When the Taliban were ousted in November 2001 a five year old rule that banned photography in Afghanistan was suddenly lifted. Press freedoms helped give rise to a class of Afghan reporters and photographers to tell the stories of the war and life in Afghanistan.
A new documentary follows four prominent Afghan photographers to tell their stories and how they have been working for the past decade to document their home country. Frame by Frame is a project by American directors Mo Scarpelli and Alexandria Bombach. They traveled to Afghanistan last fall to follow Pulitzer Prize winning war photographer Massoud Hossaini, Wakil Kohsar, Najibullah Mussafer and Farzana Wahidy, one of the few female photographers in Afghanistan.
The photographers have made significant advances in a short period of time, but the drawdown of international troops means that the future of Afghanistan is uncertain. A return to power by the Taliban or even more control over territories in Afghanistan could make it even more difficult for these photographers to document the country and its people.
“The need for local journalism in Afghanistan couldn’t be more important than it is right now; to build democracy and independence, to check and limit those in power, to drive social and political change. This is going to be an incredible story of what that means,” says Scarpelli.
I spoke with Scarpelli about the project, her experiences in Afghanistan and what comes next for the project. They have already done quite a bit of filming, but need to go back in order to get more footage. So they are turning to Kickstarter to raise the funds to return to Afghanistan and produce the film.
Tom Murphy: What drew you to telling the story of these four Afghan photographers?
Mo Scarpelli: In 2012, my Co-Director Alexandria Bombach and I traveled to Kabul with the intention of shooting a short story about Afghan photographers. We knew photography had been outlawed during the Taliban regime (1996-2001), and when we saw the work of local photographers taken after that time, were blown away. We wanted to see how this medium had emerged here, and learn the stories behind the photographers.
In Kabul, we went on a spree to meet as many photographers as we could; only later did we realize how lucky we were to find four photojournalists who had very unique personalities, backstories, perspectives and even ways of reporting.
We followed a Pulitzer Prize-winning wire photographer, one of the only female Afghan photojournalists, a guy who smuggled film canisters into the countryside to secretly shoot during the Taliban, and a reporter for one of the biggest TV stations in the nation. While they’re all Afghan photojournalists and they were all trained in the same program, they have very divergent perspectives on everything from photographic techniques to the future prospects of free speech Afghanistan.
The more we talked to each, the more we realized there was something much bigger going on here: that journalism in Afghanistan had taken off dramatically after 2001, that photojournalism had become an important tool, and that in the coming years — with foreign troops and media crews leaving — all of this would have to stand on its own. Could it? Where did the four photographers we had gravitated to going to fit into this?
We were only in Kabul for a short time last year; now, we need to follow the photographers much closer (and for much longer) to capture their stories more intimately and glean the greater story of photojournalism in Afghanistan. That’s what our Kickstarter is funding — our trip back to shoot the bulk of this film.
You say that the story is not like other war reporting on Afghanistan. What is different? Why should this story be told?
I wouldn’t say we’re doing war reporting here. Dispatches from embeds and updates on conflict or suicide attacks — that’s most of what we hear, read or watch about Afghanistan. Not only do we not really need another journalist reporting on those things… but Alexandria and I aren’t really interested in doing a war story. That’s not what compels us about Afghanistan.
Our film is about local photojournalism and the challenges they’re facing as they continue to help build a free press. They’re inevitably covering war, sometimes, but they’re also covering heroin addiction, burqa-shopping, politics, economic stories, sport, the arts… anything they’re interested in or assigned to cover. As we follow them through all this, we hope to reveal a broader sense of what’s going on in the country.
In terms of what’s different about our story: this is a character-driven film. It’s exploring broader themes of free press, the role of local journalists in democracy-building, influences of the Western journalists and organizations on Afghanistan’s new media outlets… but we’re touching on these things only as we follow four specific people. The film will be in their voices; we don’t at this point foresee interviewing ‘experts’ or talking heads. Alexandria and I are big believers in exploring the nuances of a complex situation by digging deep into the humans experiencing it. We have not seen Afghanistan’s local media revolution covered this way, and to be honest, we have seen a dismally low number of any media covering Afghanistan with nuance at all.
