Photojournalist Denise Zabalaga grew up in Switzerland with her Italian mother and Bolivian father. Italian and Spanish were spoken at home. When Denise was sent to school she didn’t know the German spoken there, an experience that gave her a lifelong feeling for, and identification with, the outsider. The experience brought with it the gift of being free from the projection of fear and mistrust upon the stranger. Instead of fear, Zabalaga has a deep interest in people of other cultures and has been able to look past the media culture that relentlessly panders to our fears.
With a superb gift for languages, Zabalaga quickly taught herself Farsi and its variants and traveled in Afghanistan, Syria, Damascus, Iran and Tajikistan.
Over and over Zabalaga was able to manage, traveling always as a single woman. She got into many tight situations, but with her faith that meeting a stranger is, first of all, an opportunity rather than a danger and with her uncanny openness and ability to connect with others, she always managed to extricate herself. What was most meaningful in all her travels she puts this way, “First and most important is the incredible generosity that I experienced. Not only on a material level, but on a human level—all the times they accepted me and included me as a full human being.”
Zabalaga’s interest in the people of other cultures is the basis for her photography and photojournalism. She studied at New York’s International Center of Photography and has worked on a variety of film projects documenting important figures from many different cultures.
Here are some of Zabalaga’s photographs from Afghanistan.
From works & conversations
#17 published in Oct. 2008.
Read our extraordinary interview with Zabalaga