An Afghan villager rides a donkey in a dusty road in Zadyan district of Balkh province on September 23, 2012.
AFP Photo/Qais Usyan

by Marlowe Hood


Qais Usyan, a self-taught photographer from northern Afghanistan who began working for AFP in August 2011, had already revealed an exceptional gift when his life was cut short on February 9th at age 25 after a brief illness. 

“He had a brilliant eye and was a natural light-stalker. He was a rare raw talent,” said fellow AFP photographer Massoud Hossaini, whose own work in Afghanistan earned him a Pulitzer Prize last year. “Qais never had any training but he was growing so fast. We became close friends after he joined AFP to cover the Mazar-i-Sharif region, and we exchanged a lot about photography.” His fallen colleague, Hossaini added, was surely destined for international recognition and was already an inspiration for other Afghan photographers. 

One is struck not only by the sheer beauty of his pictures, but an uncanny eye for natural composition, as if he had positioned in his mind’s eye the rainbow, the clouds and the birds that help structure his images.  And, of course, the photos tell us something about the society he lived in – Qais, after all, was a news photographer.

The family of a five year old Afghan girl, that was allegedly raped by a 22 year old man, looks on as she lies in a hospital bed in Kaldar district of Balk Province of Mazar-i-Sharif on November 12, 2012.
AFP Photo

“Qais was willing to break taboos, to show all aspects of life in Afghanistan,” Hossaini said, pointing by way of example to a photo he took of a rape victim in hospital that earned him prizes but also the ire of some of his compatriots. “Usyan” means “rebellion” in Azerbaijani, and Qais lived up to his name: “He was a rebellious young man who wanted to change his life.”

The oldest of his siblings, Qais studied radiology and then political science after graduating from high school, according to his younger brother Ali.  But it was only after he picked up a camera that he found something that truly ignited his passions.

“He started reading books about photography and was talking about photography at the house all the time,” Ali recalls. “He saved some money and went to Kabul and bought a Nikon camera. It was not so big or modern, and it was difficult for him to pay for it. But he was so happy. It must be the first time in Mazar that an Afghan photographer walked in the streets with a camera on the neck. He sometimes lay on the ground to take pictures, and I remember feeling deeply ashamed.  People thought he was crazy. But he didn’t care.”

An Afghan deaf girl attends a class at a school in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif on December 21, 2011. Almost all of Afghanistan's educational facilities have been lost by two decades of war.
AFP Photo

Qais was not only indifferent to the disapproving looks of his neighbors, but to the dangers of his new-found occupation.  “I remember one time he went to an area which had been devastated by floods and earthquake, and his phone was off for 24 hours,” Ali said. “Our family was so worried. We tried to keep him from going to dangerous places, but he never listened. He used his personal contacts and went among the insurgents too. His understanding and feeling was completely different compared to the rest of us.”

Ali said his brother will be sorely missed. “After my father’s death he was the main pillar of the family, and losing him is so hard for us now. He stood out in our society. He could be friends with a child, a worker, anyone. He was also an activist for civil society, notably for women’s rights.”

Just before he died, Qais was scheduled to go to Turkey on assignment. “He was so exciting about that. He was telling me that he would meet Turkish photographers and would learn a lot of things. But this will never happen."

Qais Usyan leaves a wife and a two-year-old son.


An Afghan woman and her children are seen near flying pigeons in Mazar-e-sharif, Balkh province on September 30, 2011.
AFP Photo

An Afghan National Army (ANA) cadet looks on during a graduation ceremony on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif on December 18, 2011.
AFP Photo

Afghan boys play football in sunset in Mazar-i-Shraif on January 10, 2012. Football is one of the most popular games in Afghanistan and is played on dusty dry ground more often than grass.
AFP Photo

An Afghan girl holds a doll in a displaced camp in Kabul on January 25, 2012. Despite massive injections of foreign aid since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan remains desperately poor with some of the lowest living standards in the world.
AFP Photo

An Afghan girl smiles as she looks on in the old section of Kabul on a cold winter day on January 17, 2012.
AFP Photo

An Afghan man feeds pigeons on the roof of his house as a rainbow forms in the background in Mazar-i Sharif on February 19, 2012. Mazar-i Sharif is the capital of Balkh province with multi-ethnic groups such as Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks and Hazaras.
AFP Photo

Afghan woman work on sewing machines in a workshop in Mazar-i Sharif, capital of Balkh province on April 30, 2012.   Mazar-i Sharif is the capital of Balkh province with an existence of multi-ethnic groups such as Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks and Hazaras.
AFP Photo

Afghan children carry water as they play in Dehdadi district of Balkh province on July 27, 2012.
AFP Photo

An Afghan schoolboy carries a chair towards a class in an open area in Mazar-i Sharif, capital of the Balkh province on April 9, 2012.
AFP Photo

Afghans walks at the Ali Shrine in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province on December 6, 2012. Once known as the "mother of cities,
AFP Photo

n Afghan worker prepares a local snack food called seemian, made from flour and sugar, at a factory in Mazar-i-Sharif on February 2, 2013.
AFP Photo

An Afghan boy walks with his cow at sunset in Mazar-i Sharif, capital of the Balkh province on April 9, 2012.
AFP Photo


*editor's note: an earlier version of this post misstated the cause of death.