KABUL, Afghanistan — On a clear and cold day in March 2013, Farshad Usyan put his medical studies aside to become a photographer for Agence France-Presse. Good thing he wasn’t actually given a camera that day.
“I wouldn’t have been able to turn it on,” he recalled.
Yet the wire service took a chance on the 20-year-old novice, just as it had with his eldest brother, Qais, a self-taught photographer who had supported the family working for the wire service. When his brother died, Mr. Usyan took up photography to help support his mother, three brothers and his sister-in-law. But a passion for the medium grew when, like Qais, he realized it provided a way to convey the aspirations he had for change in Afghanistan.
“When you see both their pictures, I think it’s undeniable that Qais made a big impression on Farshad,” said Pedro Ugarte, then Agence France-Presse’s photo director for the Asia-Pacific. “They both had a special sensitivity toward their subject. I would think his way of looking at the world today comes from his brother.”
Mr. Usyan grew up under the Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif. His parents weren’t religious, but they were uncompromising when it came to education for their seven children. What the Taliban forbade, their uncle would teach them by the glow of an oil lamp in an underground room at the extended family’s home — Persian, geography and history, along with reading any books they could find.
Then the Americans came.
The Taliban willed the people of Mazar to pray for victory. One night, Mr. Usyan went to sleep under their rule. When he got up the next day, they were gone. He looked up to his brother Qais, who was ambitious, generous and community minded. He established youth associations and helped orphaned children through sport and theater. He encouraged his younger brother’s need for knowledge through the ideas of Marx and Che Guevara.
Mr. Usyan was still in high school when Qais, looking for a way to illustrate his ideas about Afghan society, taught himself how to use a camera. Agence France-Presse hired him as a stringer in 2009, and his grass-roots perspective informed his photography. Mr. Usyan, whose English was better, wrote captions for him. After filing, the two looked at Mr. Usyan’s phone, awed when the photographs appeared, like magic, on the wire, and celebrated when the pictures were chosen as the agency’s “Top Shots.”
Qais was at home in Mazar one day in early 2013, when he complained of a headache. He was taken to the hospital but died two days later. Mr. Usyan suspects his brother was deliberately poisoned during a night of drinking with friends; perhaps it was revenge sought by a corrupt policeman Qais had photographed, or a friend jealous of his job. Cases of blindness and death from bootleg liquor, however, are also common in the region.
No answers ever emerged.
There was little time for grief. Qais’s death, along with their father’s a year earlier, meant that responsibility for providing for the family fell to Mr. Usyan and his older brother Anil.
Mr. Ugarte, the Agence France-Presse’s photo director in the region, recalled that Shah Marai, then the agency’s chief photographer in Afghanistan — who was later killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul, in 2018 — went to Mazar to pay his respects on behalf of the agency, and also to look for another photographer. “After he came back,” Mr. Ugarte recalled, “he told me he had met his brother, who had never worked as a photographer before, but he was confident he could turn him into a good one.”
The move helped the Usyan family as it did Agence France-Presse: an Afghan solution for an Afghan problem.
A couple of weeks later, Mr. Usyan accepted Mr. Marai’s offer, even though he had never used a professional camera. The next day, he spent the 10-hour bus ride to Mazar-i Sharif figuring out by trial and error out how the settings on his brother’s camera worked. “I took pictures of anything,” he said. “Even the garbage can inside the bus.”
Three days later was Nawroz, the Persian New Year, when tens of thousands of Afghans descend on Mazar-i Sharif to celebrate. Mr. Marai, unsure of his young recruit’s capabilities, flew to Mazar to cover the ceremonies alongside him. When The New York Times chose an Agence France-Presse image for its gallery of photos of the day, it was Mr. Usyan’s.
Roberto Schmidt, Agence France-Presse’s chief photographer for South Asia then, remembered Qais Usyan as “the jewel” of the agency’s stringers in Afghanistan. What was incredible about Farshad Usyan, he said, was that “knowing he had no experience, he picked up almost seamlessly” from his brother.
Mr. Schmidt, who has covered conflict for decades, said that “it’s difficult for photographers who’ve grown up in conflict seeing what goes on the front pages of the newspapers.” Many, he suggested, feed the international media with representations of their country they feel the world expects, perpetuating, in the case of Afghanistan for instance, the myth of intractable conflict.
But Farshad Usyan’s instinct was to avoid those tropes. Instead, his gentle demeanor inclined him away from scenes that focused only on the violence expected of Afghanistan and toward more mundane struggles: child laborers, poverty and the effects of climate change, as well as unexpected vignettes from a more modern Afghanistan in Mazar’s snooker parlors and barbershops.
Mr. Usyan still works toward a future more like the one his parents allowed him to aspire to. It is a journey that began long before he picked up his camera.
“Qais,” he said, “inspired me in life more than in photography.”