Afghan Photographer Hopes His Image Will Stop Suicide Bombers

Massoud Hossaini was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a photo he took of Tarana Akbari, a 12-year old girl who found herself surrounded by dead bodies after a suicide bombing at a shrine in Kabul.
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The first Afghan to win a Pulitzer Prize collected winnings at Columbia University on May 21. But although the Kabul-based photographer's image shed the international spotlight on Afghanistan's underreported suicide bombings, the Afghan government has not yet acknowledged his work.

Massoud Hossaini was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a photo he took of Tarana Akbari, a 12-year old girl who found herself surrounded by dead bodies after a suicide bombing at a shrine in Kabul. With a look of terror on her face, the girl in the green dress is screaming after two explosions left many of her friends and family dead at her feet on December 6, 2011.

"Groups like al-Qaeda are always claiming that Western countries are taking these kind of violent actions against Muslims," Hossaini said in a Skype interview. "But this was an action from one extremist Islamic group against another group of Muslims, and this is scary and painful."

Hossaini said the Taliban initially accepted responsibility for the suicide bombing, but condemned it once his photo gained an impact in Afghanistan. The photo, which had to be cropped to reduce the amount of blood shown in the image, was featured on the front pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times on the morning after the suicide bombing. Hossaini was worried that the girl's family would be upset about its publication, but he found more support in Afghanistan than he expected.

"Tarana's father said, 'thank you very much for showing the world our pain,'" he said. Reactions he received were almost all positive, and he was thanked for exposing the violence in the world's most dangerous country. But even Hossaini still suffers from nightmares about the day that resulted in his unexpected fame.

While photographing an annual ceremony, Hossaini was recording the sounds of religious singing when he suddenly felt something powerful hit the backside of his body. He fell to the ground and was paralyzed for a few seconds before noticing himself bleeding.

"When you're close to a bomb and it doesn't kill you, the sound of the explosion will shake your skeleton," he said. "Then you will feel pain. I didn't feel any pain in my hand, but I felt pain inside my body."

With shrapnel in his left hand, blurred vision and difficulty hearing, Hossaini decided to run towards toward the smoke while all other photographers were running away. He soon found himself in front of a pile of bodies -- more than 70 dead, many wounded.

"I was crying," Hossaini said. "I just had to do something, to make some voice. I had to choose whether to sit somewhere and cry to myself to make myself calm or go on recording."

With weakened senses, Hossaini wasn't sure what was going on. He doesn't remember hearing voices that he later heard in his recordings. He ran towards colors in the smoke and saw the girl in the bright green dress, now bloodstained, shouting desperately for help for the children she had been playing with just minutes ago. An older man picked up the body of the girl's baby brother.

"He lifted the boy from the ground and I just saw that the back side of the head was completely destroyed," Hossaini said. "The man put him back on the ground in front of Tarana's feet and said, 'he's finished.'"

Hossaini never expected to win a Pulitzer Prize for his photo, but he hopes the media attention will bring the image into the hands of Islamic extremist groups, who emotionally distance themselves from the pain felt by victims of their attacks. To them, life is cheap, and he hopes that his photos will penetrate their thoughts.

"They are blind and they are deaf," he said. "The leaders never let them access the media. They never watch TV. They never see newspapers. They never want to update themselves."

In the ten years following the September 11 terrorist attacks, there were 736 suicide attacks in Afghanistan. In 2011, the Taliban was responsible for 80 percent of these.

As a photojournalist, Hossaini has the power to influence people to help put a stop to the violence -- and he hopes Afghans will put pressure on the government to take greater actions against extremist groups.

Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded for photography since 1942. Hossaini's photo, which was distributed by Agence France-Presse, marks the first time that both AFP and an Afghan claim the prestigious award. While the international attention has not yet triggered the Afghan government to publicly acknowledge the photo, the photographer's increasing publicity may make its governmental impact inevitable.