On the streets of Kabul, a young man forges ahead

This Seamus Murphy photograph shows just one moment captured during a long relationship with a family in Afghanistan

I have so much respect for photojournalists. Many of them spend long periods in conflict zones. They hope their work, which is driven by passion and empathy, will be published and possibly have a meaningful effect. Yet at news organizations, their work is usually subordinated to the written word. If they try to have it seen on its own terms, in museums or galleries, the art world response veers between indifference and bafflement.

Not always, mind you. I saw this photograph by Seamus Murphy at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in late 2019, and it has stayed with me. It shows a young man on crutches — he’s a tailor named Farhuddin Ba Deli — making his way down a street in Kabul.

It was odd. Shortly before seeing Murphy’s photo, I had been looking at a painting, also at the Getty, by Édouard Manet. It shows a one-legged man on crutches — probably a veteran wounded in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. He’s walking down the street in Paris where Manet had his studio. The street is lined with French flags, because it’s June 30, 1878, when France for the first time was celebrating Fete de la Paix (Celebration of Peace), a festival that two years later became Bastille Day.

When I saw Murphy’s photograph, I was struck by the dynamic arc of the young man’s long body. It’s quite the reverse of the hunched and defeated body of the man in Manet’s painting. The angle from which Murphy has shot Farhuddin makes his leg and torso seem like one big muscle, as if he were a seal, or dolphin, athletically carving his way through the city’s thick evening atmosphere.

I emailed Murphy last week to find out more. Losing one of his legs in a rocket attack “has never stopped Farhuddin from doing anything,” he wrote in his reply.

Murphy, who has received seven World Press Photo awards, told me he met the Ba Deli family in 1994, on his first trip to Afghanistan. “The mother had died, one son had been killed fighting for President Najibullah’s government against the mujahideen. The second youngest son, Farhuddin, 15, had lost a leg in a rocket attack outside their home the previous year. Farhad, the youngest boy, was 12 years old.”

“In 1996,” continued Murphy, “when I met them for the second time, it was under the cloud of Taliban rule. The two older brothers had been killed fighting against the Taliban in the south-west of Kabul, compelled to fight to feed their family.”

In the photo, according to Murphy, Farhuddin “is returning home from work where he shares a flat with his younger brother Farhad. They are alone, their father had recently died.”

Murphy has stayed in touch with the Ba Deli family. He last saw them in May 2021. Since then, American forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan, which is once again under Taliban rule.

What else does Murphy remember?

“The traffic in 2002 was sparse — unlike the craziness it became in the years that quickly followed, with all the investment and money spent on Afghanistan, and Afghans returning home with the promise of a bright future.”

When he looks at the photograph now, Murphy said, he thinks of “the suffering Afghans have endured” and, at the same time, of “how beautiful Kabul is at that time of the evening. It’s just about to be dark, the air is full of dust from the day’s movements, people are going home, resigned to the end of another day.”

Kabul: November 2002, print 2015
Seamus Murphy (b. 1959). At the Getty Museum.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.