Documenting the Story of Photojournalism in Afghanistan
A remarkable interview with Mo Scarpelli, co-director of Frame By Frame, on photography, free press and the unpredictable future of Afghanistan
In August 2013, Mo Scarpelli and Alexandria Bombach launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Frame By Frame, a documentary that follows four Afghan photographers as they discuss what could happen to photojournalism, free press and their culture after foreign troops leave Afghanistan. Below is our Remarkable Interview with Mo on the story of photojournalism in Afghanistan.
From where does the fear that Afghanistan will “be forgotten by the rest of the world originate?
It’s interesting, we’ve heard the phrase about ‘Afghanistan being forgotten’ from all across the spectrum: from the photographers in Kabul, to researchers of Afghan media, to supporters of our film’s Kickstarter campaign.
In recent history, Afghanistan has really only been on the global agenda and international news circuit because of foreign involvement there, particularly when US troops came in 2001. There’s a pervasive sense that when the foreign entity pulls out, the world’s eyes will shift from Afghanistan, while the struggles in the country will persist.
In Frame By Frame, you’re following four photographers who represent a specific cause: preserving photojournalism in Afghanistan. Let’s begin with why this cause — these individuals’ stories — even exist. What have your subjects revealed to you about photography in Afghanistan between 1996 and November 2001? What did they tell you about the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice?
Three of the four photographers we’re following were not yet photographing during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001; they were first trained in photojournalism by one of Afghanistan’s first photo agencies (called Aina) after the Taliban was removed from power. However, they did have experiences with photography before 1996 — family portraits, wedding photographs, etc. — so they were aware of what was missing or suppressed during the Taliban.*
One of the photographers, Najibullah Musafer, studied visuals arts in Kabul from 1988 until 1992, and when the Taliban came to power, continued to photograph under the radar. He was contracted by the World Food Program to document a fierce famine in the central areas of the country. Naji’s stories are harrowing; he had some close calls. While his WFP vehicle was stopped and searched over a dozen times by Taliban, his camera equipment somehow always escaped detection. The bright ‘WFP’ painted on the side of the car helped, he says, in that the Taliban was reluctant to interfere with the international organization.
Naji recognized that he was likely the only one to ever document what was happening here. All provinces of Afghanistan knew the law banning photography; the Taliban ran the media and broadcasted radio programming far and wide.
During our initial time with them, none of the photographers spoke specifically about the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice, although we were aware that was the Taliban department that enforced a blanket ban on taking or displaying photographs.
- Two of the photographers were not actually in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule; their families took them to Pakistan and Iran during that time.
The Ministry’s mandates apparently didn’t just apply to the press. In A Fort of Nine Towers, a young Afghan named Qais Akbar Omar tells the story of his family’s photos being destroyed during the Taliban’s reign. What stories have you heard about Afghan people seeing photographs again in 2001 in general? How do the Afghan people value photography?
We’ve gathered from the photographers we’re following that Afghans for the most part did not emphatically embrace photography immediately after the Taliban was removed from power. It has taken some time for people to get used to photographs; the art had to sort of edged its way back into society.
Afghans can be deeply private, and while the history of photography in Afghanistan is quite strong, there is still a resistance to documentary photography. Some of our characters say Afghans remain suspicious or feel threatened by photographers shooting in public.
That said, we couldn’t go anywhere in Kabul without hearing that cheesy camera shutter noise as some teenage boy on the street snapped a shot of us with his cell phone. And photographs now line the streets — advertisements for toothpaste, smiling faces on billboards about university courses, portraits wheat-pasted as street art to the side of compound walls. Photography is definitely a pervasive part of urban life now, though it’s taking the public some time to get used to it.
Beyond the Taliban’s agenda, the press seems to have to fight against a popular belief that photography is banned in Islam (over 99% of Afghans are Muslim). In our research, we could only find caution to never use photography in “frivolous or indulgent ways.” How do your subjects defend the value of photography in the Muslim culture? Do they currently live in fear of cultural backlash?
Photojournalism in Afghanistan is not for the faint-hearted. The photographers find themselves defending the value of photography as individuals nearly every day; there’s resistance from the culture to photograph in public, there’s a resistance from the government to cooperate or allow local reporters to do their job; there’s an ongoing threat of violence by fundamentalists who agreed with the Taliban’s law. These photographers face and overcome these challenges in different ways. Some of them stare opposition to photography in the face, while others quietly work with their eyes on a long-term vision for the future of Afghan media. For example, Massoud is an outspoken man; follow him on Twitter and you’ll see he’s not shy about his grievances. Najibullah, on the other hand, is more patient and gentle; he spends half of his time teaching the next generation of photographers, and is very hopeful that with time, Afghans will appreciate and support photography.
