Photojournalism is about humanising problems, not sensationalising them

Credit: Zalmai Photography

By Megan Howe

(All photographs from and

“When I was a teenager I didn't even know what a refugee was-then I became one.”

Zalmaï spent his childhood in Afghanistan but was forced to flee at 15 after the Soviet invasion in 1980. He and his older brother fled with the help of a smuggler through the rural mountain terrain, evading Soviet troops before finally reaching the Afghan-Pakistani border. There he sought refuge and later travelled to Switzerland where he made his home in Lausanne. He studied photography and started photographing refugees in 1989 to help deepen the understanding of their stories.

“I don't work to please my colleagues and have my name in the New York Times. It’s about humanising problems, not sensationalising them.”

Zalmaï repeatedly traveled to Afghanistan to document the refugee situation. During the Soviet invasion, over 6 million Afghans fled the country as refugees. But between 1988 and 2000 nearly 5 million refugees retuned to Afghanistan. Many of the returnees faced continued hardship upon their return as the Taliban took power.

After 2001, a horde of foreign photographers and journalists flooded into Afghanistan to cover the US invasion and the war against the Taliban.

Zalmaï says that “many journalists had no idea what was happening in the country. They just came to be embedded with foreign troops. I told them this was not the way to cover the story of Afghanistan-you can’t just tell the story of the soldiers.”

Credit: Zalmaï Photography

Zalmaï said he faced an even greater risk than foreign journalists in his attempts to show the human side of the conflict. If captured, he would have been seen as a traitor in the eyes of the Taliban and likely have been treated worse than an international correspondent. Although Zalmaï did embed with NATO troops on a few occasions he was more interested in telling the stories of his countrymen.

After photographing for various international publications, Zalmaï started work with Human Rights Watch last year where, without the pressure to sell magazine and deliver what his editors demanded, he says he has more freedom to tell the real story.

“Its not about politics, not about misery, not about who is better or who is worse, who has war and who doesn’t. No. We are all humans. We have to make a connection between East and West, and I feel like I am a bridge. ”

Zalmaï says that his instagram account allows him to “go directly to my audience without censorship” or having to negotiate with picture editors.

Credit: Zalmai Photography


Many journalists feel intense pressure to cover conflicts or stories in a certain way to meet the “market demand.” Zalmaï says that journalists and photographers must have an extraordinarily strong conviction because they will always be pressure to create a product that appeals to the masses.

“I don't want to be part of the propaganda. Photographing people in crisis is not a Hollywood movie. We must understand these are real people, with real suffering, in a real situation. Our job is to be as human as possible.”

After a recent trip to Lesbos, Zalmaï said that many of the photographers waited to capture the most dramatic shots possible. He said the island has become a ‘must-see’ for media, effectively driving journalistic or humanitarian ‘tourism.’

“They [other photographers] wanted lots of waves. They were also disappointed on day that was sunny because they thought that would lead to less dramatic shots.”

He says after the boats arrived, the photographers would rush to shoot the boats coming up to shore and then back off. “They didn’t even talk to the people.”

“I try to be honest and simple. Making a beautifully sad picture simple is difficult. Making a dramatic picture is very easy.”

With global displacement at an all-time high of almost 60 million, Zalmaï says the media should avoid instilling fear in their audience. “Regarding this crisis in Europe, we need to humanise it. Numbers scare people. When you give a face to the number, people feel closer to the situation.”

Credit: Zalmai Photography

Last year Zalmaï published 'Dread and Dreams' a book of photos complied from 2008 to 2013 about the war in Afghanistan. Staying true to his convictions, only one dead body appears in the book. Instead of highlighting gore and glory, he tells the story of the people experiencing war within Afghanistan.

His final piece of advice to the next generation of photojournalists:

“Try to understand your subject, listen, and be close to the people. Don’t be a vulture taking what you need and leaving. Give back. These people don't have anything. They only thing they have left is dignity and humanity, don't take that from them too.”

Zalmaï was talking to the EJN at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival event, Desperate Journeys.