Why are the photographers important at a time when the US and NATO are drawing-down in Afghanistan?
US and NATO taking off will remove more than the troops. There’s no question that when the war ‘ends’, international media will take off, too. But just because the West has removed itself, does not mean the stories worth reporting — human rights issues, government accountability, development progress, etc — will cease to exist. That’s where local journalism is essential, to keep covering these stories; if not for the international media, for its own people.
Local journalism is essential for any democratic society; to check those in power, to reveal injustices, to inform and provoke civilians to ask questions, and to be a mouthpiece of the country to the rest of the world. Photography does this in an incredibly powerful, unique and timeless way. These four photographers and many more in Afghanistan now have the education and experience of the last decade behind them to continue furthering free press.
Is there reason to believe that press freedom will continue to improve over the next few years? What are these photographers doing to prepare for some of the upcoming changes in the country?
It depends on who you talk to, and in what month (or week even?) you catch them. We have a character that is so genuinely hopeful, you can’t help but tear up as they tell you about the future of Afghanistan. Another character looked us square in the eye and said things would collapse, that there is no chance of peace or stability. And experts around the world are making predictions, but no one really knows what will
happen yet. That’s part of what drew us to coming back to capture a bigger story — the uncertainty in Afghanistan right now is pervasive.
What we do know is that the climate and resources in which Afghanistan’s current free press sprouted from in the last 12 years is going to start radically changing, if not disappearing. The security situation will change. The political situation will change. The economic situation will change: many media organizations in Afghanistan are being funded by outside donors such as US-AID, and we don’t yet know if or when foreign funding of media organizations will dry up.
But these changes aren’t impossible to overcome. My view right now is that the press has carved out a space that cannot be so easily diminished with a changing regime or increased attacks by extremists. I think it’s robust enough, and has built a degree of respect with the people of Afghanistan.
We can’t really say right now what the photographers’ contingency plans are. One was speaking of leaving last year, but decided to stay. It won’t be easy to permanently leave Afghanistan in the coming year unless you have citizenship someplace else, and our photographers do not.
What was your experience like in Afghanistan? As you note, most stories that make it to the US are about fighting. What did you observe and learn doing the filming of the documentary that struck you most?
Afghanistan was very beautiful, very quiet, and very tense (I wrote a short blog about it here). I was never in a precarious situation where I felt directly threatened, but I was always a bit uneasy. It’s a strange predicament: you know that the suicide attacks are happening to facilitate a culture of fear, and you don’t want to give into that, but you can’t help thinking about it as you move around the city.
What struck me most was the incredible ability of humans to operate in spite of all this. Breadmakers fire up their ovens each morning. Clusters of kids walk to school with brightly colored books. Soccer games commence outside of dilapidated palaces and barber shops swing their doors open at night to let the soft breeze mix with low chatter.
Life goes on.
What are your hopes for this film? Who do you want to see this and what do you hope they do with the knowledge imparted through these four stories?
My hope is two-fold: (1) that people who see the film connect with the humans in the story enough that they become or continue to be interested in what happens in Afghanistan; and (2) that they recognize the importance of a free local press — and fight for it.
A phrase that Alexandria and I have heard so incredibly often in this project is about not letting Afghanistan ‘be forgotten again.’ From NGOs, journalists, writers, scholars — it’s on everyone’s mind right now, because it wouldn’t be the first time this happened to Afghanistan. I want Afghanistan to be relevant even when we are not at war with Afghanistan. I want an audience to connect deeply enough with these characters that they won’t think of Afghanistan as this foreign world ‘over there,’ but rather as another place in the world where humans a lot like them are living and working to build something they believe in.
We want an audience to learn about what free press means when you have to build it from nothing, and why it’s important to have local journalists in any society. We’re partnering with organizations who offer support for local and/or independent journalists who risk their lives to do this work, and hope these will be helpful resources for those who want to help.