While each try to be strong defenders of free press, this isn’t without fear. Massoud is a high-profile photographer, and he grapples with this most. He has received death threats at his home and work, and he believes these will intensify next year.
But while each photographer may have fear, they also feel there is no other option for them. They continue their work because they believe in it, and that’s what they feel they must do.
I think all of them find comfort in the fact that there are hundreds of Afghan journalists now, and so they are not alone. Whether it’s for an international wire service (Massoud works for AFP) or a local TV station, the photographers are very plugged into a community of journalists who stand alongside them in their efforts to build free press.
Beyond photography, the Islamic traditions of ijtihad (interpretation), ijma (consensus), and shura (consultation) seem to actually align with the idea of a free press. In day-to-day life in Afghanistan, is the idea of a free press culturally supported?
That’s a tough question. We don’t really know; while media consumption is very high in Afghanistan, self- censorship and respect to an authoritarian rule are also very embedded in the culture.
The photographers we’re following vary in their outlook on the public’s regard for media; some believe that the press that has been built in the last decade has had a lasting impact on how Afghans live and stay informed about issues in their country. Some are less optimistic, and think the masses won’t speak out to support photography if it is threatened again in the future.
Afghanistan now has a fledgling free press system with over 10,000 journalists, 75 television channels, 175 radio stations and hundreds of newspapers and magazines. Based on your discussions with your subjects and others in Afghanistan, what interest does the population have in consuming media? Are these media outlets objective or does government-leaning bias already exist?
Afghan media consumption has grown considerably since 2001, due in large part to all the outlets you mention have sprung up. Nearly half the country is illiterate, so radio and television are the most popular mediums.
Almost all media outlets in Afghanistan are privately owned, but the government can very much affect their coverage, or more importantly, the lack thereof (this plays out mostly through self-censorship). Officials have arrested, threatened or imprisoned journalists, and can be unresponsive or difficult about granting local news access to stories.
The government also censors the internet. While in Kabul last fall, I found YouTube and other video sites were often blocked. This can be a challenge for visual journalists who want to publish their work online.
Other groups also have potential to influence — international donors, governments of neighboring countries, ethnic groups, the US Military — as they hold a financial stake in Afghan media outlets.
When you consider that Afghanistan has a history of authoritarian rule and controlled media, and that these media organizations and the existence of a free press are really only about a decade old — I think the local reporters have had tremendous progress. But the coverage is far from ‘free.’ “Journalists know far more than they would ever want to write down,” one Afghan reporter told Internews in a 2010 report on the media landscape of Afghanistan.
We’re looking forward to showing up-close how these pressures play out for the photographers of Frame by Frame when we get back to Kabul this fall.
Apart from the possible resurgence of the Taliban or another non-democratic ruling organization, which seems like a waste of time to speculate on again here, what are other concerns for the long- term viability of free press in Afghanistan?
The biggest elephant in the room is money. Many outlets have been funded by international donors, and not just the United States (Iran financially supports a third of Afghan media outlets). We’ve seen our own attrition of important news coverage in the midst of financial crisis. What happens if/when the millions pouring into Afghan media dries up? We’re not sure. That’s another part of these photographers’ story; how each deals with and is planning for standing on their own.
A 2012 BBC Media Action report described the role of donors in supporting media in Afghanistan to “probably be greater than in any other country at any time.” Based on this, your documentary can’t solely be based on generating more foreign monetary aid. Why isn’t money enough for Afghan journalist and photojournalists to overcome potential challenges in keeping a free press, regardless of potential power struggles?
To be clear: our documentary has nothing to do with generating monetary aid. This film is long-form journalism. The point of it is to inform and spark dialogue about local journalism under fire; this is not an advocacy film to raise funds for a cause.
While I mentioned above that money is the main challenge for building the Afghan press, it is not the only issue. And let’s be honest; money to fund journalism will always be an issue, for anyone, anywhere.
What’s really important for these photojournalists in terms of overcoming their challenges, is that they have networks to rely on when things get nasty. I have no doubt that each of the photographers we’re following will continue their work even if political or social changes make it even more difficult for them. But where can they go for protection? Who can they turn to if they’re detained or imprisoned? Three of the photographers we’re following have learned photojournalism in this period of media growth with international support. So what happens to them if that landscape changes? We don’t know yet what they’re greatest issues will be, but it’s likely they’ll need security support.
Let me back way up here and say that one major need for any local journalist working in any non-free press environment is recognition that their job is necessary and important for society. Right now, journalists around the world are in an extremely dangerous situation. They’re not just unsupported; they’re being actively targeted. CPJ recently reported that in 2012 more than 100 journalists were killed, and an unprecedented number were imprisoned. If the criminalization of journalists across the world does not change, we can’t expect individuals on the ground to overcome their local struggles to build free press.
