Project Components: Capacity building among Photographers in Afghanistan, Professional Network.
Geographical Scope: Afghanistan.
Workshops and Network
The Afghan Photography Network came to life through a series of discussions between Commerce & Culture and several Afghan photo agencies and leading independent Afghan photographers. In Afghanistan the main partner is The 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center but the initiative is open to all photographers, agencies, institutions and exhibition spaces in Afghanistan. The project is supported by CKU Centre for Culture and Development and the Embassy of Denmark, Afghanistan. Two unifying objectives was identified; To increase awareness of Afghan photography and create opportunities for an international audience to experience Afghanistan seen through Afghan eyes, and to improve business and network opportunities for Afghan photographers and identify and develop new talent through workshops and educational programs.
There are several immediate reasons behind this initiative; One is to raise awareness of what is happening in the field of photography in Afghanistan and create opportunities for an international audience to experience Afghanistan seen through Afghan eyes. Another is to improve business and network opportunities for Afghan photographers. But to understand the full scope of this initiative one must take a brief look at the background and context of photography in Afghanistan.
Decades of war have shifted the focus of photography in Afghanistan from capturing the vast landscapes to covering the war and its often tragic aftermath. Since the 1970's, photographs of Afghans and Afghanistan have represented a nation preoccupied with war, a nation lacking opportunities or resources to represent itself.
When the Taliban came to power they did not allow any depiction of living beings. In fact, since 1996 they banned most photography altogether. The Taliban even went so far as to alter advertisements or signs that showed human and animal heads. After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, press restrictions were gradually relaxed and private media grew, but photographers and journalists in the new Afghanistan operate in one of the world's most complex and contested information environments. Insurgents, NATO forces and the Afghan government are competing to control the dominant storyline. At times, the lines between propaganda, intelligence and journalism blur.
In this turbulent media landscape it is more important then ever that the voice of the Afghan photographers are heard, both internationally and domestically. Afghan photographers have the possibility to gain access to and create editorials about people and places that might be inaccessible for outsiders. Using an insider perspective they can present a more nuanced portrait of the new Afghanistan to an international audience.
Domestically photography plays an vital role in the way the Afghan population perceives reality. Farzana Wahidy, a female Afghan photographer, pointed this out in an interview about the importance of photojournalism in Afghanistan; "Over 70 percent of Afghans are illiterate, so they cannot read to get information about their country and the world. I find photojournalism useful because such a large percentage of my country's population get their news from looking at photos."
To extend the collaboration with Afghan photographers Commerce & Culture launched Afghan Tales in 2014. Afghan Tales is an modular exhibition that will travel Europe and the United States until 2018. More info about Afghan Tales here.
Afghan security forces
Interview with Jawad Jalali by Kirstine Autzen
In this interview Jawad Jalali, photographer and managing director of Afghan Eyes Photo Agency shares his thoughts on one of the biggest personal projects done by the Agency team of photographers.
Could you tell us a little about what your Agency is working with right now part from assignments?
Sure, right now we are working on this huge story about the Afghan security forces. The last 3 years we have traveled to all parts of Afghanistan working with the border police and the Special Forces in all kind of situations from demonstrations to terrorist attacks. We have been everywhere and tried to cover all aspects of military life. We want to show the capacity of the Afghan national security forces and then it is up to the viewers to judge if the forces are capable of bringing peace and security after the coalition forces leave.
Has it been difficult to get the permissions and to work with the military?
Actually no, in most cases they were very easy to work with and whenever we traveled with them they were very friendly and cooperative, but it became even easier when my partner in the agency, Ahmad Massoud, last year shot a picture that made an Afghan soldier a national hero overnight. The story was that this soldier was shot in his leg, but still, he was fighting against the terrorists. When we got back to the office we published the picture to blogs and social media like Facebook, and the next morning we saw that there were thousands and thousands of shares, likes, and comments. Some organizations decided to print the picture and make billboards all around Kabul so that made that soldier a hero. After that our cooperation with media and military forces became much easier.
Many of your pictures are very dramatic shot in the middle of combat situations, what about your own security?
It is very risky, and sometimes the soldiers joke with us and show us their guns. They are saying; at least we have guns when attacked by suicide bombers you have only a camera to defend yourself with. It is true, we have no protection, and many times journalists and photographers have to take great personal risk to tell the stories. One of my friends working for the national TV was shot in the back. He was standing only five meters from me during the same attack as Massoud made the famous pictures of the wounded soldier. Now my friend is in a wheelchair it´s a very sad story.
It is dangerous when you want to tell the real story. You have to be in the middle of the situation, and that can be very dangerous.
Why is photography important?
Photography is extremely important in telling the Afghan story to the Afghan people. We have around 70 % illiterate, they can not read and they get a lot of their information through pictures. Just to give you an example; in 2008 we had around 5 exhibitions, one was about Afghan women and it was exhibited in 6 provinces. Some of the pictures showed women working as TV- and radio journalists and that came as a surprise to many people. They thought that the only place a woman could work was in the home.
So these are all small steps to bring change to the people minds. This is a positive and important part of the job.
We are almost done with the new project. We just need a few more pictures and then we will find ways to exhibit the project. It is very important that we reach the people and exhibit the work in public places throughout Afghanistan. Our message is for the people of Afghanistan.
How do you see the future when the coalition forces are leaving Afghanistan?
