Festival Spotlight: Omer Khan Finds the Beauty of Afghanistan Through His Lens
Omer Khan was born in Kabul, and from a young age has been in love with the beauty of Afghanistan. He hoped with each snap of his camera to capture its enchanting countryside, historic locales, and natural wonders, in part because he feels that photographers traveling to his country from the West have focused only on capturing war photos depicting violence, displaced people, and explosions. Because of this, his mission became showing the images they miss, the natural landscapes, ancient sites, and the faces, smiles, and lives of everyday Afghans.
“I have always loved art,” says Omer. Early on, he learned Persian calligraphy. In university, he studied journalism, but his program only covered content and story-telling training. He understood how to write photo-journalism stories, but was not yet trained in using cameras. So around 2014, he began observing others taking pictures, noticed their lighting, composition and editing. He watched YouTube videos and mastered the optics of the camera.
From Embassy Showing to Growing Acclaim
Soon, Omer’s self-training paid off. He was taking his own photographs and traveled to the provinces to capture the images he longed to show. Word slowly grew. Then a big break came when his brother, who worked at the U.S. Embassy, showed some of Omer’s photographs to a friend there, which led to a showing at the Embassy. Even Ambassador John McKinley attended and bought one of Omer’s photographs.
Thanks to the positive feedback, Omer was invited to open a gallery shop at the Embassy in 2015. As it was not safe for embassy staff to travel to local marketplaces, the Embassy invited local artisans and vendors to open shops there, “bringing the marketplace to the diplomats.”. Omer’s gallery shop joined others in the Embassy marketplace, which included shops for jewelry, art, and Afghan carpets. He gained a following, and his work became widely known and respected.
In 2019, he collected his photographs in his first book: “The Hidden Treasure,” which he published himself with 500 copies. In 2020, with a newly purchased Sony Alpha AR3 camera, Omer began work on a second edition, traveling to three Afghan provinces to capture new images. He was determined to show the world the happier side of Afghan life. He was not prepared for what would happen in the coming year
Then the Taliban Came
The situation in Afghanistan worsened in 2021 as the Taliban gained ground. Those who had benefited from years of freedom feared for the future. In August, the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, and Omer was forced to flee his beloved country with his family, His gallery, the Kabul he knew, and photography treks through the Afghan countryside were now history.
During one of the days when the Taliban overran Kabul, Omer was at his shop. Embassy staff said he was to get out his stuff. “We are closing.” He began clearing out his inventory but then started helping others, like his artist friend and the carpet shop owner. Then Omer’s wife called. With fear in her voice, she said the Taliban were coming. “They have already taken over the Presidential Palace and are coming to the Embassy. You need to leave now.” He grabbed three hard drives and one copy of his book. There was no time for anything else, not his photographs, not even his computer.
Hard Journey, Hard Living
In the days leading up to the Taliban take-over, Omer was able to register for a P2 immigration visa for himself, his wife, a friend, and his 6-year-old son. As they rushed to the Kabul airport the crowds were mobbing and desperate to get on the flights out. He held his son’s and wife’s hands tightly as they slipped through the crowd. The P2 visa gained them permission to pass through the gate. They slept in the airport that night, scared, then boarded a flight to Doha the next day, followed by 8 days waiting in a U.S. Army camp in Germany. Finally, Omer and his family landed in Virginia and were sent to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for two and a half months for processing and, upon release, started their new life in San Diego.
Afghanistan is now far behind Omer, but not the memories of his old life. The family was lucky they could live for time with Omer’s brother in San Diego, who had arrived two months prior. With the help of non-profit organizations, they were able to find an empty apartment. Living was not easy for the newly arrived Afghans. At one point, they ate the same food for 7 days. Omer was sorry to see his son live this way. He found a night shift job with Amazon, but at a facility two hours away. The commute was too much, and he quit when he found a closer job at Subway, but still a 45-minute walk from their home.
Those he left behind are always on Omer’s mind. His father, sister, and mother are still in Afghanistan, “They are OK,” he says, “but there is no work. It’s bad.” Omer sends them money when he can to purchase food.
Since leaving Kabul, Omer’s photography career has been on hold. He misses having a car to travel to take photographs. And when asked if he was able to capture any images of his journey, he says no, remembering that at the military camp, no one was allowed to take photographs.
Restarting His Career, One Step at a Time
Years ago, Omer began his career as a photographer back home taking a few small steps at a time. He understands he must do it all again.
He is excited for the opportunity to host his first U.S. photography exhibit through the One Journey Festival. “I am thankful for One Journey allowing me to share my pictures again, and other refugees to share their talents from their homelands.”
Several years ago, Omer travelled to India, where he met wonderful people, but they were incredulous to learn he was Afghan, and a photographer, and that he could travel. He recalled telling them, “Afghanistan is free now, even with the Taliban, there is hope for us.”
Sadly, this is no longer true. But he is hopeful that freedom can return. And he looks forward to showing images of the beauty of Afghanistan that was and of the happiness that its people can someday find again. In the meantime, while progress is slow, he is finding the freedom to begin again in America.
“A Safe Space to Create”
Omer’s work will be displayed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, REACH Skylight Pavilion on Friday, June 24 for ‘A Safe Space to Create,’ the inaugural U.S. photo exhibit of Omer Khan and featuring art from Afghan painter Jahan Ara Rafi. Experience Omer’s photography and meet the artist at this free event from 6-8pm. RSVP by June 22.
In addition, Omer will be at the One Journey Festival on Saturday, June 25 in our Global Marketplace. You’ll have the opportunity to purchase prints from him and support his photography business from 11-6pm. RSVP on Eventbrite now!