One of your subjects, Farzana Wahidy, recently gave a beautiful quote: “I think of photography as an international language.” Why is photojournalism uniquely valuable in sharing stories about Afghanistan, both domestically and internationally?
Photography reveals unlike any other medium, by capturing moments: moments of destruction, of progress, of tension, fear, malice, love. You don’t need to be able to read, you don’t need to know all the facts, you don’t need to speak a certain language to learn something from an incredible photograph.
Photojournalism also has a capacity to humanize news events. Photographs can make you feel the gravity or the irony or the beauty of the lives behind the issue or event. This can make an image — and therefore an issue or story — unforgettable. For example, Farzana’s images of women in the burqa stick in my head every time I hear the word ‘burqa.’ She’s made me remember the lives of humans under the burqa, forever.
In a way, what we love about photojournalism speaks to what we’re trying to do with Frame by Frame: to make an audience connect to the humans behind this unique time in Afghanistan’s history.
What compels you to focus on the challenges of a culture and nation to which you have no personal affiliation? And what do you hope the documentary will spark?
Well, I’m almost never telling stories in cultures or nations where I have personal affiliation. That’s not necessarily on purpose; I just go where the stories and opportunities to tell them take me.
In short: I’m curious. I was compelled by the images of these photographers even before we went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2012, but only after meeting them in person and following around did I become fascinated with their personal histories and perspectives. They each have a very unique view on Afghanistan, on the media, on their work.
We hope the documentary will spark knowledge and awareness of the importance of local photojournalism in Afghanistan, but also for any society. We hope the story will connect people to these Afghan photographers enough that they recognize the humanity behind the current situation, and what’s at stake in this time of uncertainty.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, there are many countries worse off than Afghanistan when it comes to freedom of the press. Why focus on Afghanistan?
We didn’t decide the topic first, and then pick a country to tell the story in. We were led to the story of this film via an initial tinge of curiosity about Afghan photographers. The bigger theme about building a free press followed, only as we learned from them what had happened here in the last ten years, and what could now come under fire in the next ten.
There has been a number of documentaries created over the past few years on political and social issues in Afghanistan. How is your story different? What makes you qualified to bring these stories to the world?
Most of the films we’re seeing about Afghanistan are coming from a Western perspective, and cover the war. Very few are in the voice of Afghans themselves. And I have yet to find one that explores local photojournalism in Kabul.
Moreover, what makes Frame by Frame unique is that it is a character-driven film. We explore the emergence and current state of the press in Afghanistan, but not by talking to ‘experts’ or narrating stats over footage — we’re doing it through four specific human beings who are experiencing it first-hand. I honestly believe that intimate stories are the most effective way to explore the implications of a complicated event in history such as this. We’re set on getting up-close enough with these characters to tap into the human condition, and connect an audience to these Afghans and what they’re undertaking in an unforgettable way.
Hmm… qualified is a confusing word. My Co-Director and I have a lot of experience shooting in foreign areas and in really uncertain situations. But I don’t think anyone is necessarily ‘qualified’ to make a character-driven documentary film. We’re not claiming to be experts in Afghan issues or history (for that, we’re definitely not qualified). We’re very intentionally following the stories of four conflicted, interested, passionate human beings. And we’re weaving these together to explore what’s happening in Afghan media right now and what’s at stake.
Documentary film requires a fluid skill-set, and there’s really only one rule — that nothing will ever go according to plan. Can you be qualified to deal with that?
What has to happen in order to get Frame By Frame to market?
Well, first we must get back to Kabul to finish the film! Film production will resume this fall as we cover each of the four photographers more closely and intimately than we had the time do last year. We launched a Kickstarter to fund this trip: http://kck.st/1e6O1Fc
We have now hit our original Kickstarter goal of $40,000, which will fund the production. We’re hoping to raise funds above our goal. These funds will go towards renting better camera equipment and post-production costs.
We’re set on editing this fall to get the film out to festivals and theatrical releases sometime in 2014, and on DVD by early 2015.
We’d like to thank Mo for her sincerity in response and courage in creating this film. We wish you and Alexandria all the best in funding and producing this story.
To learn more or contribute to Frame By Frame’s Kickstarter campaign, visit this link.
We’ll leave readers with a quote from another subject of the documentary, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Massoud Hossaini, that exemplifies one possible outcome:
“When the foreigners leave Afghanistan, it will be a difficult life for me. If the worst happens, that I cannot get my camera, and I cannot work in the country, and I cannot write, I cannot talk, I cannot watch movies, for sure I will have to think about things.”