I can say as an Afghan I am confused. It is all politics and I am not sure if we will have peace or war. But I have been with the Afghan military forces and I am optimistic. They are well trained and able to handle the situation but at the same time each day the Taliban is getting more powerful. We have to see what the future will bring.
The Real Image
Interview with Golbedin Elham by Kirstine Autzen and Hanifa Alizada
“I started photographing with very old and outdated equipment. I mostly shot with a simple Zenit camera. Lack of money often kept me from continuing photography. My hands felt tied and I sometimes felt deeply discouraged.”
This was the beginning of photographer Golbedin Elham’s career when he started photographing in 1993 with the help of his instructor Shameen Khan. He attended long term photojournalism courses and studied with French - Iranian photographer Manoocher Deghati for two years. Today, Elham is the experienced one amongst young men and women moving into photography.
In Afghanistan today, the young are free to pursue a photographic career, given that their family supports it. Whereas this could be seen as a banal right in many countries, in this war tormented country it is not a given.
"Though the camera was my beloved tool, I was scared of it too,” Elham explains, when asked about the status of the camera during the Taliban regime: “At the first days of Taliban government, despite everything, I dared to take out my camera in some corner areas and hastily capture one or two photographs but gradually seeing the cruelty in public worsen, I got scared and forfeited my career and interest. It made me migrate to another country for a while”
In the opinion of the Taliban, creating and capturing images was an anti-Islamic action and an unforgivable sin. During the Mojahedin government from 1979-1989, photography had been possible, but the Taliban dictatorship completely banned it: “Carrying a camera could get you killed”, Elham adds. The interpretation of the Koran was that the act of representing the perfection of Allah’s creations suggests equality to him – which would be blasphemous.
Today, though some elderly people still shy away from having their picture taken, the interpretation is different. Photography has found its place in people’s lives.
Photographers are now developing their communication with international society. Elham finds it crucial that Afghan photographers start contributing with their insider view of the country with an, as he calls it, “Afghan attitude”. And this does not necessarily mean portraying the country in a rosy red perspective:
“The real image of a situation can carry an honest constructive message. No one is rightly called a photographer without having a critical eye. I never shoot at first glance, I spent some time exploring the situation and the subjects - and then decide what I really want to reflect from this situation,” he says and continues:
“Ideally, I want the street and war children of my country, who have been the motifs of my photographs, to also be my audience.
Stepping into the field
Interview with Roqia Alavi by Hanifa Alizada and Kirstine Autzen
“It was 6:00 AM when I left home and joined a group of 3rdeye male photographers. In Kabul you see 90 percent men come out into the streets - I was one of the very few women to photograph the event. I did not feel confident enough. It was hard to predict the reaction of the crowd to seeing a female photographer. “
Afghan photographer Roqia Alavi talks about the time she photographed the 10th day of the Muharram in Kabul in 2012. She first ventured out in a group of photographers and started out lightly taking just a few photographs to get a feel of the crowd. What she got from them gave her energy and motivated her to continue:
“It was absolutely unbelievable. When I wanted to have photographs from a new angle, the men themselves helped me get on top of a car and have an aerial perspective. They respectfully helped me get in place without asking what organization I belong to.”
Around her were children in red and green clothes, flags of the same color, and young people attending the event. She indulged in wide shots of the city as well as close-ups as she was, for the first time, observing a religious ritual through the lens. In the afternoon, she returned to the 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center to share the joy of the day with the other photographers.
Born in Iran, Roqia lived in exile in Iran for 16 years during the Taliban regime. After the collapse of the regime in 2002, she and her family returned to Afghanistan. She had dreamt of being a journalist, but when she moved to Kabul she worked as a nurse in a health clinic. Only just over a year ago, in early 2012, did she take up photography when her husband gave her a camera. The gift turned out to satisfy the need in her to be politically active:
“I was looking for influential ways to help along social change, but I had never thought of being a photographer until I got this gift. Photography presents one’s happiness and sadness at the same time, and more importantly remains alive forever.”
Soon after, Roqia found 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center where she met photographer Reza Sepehri and was introduced to professional photography. Through the 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center has led her to be part of workshops. Photojournalistic coverage of Afghan events have for many years been primarily covered by foreign photographers, but at the moment native Afghan photographers are joining forces and making themselves heard.
At the 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center, Roqia – still a novice photographer - participated in a Commerce and Culture workshop with the much more experienced Danish photographer Jan Grarup. This experience made her question herself;
“The use of Photoshop is not very common here. We are told to take perfect photographs instead of photoshopping them to look better. I need some more time to explore my way and answer these questions for myself.”
All the while, Roqia has already thrown herself into the game with the aim to make a difference as a photographer, especially in regards to equal rights for women, who live restricted lives in Afghan culture:
“Most women are known and identified as being someone’s wife or someone’s mother or daughter, but the activities of successful women like Dr. Habiba Sarabi (first female governor in Afghanistan, edt.) and Dr. Sima Samar (Afghan human rights activist, edt.) help. At least women can now go out without a burqa. The more I am active the more I encourage and give confidence to other girls to step into this field.”
Hearing the sentence “It would be better if you were a boy” sends Roqia’s blood to the boiling point: “I want to prove that a woman can be a creator and can build a solid position in their society and family.”
Roqia Alavi has exhibited her photographs in Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA), Afghan Cultural House in Kabul, Mazare Sharif and Bamiyan, and she has had photographs published on websites and print media. Currently, she is a member of 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center. She hopes to obtain a degree in photography and later conduct workshops in photography for women – as well as making it herself as a photographer at an international level.