Even in the midst of conflict and hardship, there still exists a charming beauty that often goes unnoticed by the ordinary eye. And this beauty is what French photographer Oriane Zerah has embarked on showcasing, in a remarkable expedition throughout Afghanistan. In this country often plagued by conflict, she captures floral grandeur in the middle of the crises that its people face.
Oriane’s evocative photographs showcase a different side of Afghanistan. They reveal the resilience and beauty that coexist with the harsh realities of war and stereotypes. Through her lens, she strives to challenge prejudiced thinking about the country and offers a fresh perspective on a nation often defined by conflict.
The Floral Photography of Oriane Zerah
A self-trained in photography and an enthusiast of traveling, Oriane has always been fascinated by the interest that Afghan people have in flowers. The photographer, who, for years, spent her time capturing the beauty of flowers in the often volatile Afghanistan notes that despite the not-so-peaceable conditions that the country often finds itself in, its people still showcase an admiration for floral beauty.
In a series of floral snapshots that she has taken in a photography project named Afghanistan: Roses under Thorns, Oriane documents the daily lifestyles of Afghans detailing how the people perceive flowers and how they hold them in great reverence.
The Inspiration Behind the Project and Its Metaphoric Impression
Oriane’s fascination with Afghanistan began long before she even set foot in the country. Drawn to the rich cultural heritage and intrigued by the juxtaposition of floral beauty and conflict, she felt compelled to challenge the prevailing stereotypes and shed light on the untold stories of its people. Her project, titled 'Afghanistan: Roses under the Thorns', showcases the deep respect and admiration that she has for the Afghan people and their enduring spirit.
Flowers have always held a special place in human culture, often symbolizing elements like love, beauty, and hope. In Oriane’s project, the flowers are, in ways, metaphors for resilience and defiance demonstrated by the Afghans. In her capturing of Afghan men adorned with flowers, she defies conventional notions of masculinity and confronts the stereotype of the Afghan warrior.
In a society deeply affected by war and violence, she says the sight of men proudly wearing or holding flowers confronts expectations and accentuates the universal human need for delicate beauty, even in the harshest circumstances.
“I've been very lucky to do this project because it's quite a privilege to show the beauty of flowers in Afghanistan, and to share it. People there have always been so happy about my photography. The media hardly talks about the country positively. Whoever talks about this country is always portraying it in negative terms.
Afghanistan has so much to offer but what we see or read isn't always the reality. So, people here are actually appreciating me. I’ve never had any bad experience whenever I took a photo of an Afghan with flowers. And surprisingly, even after the takeover by the Taliban, there were some soldiers on the streets with flowers on their weapons, and they were happy to pose for me. I took photos of them with their weapons adorned with flowers.”
Essentially, the Kabul-based French photographer’s pictures offer a new perspective on Afghanistan, depicting the inherent dignity and grace of its people. Be it men wearing flowers on their traditional hats or soldiers juxtaposing rifles and other weapons and blossoms, Oriane’s images speak volumes about the complex realities of life in the country.
Her lens captures the often too-fragile balance between hope and despair during war and showcases the resilience and determination of the Afghans amid these situations.
The Afghan Allure
Her photography project, Oriane says, is a means to positively talk about Afghanistan, a country she says she deeply fell in love with ever since she first visited in 2012, and lived there till 2015 before leaving then going back to settle down in 2019.
“It's been twelve years that I've been in Afghanistan. It was, therefore, important for me to show another aspect of the country, because whenever anyone talks about Afghanistan, it's always about tragedies and wars, which of course, was a reality. The country has been at war for more than forty years. But there's always a different side to a story. And I wanted to show this other side.
Any foreigner who goes to Afghanistan and anyone who's been there will notice this love that afghan people have for flowers. I believe that the more there's violence in a place, the more the need for beauty. And flowers are like the beauty within. You don't need to be rich or have money to have flowers. Anyone can grow them even in the smallest space they have. That's what Afghans do.”
Afghanistan, she says, is a land of many contrasts, which, however, add to the richness of the floral beauty that the country possesses. It is, for instance, much easier for Afghan men to pose with flowers than it is for women. Women, Oriane says, hardly accept to pose. Though they sometimes do, it is rare. But men, on the other hand, easily accept; they take photographs outside and in public places. Women who accept to have their photographs taken usually do so inside their homes.
That notion, she says, she found quite fascinating because the impression it portrayed was contrary to traditional beliefs that often associated Afghan men more with Kalashnikovs than with roses.
“Every place in Afghanistan is very scenic but it all depends. For some photography, I would just be walking through the city with a bunch of flowers, and if I see an interesting face with an interesting background, I would just ask the people to pose for me with the flowers. I would also ask them what flowers represent in their lives. And every so often I noticed this little moment; whenever you give a flower to someone and they hold it, it was enough to make them open up.”
Breaking Stereotypes With Flowers
As previously noted, one of the main inspirations behind Oriane's flower photography project is to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about Afghan society. Afghanistan is often portrayed in the media as a war-ravaged nation, overshadowing its rich floral and cultural heritage and the daily lives of its people.
Focusing on the beauty of flowers and the individuals who proudly embrace them, therefore, inspires anyone else to question their preconceived notions of the country and see beyond the stereotypes.
And through her photography, Oriane has managed to significantly achieve this feat, and in turn gain widespread acclaim for the photographs’ ability to arouse emotions. Her exhibitions have, equally, provided a platform for dialogues and understanding of the Afghan people on a much deeper level.
Appreciating the universal language of flowers and floral beauty, her works basically use these elements to foster empathy and human connection; a pointer to the humanity that exists beneath the surface. Additionally, through her photographs, she showcases, not just floral beauty, but also the strength that coexists with the challenges faced by the country and its people.
You can also read about gardening and the tranquility that it brings even amid wars and chaos.