For more on the ethics of of how media cover migration read our Moving Stories report which covers 14 countries and the European Union.

comments powered by Disqus
ABU, AP, ARD, ARTICLE 19, Accountable Journalism, Afghan Journalists Federation, Afghanistan, Afghanistan Journalists Centre, Africa, Africa e Mediterraneo and Lai-momo Summer School, Agence France-Presse (AFP), Ahmad Quraishi, Ahmet Altan, Aidan White, Aiding Law enforcement, Alan Yuhas, Albania, Ali Sonboly, Aljazeera, Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Anders Breivik, Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights, Anti-Semitism, Arabic, Ashok Gupta, Ashraf Ghani, Asia, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Associated Reporters Abroad, Association of Commercial Television, Australia, Aylan Kurdi, BBC, BBC Radio London, BBC World Service, Balkans, Barcelona, Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture (CCCB), Being first, Belgium, Billy Russell, Bob Geldof, Boris Johnson, Bosnia, Boston Marathon bomber, Bottom-line decisions, Brazil, Brexit, Broadcast, Brussels, Brussels Terror Attacks 2016, Bulgaria, Burma, Buzzfeed, CIMA, Can Dündar, Carles Torner, Central Asia, Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CPMF), Ceren Sözeri, Channel 4, Charlie Beckett, Charlie Hebdo, Charter of Rome, Child Rights International Network (CRIN), China, Chris Elliott, Christopher Kremmer, Church Action on Poverty, City University London, Climate News Network, Comedy, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Conference, Conflict, Conservative Party, Consorci Universitat Internacional Menéndez Pelayo de Barcelona (UIMP Barcelona – Centre Ernest Lluch), Controversial photos, Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM), Covering politics, Crimea, Croatia, Cumhuriyet - Turkey, Darfur, Dart Center, David Cameron, David Jordan, Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Denmark, Director's Letter, Donald Trump, Dorothy Byrne, Dr. Zahera Harb, Dunja Mijatovic, EJN Annual Report, EJN Board, EJN International Collaborators, EJN Secretariat, EJN activities, EJN member, EJN participation, EJN report, Earthquakes, Editorial Guidelines, Egypt, Elliot Cass, English, English PEN, Erdem Gül, Eric Baradat, Eric Wishart, Erol Önderoğlu, Ethical Journalism, Ethical Journalism for Free Expression, Ethical Journalism in Action, Ethiopia, Europe, European Commission, European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), European Magazine Media Association, European Media and Information Literacy Forum, European Press Prize, European Union, European University Institute (EUI), Evening Standard, Facebook, Fatumo Farah, Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), Film, Finland, First Amendment Award, Founding EJN member, Fox News, France, Franco-Prussian War, Frans Timmermans, GFMD, Gambia, Gary Younge, Gaza, Geir Terje Ruud, George W. Bush, German PEN, Germany, Getting the story, Gezi Park, Giles Duley, Global Editors Network (GEN), Google, Haim Shibi, Handling sources, Helena Webb, Huffington Post, Human Rights, Humanitarianism, Hungary, Hürriyet - Turkey, IFEX, IPI World Congress, ISIS, Iceland, Independent Association of Egyptian Editors, Independent Press Standards Organisation, Index on Censorship, India, Indonesia, Indonesia;, Indonesian Press Council, Indonesian Press Council (IPC), Institute of the Mediterranean, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Journalism Festival, International Media Ethics Day, International Press Institute (IPI), International Women's Day, Invading privacy, Iran, Israel, Israeli Federation of Journalists, Italy, Jackie Cox, Jakarta, James Copnall, James Rodgers, Jan Egeland, Jane Lydon, Jean-Paul Mathoz, Jerusalem Association of Journalists, Jerusalem Post, John Oliver, Jon Snow, Jordan, Jordan Media Institute, Journalist, Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Justice and Development Party - Turkey, Jyllands Posten, Katie Hopkins, Katie Morris, Keith Somerville, Ken Clarke, Kieran Cooke, Kigali, Kosovo, Lampedusa, Latin America, Latvia, Le Monde, Le Siècle, Lebanon, Leveson, Liat Collins, Lindsey Hilsum, Live Streaming, London Press Club, London School of Economics (LSE), Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), L’Osservatore Romano, Macedonia, Macedonian School of Journalism and Public Relations (SJPR), Malta, Manning, Mare Nostrum, Marina Jirotka, Mark Doyle, Marta Foresti, Martin Plaut, Matt Frei, Matthew Price, Media & Learning, Media Diversity Institute, Media Literacy, Media and Information Literacy, Media and migration, Mediterranean, Megan Howe, Mehmet Baransu, Melanie Gouby, Mexico, Miami Herald, Michael Jetter, Middle East, Military issues, Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, Mohammed Jamjoom, Montenegro, Moving Stories, Myanmar, NGO, NLA