Award of Excellence

Sorrow & Defiance: Under Taliban rule, Afghan women navigate a landscape of loss

Marcus Yam

Los Angeles Times

Sometimes their words tumble out like the frantic beating of wings. The tears often flow, but now and then, an eye flashes with a glint of determination. 

Two months after the Taliban takeover of their country, Afghan women and girls inhabit a world transformed. The freedoms and expectations many have come to prize are vanishing as the militant group’s return to power after two decades has stirred profound sorrow over losses that may prove irredeemable. A generation of Afghan girls grew up having never known the lash of Taliban rule. The fundamentalist movement was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion launched in answer to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ending the group’s five-year reign. But their black-and-white flags again fly over the capital. Their fighters patrol the markets; their preachers thunder in the mosques. Young women largely barred from school or jobs describe the nightmarish sensation of their mothers’ tales suddenly unfolding in real life. What was once said aloud is now whispered or not spoken at all. And for those of an age to have firsthand recollections of the Taliban’s cruelty, any moment of any day can feel like an old wound, opened anew. Taliban leaders in Kabul and other cities have sought to soften their image — one previously marked by stonings, amputations and public executions — suggesting their new restrictive measures are temporary. They place vague parameters around certain behavior, saying women can participate fully in society, but within the framework of their interpretation of Islamic law. In a stark symbol of the new order, the Afghan Women’s Affairs Ministry was abolished and replaced by one tasked with promulgating virtue and preventing vice — in essence, the former religious police. Some 124,000 Afghans, including tens of thousands of women and girls, fled the country in the massive airlift staged in the final days of American power. But millions remain behind, and defiance comes at a cost.

Marcus Yam is a roving Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent and staff photographer. Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he left a career in aerospace engineering to become a photographer. His goal: to take viewers to the frontlines of conflict, struggle and intimacy. His approach is deeply rooted in curiosity and persistence. In 2019, Yam was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Award for his unflinching body of work documenting the everyday plight of Gazans during deadly clashes in the Gaza Strip. He was also part of two Pulitzer Prize-winning breaking news teams that covered the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attacks in 2015 for the Los Angeles Times and the deadly landslide in Oso, Wash. in 2014, for the Seattle Times. His previous work has also earned an Emmy Award for News and Documentary, World Press Photo Award, DART Award for Trauma Coverage, Scripps Howard Visual Journalism Award, Picture of the Year International’s Newspaper Photographer of the Year Award, Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award, National Headliner Award and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.

[ ISSUE REPORTING PICTURE STORY ] A long-term project on a single topic. It could focus on science, news, politics or any number of topics, ranging from coverage of a single person to an entire community. The project must convey a deep understanding of the subject. Each submission consists of 10 to 40 images. Each participant is allowed to enter up to 3 submissions. All images must be taken in 2020 or 2021. Stories on COVID-19 should not be entered in this category.

Judges for Issue Reporting Picture Story
Ikuru Kuwajima
Tanvi Mishra
Sanjit Das
Maika Elan
Oded Wagenstein