Blow-up: Seamus Murphy & the Inner World of Afghan Women


Starting today, I’m going to be bringing to you interesting photographic work, both old and new, both conventional and unusual—work that inspires me, and moves me in some way, and work that I hope will make you see a different side of things. The ultimate idea is to show you the many worlds that exist within ours, and how a photographic choice can magnify these worlds, enlarge the many lives and facets that reside within them. And so, we shall call this series of showcases Blow-up. 

Photograph/Seamus Murphy

Photograph/Seamus Murphy

“Men here may eat first, but women hold the power of story,” says writer Eliza Griswold about Afghanistan in a write-up on Outside Online. This about sums up the incentive behind the collaboration that she and photographer Seamus Murphy undertook on the contemporary poetry of Afghanistan’s women and its reflection of their world. Titled Landays, the text-poetry-photos-video project features two-line oral poems by Afghani women. This form of poetry has been around for centuries, and has evolved to reflect the strife in Afghanistan, and in the women’s own lives. The Pashtun word ‘Landay’ means short, poisonous snake, and the 22-syllable poems are the songs of anonymous Pashtun women, who are not allowed to love, not allowed to mourn, not allowed to write. The series is a tribute to a world that is seriously endangered, a world of private thoughts, wishes and aspirations, a world where everything is veiled, but nothing is hidden. 

“I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.”

“When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.”

I think that it is exceptionally hard to gain access to the mind of women, their fears, their insecurities, their love, their longing and their desires. They keep things within so many layers that even a smile is filled with plenty of meaning. In a world where women have learned to scowl even when they’re getting married, so as to not be persecuted for falling in love, it must have been quite a task for Murphy to gain access not just to simple meetings, but also their inner feelings. “To ask a woman to sing a landay is to ask what has happened to her. If she agrees, in those two lines she’ll sing you the story of her life and of the places she comes from—places that, for me as for most of us, are impossible to go to,” says Eliza. And it is these places that Murphy attempts to journey to, in his photographs, while Eliza translates the Pashtun landays to English. 

“May God make you into a riverbank flower
so I may smell you when I gather water.”

“You’ll never be a mullah, Talib, no matter what you do.
Studying your book, you see my green tattoo.”

Seamus has been working in Afghanistan for over 20 years, and his understanding of Afghanistan shows, not only in his earlier black and white work, but also the newer colour photos that he has made for Landays. While looking at the work for the first time, I wondered whether a white man would understand what it is like to be not just a Muslim woman, but also an Afghan woman, who has been stifled by the Taliban, and torn by war and the grief that it brought along. Please understand that when I say that I wondered whether he would know what it is like to be a Muslim woman, I mean that each community has a certain way of life, one that may or may not be easily understood by people who do not belong to that community. If he had chosen to portray another community, I would have wondered the same. Basically, what I was looking for was an insider’s perspective, and at first, I found it hard to believe that a Western photographer would manage to get the pulse of such a layered world. While the veils and burkhas stay, the women are not just “mute ghosts beneath a blue burkha” to quote Eliza Griswold talking about the common perception of Afghan women. McCurry’s portrait brought us face-to-face with the arresting beauty of the Afghans, and Murphy’s work goes beyond the face, beyond the form. It takes us to the heart of the matter, where emotions seethe and roil, and where no amount of bans can stifle the soft, but confident voices of these women poets.

I’m in love! I won’t deny it, even if
you gouge out my green tattoos with a knife.

Separation brought this kind of grief:
it made itself a mullah and me the village thief.

What is beautiful about the collaboration is that Murphy’s perspective has aged quite well. Eliza Griswold has also found landays that have changed to include war, separation and grief. Landays started out as being sung by nomads and farmers. After nearly three decades of war, millions of people have been displaced and their families decimated. It was only natural that this clandestine poetry began to reflect this agony. It was also only natural for the poems to begin sounding anti-American, considering how much the country has suffered at the hand of international forces. Other landays also reference Afghanistan’s heroin and opium trade, which travels through Iran. Addiction is at an all-time high. In a rough country where food is scarce, and medical aid is negligible, poppy thrives, and makes prisoners. This combination of landays and photographs constructs a narrative that is holistic without being rigid or imposing stereotypes.

My Nabi was shot down by a drone.
May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.

Hamid Karzai sent our sons to Iran
and made them slaves to heroin.

Seamus Murphy and Eliza Griswold’s project is a visual and poetic treat, and also a brave, respectful foray into the minds of a people, of a community. There is much to be learned here, not just from the imagemaking and conceptualising process, but also from the manner in which these two authors have established a relationship between the viewers and their subjects.

I dream I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Better Photography.


If you hide me from the Taliban, I will become a tassel on your drum.

To read the entire write-up by Eliza Griswold and to view more photos by Seamus Murphy, you can visit: Landays
There is also a beautiful video called Snake: Poetry of the Women of Afghanistan

Image Sources: The Poetry Foundation and VII Photo

Eliza Griswold’s work:
Seamus Murphy’s work:

Tags: Showcase, Ambarin Afsar, black and white, afghanistan, colour, Documentary, Women, Poetry, seamus murphy, eliza griswold, landays, blow-up feature