kabul for 8-9 years and I had never experienced seeing anything like that before.

Civilians walk through the deserted streets a few days after the government collapse in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ishaq Ali Anis / Arete

I knew I had to leave Afghanistan. I would have been putting myself at risk by staying. The Taliban has no tolerance for the arts and especially for photographers like myself who has worked with countries like the UK, the United States and France over the years.

I had a friend in France who was able to get us onto a list to leave Kabul. In the lead up to my departure, myself and my six colleagues attempted to get through the gates and into the airport by saying we were on the list. Three made it through but three of us were unlucky and got turned away. 

Outside the gate I took photos of the other journalists, filmmakers and other members of the media. I knew I had to document it, but I was not there for this purpose. I was there to escape like them.

Ishaq Ali Anis and friends wait for French military armoured vehicle to escort them to the French forces camp in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sami Ataie / Arete

We returned to a friend’s house, changed and showered. Then, around 3 or 4 in the afternoon we received another message saying that our names had now been added to a list and they gave us a code to give the French Soldiers at the gate.

We returned to the airport and found the French forces, feeling hopeful that we would get through, but we were turned away for a second time saying our names were not on the list. It was really disappointing.

But I was committed to leaving the country, I had my laptop, hard drive and money with me and if I couldn’t leave through the airport, I would have gone to the Pakistan border.

However, I tried again. Another French soldier came to replace the other two. I went up to him, explained we are on the list and gave him the code our friends in France gave us. I am not sure how, but this time we were allowed through, I will be forever grateful for this soldier. I hoped this would guarantee my safety, but nothing was guaranteed.

When I entered the airport, I felt like the world had been taken from underneath my feet – I was falling. I had left so many friends behind. I was ringing my friends giving them detailed instructions of the French soldier’s uniforms, their flag and the code they needed.

I felt guilty. Had my friends had been with me they would be inside the airport too.

They made it through in the end, but I still feel guilty. I didn’t call my brother. I could have called him, and he could have got out, but I didn’t.

And then a few days later the explosion happened, and everything got messy.

The journey out of Afghanistan took 3 to 4 days in total. Only when I got on the airplane did I feel safe. I didn’t know where I would end up, but I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be leaving Afghanistan and that chaos and uncertainty.

We were told not to bring lots of luggage as the space was very limited. So, I only took my laptop and hard drives. Sadly, I had to leave my cameras behind. When I was taking photos with my phone it was painful, but I documented what I could.

Ishaq Ali Anis and friends, Nasima, Rosa, Aqeel, and pose for a selfie in front of the pyramid in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

My family are still in Afghanistan. One brother is a farmer, the other is a journalist in Kabul, and his wife works for Norwegian Church Aid. Because he is a journalist, I am not sure if he is safe. Maybe later the Taliban will search for him. For now, there is no Taliban asking, ‘Who are you?’ ’What have you done?’ ‘Show me your passport’. This may happen later, but I don’t know. 

I can no longer report directly from Afghanistan, but I still use Twitter to write about it. For me it’s about keeping the connection between me and Afghanistan alive. If I am tweeting about Afghanistan, I can tell myself that it’s okay, that I am still thinking about it. It still matters to me. I am living here in Paris but my heart is in Afghanistan. 

I stayed with a friend of my cousins for a few days. They were incredible and really looked after us. I am now living in Arbois, a small town in the eastern part of France.

I don’t really have any plans for the future. I want to get settled here. I would like to obtain a residential permit or long-term citizenship but I am afraid they will ban me from going back to Afghanistan. Going back for me, as a photographer, is something that is necessary. But for now, I am planning on doing a master’s degree in something related to photography – something that will empower me to keep working as an artist.


Footnotes

Photos by Ishaq Ali Anis and Sami Ataie
Text by Izzy Morshead