Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Zalmaï left the country after the Soviet invasion in 1980. His family immigrated to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he became a Swiss citizen. Following his passion for photography, which he discovered very early in life, Zalmaï pursued combined studies at both the School of Photography of Lausanne and at the Professional Photography Training Center of Yverdon.

In 1989, he began to work as a freelance photographer traveling around the world from Indonesia to Egypt, Cuba to the Central African Republic, eventually returning to Afghanistan in 2001 where he devoted his work to documenting the decades-long war and plight of the Afghan people caught in the midst of misunderstanding and a global power struggle. 

Zalmaï spent most of his life between Afghanistan, Europe, the United States, and Asia. His work has been published in several magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Harper’s Magazine, Newsweek, and La Republica. He worked for a number of international organizations and NGOs including Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, ICRC, and the UN Office On Drug and Crime.

His work has been exhibited at museums, galleries, universities, and cultural centers around the world. Zalmaï has been the recipient of several international awards, including, most recently, the Visa D’Or from the Visa Pour l’Image International Photojournalism Festival and a grant by Getty Images.