University College (Gimlekollen) Kristiansand, NPR, Naming newsmakers, Nasser Abubaker, National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) Thailand, National Union of Journalists (NUJ) -UK, Natural Disasters, Neil Thurman, Nepal, New York, New York Times, Niangara massacre, Nice, Nigeria, No Borders Project, North America, Norway, Norwegian, Norwegian Institute for Journalism, Norwegian Refugee Council, ONA, ONO, Ofcom, Oficina Antifrau de Catalunya, Ombudsmen, Oona Solberg, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Organisation of News Ombudsmen, Overseas Development Institute, PEN America, PEN International, Pakistan, Pakistan Coalition for Ethical Journalism, Palestine, Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, Panama, Panama Papers, Paris, Partners Working In Collaboration With the EJN, Peter Greste, Peter Sullivan, Phepchai Yong, Philippines, Pierluigi Musarò, Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), Polis, Pope Francis, Poynter, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, Press Complaints Commission, Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Press Council of Kosovo (PCK), Press Council of Serbia, Press Council of Thailand, Press Safety, Privy Council, Racheal Nakitare, Rachel Broady, Radio, Randi S. Øgrey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Reddit, Regulation, Reporters without Borders, Reporters’ Academy, Ricardo Gutierrez, Richard Gutjahr, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, Rory Peck Trust, Rossalyn Warren, Royal Charters, Russia, Rwanda, SPJ, Samantha Bee, Sarajevo, Satire, Save the Children, Secret Filming, Self-cencorship, Sensationalism, Sensitive news topics, Serbia, Shaike Komornik, Shami Chakrabarti, Sian Jones, Singapore, Sky News, Snowden, Social Action Centre - Ukraine, Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code, Soft Censorship, South Africa, South America, South East Europe Media Organisation, South East European Network for Professionalization of the Media, South Eastern Europe, South Sudan, Spain, Sr. Rogelio Grajal, Statewatch, Stephen JA Ward, Steven Livingston, Sudan, Sulome Anderson, Supinya Klangnarong, Sweden, Swedish PEN, Syria, TV, Taraf newspaper - Turkey, Texas A&M University, Thai Association of Journalists, Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, Thailand, The Conversation, The Eagle Tribune, The Guardian, The Independent, The Society of Professional Journalists, The Sun, The Telegraph, The Vatican, Thomas Spence, Tom Law, Transparency International, Tuncay Opçin, Tunisia, Turkey, Twitter, Typhoons, UK, UN, UN Alliance of Civilisations, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), UNESCO, UNESCO IPDC, UNICEF, US, US Elections 2016, USA, USA Today, Uganda, Ukraine, Ukrainian, United Kingdom, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United States, University of Bologna, University of Western Australia, Untold Stories, Veerender Jubbal, Victoria Craw, Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB), WAN-IFRA, Wanchai Danaitamonut, Whistleblowing, Wikileaks, William Wintercross, Workplace issues, World Press Freedom Day, World Radio Day, Yasemin Çongar, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Zalmaï, accountability, accuracy, advertising, anonymous comments, automation, bias, blasphemy, blog, breaking news, business model, canada, cartoons, censorship, climate change, code of ethics, comments, complaints, corrections, corruption, credibility, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, data protection, data-driven journalism, democracy, digital, draft law, e European Magazine Media Association, election, ethical journalism weekly roundup, ethics, events, fact checking, fairness, false news, freedom of expression, gender, global ethics, globalism, good news, governance, handbook, hate speech, identity, impunity, infographic, internet, investigative reporting, journalism, journalism training, journalist safety, journalistic methods, journalists in exile, law, legal, libel, media, media audit, media development, media ethics, media ethics and children, media law, migrants, migration, mobile, moderation,, newspapers, objectivity, ombudsman, open journalism, ownership, paid content, photo journalism, pluralism, poverty, press council, press freedom, press release, propaganda, public editor, public interest, public opinion, public trust, readers’ editor, refugee crisis, refugees, reliability, religion, representation, rhetoric, right to be forgotten, right to information, robot journalism, rumours, self regulation, self-regulation, shield law, social media, standards, statements, style guide, suicide, surveys, technology, terrorism, transparency, trolls, turning the page of hate, verification, video, vulgarities, war, women, İpek Yezdani, ​Jennifer Mercieca