Through an Afghan Lens Darkly

In Frame by Framefour photojournalists navigate a newly free press in Afghanistan

Through an Afghan Lens Darkly

Most of what we know about Afghanistan has been framed for us through someone's viewfinder. Against the backdrop of the country's rock-strewn landscape, we've followed years of political upheavals, a decadelong Soviet incursion, and, most recently, the horrific effects of repressive Islamic fundamentalism on the country as a whole, most harshly on the female population. During these Taliban years, photography was banned. Since 2001, the Taliban subdued, at least for now, the country's photojournalists have been allowed to remove their lens caps, as some women have been able to shed their burqas.

In 2012, filmmakers Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli went to Afghanistan to make a film about how our perceptions of a country at war are formed and how closely these correlate with reality. In Kabul, they met four Afghan photojournalists – Farzana Wahidy, Massoud Wahidy, Wakil Kohsar, and Najibullah Musafar – whose varied trajectories, fanning out to record their country's stories, turned out to be the film they wanted to make.

Through an Afghan Lens Darkly

Austin Chronicle: So what were the biggest suprises?

Mo Scarpelli: We did not know just how unprecedented the growth in journalism and media in Afghanistan has been in the last decade, until we went to Afghanistan and saw it for ourselves. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the Nineties, the regime controlled all media, and photography was banned. There were just one or two Taliban-run newspapers, and a Taliban-run radio station, but everything else was effectively cut off. When the Taliban was ousted from Kabul, their control of media dissolved, and with the help of international aid and investors, Afghanistan's first independent press industry emerged. Now, there are 174 radio stations, 80 TV stations, and many newspapers and magazines in Afghanistan. 

While there's been much progress on this front, Afghanistan's future is very uncertain, and so the state of free press is uncertain as well. We see this in the stories of the four photographers in [the film]; with their hopes and resilience, they also face a myriad of obstacles – everything from backlash coming from warlords, to physical harm while covering war, to the quieter threats of a declining economy, to their own flaws and trauma from covering tragic stories. While we weren't necessarily surprised that photojournalists in Afghanistan face risk, we have learned a lot about how insidious and complicated these risks are. We hope audiences glean this complication from the film – that there's no one-size-fits-all solution for building free press in Afghanistan (or anywhere for that matter); that the exposing of truth is a tough job no matter where you are; and that the challenges faced by Afghans rebuilding their country are difficult, but are also being met head-on by strong people like Farzana, Massoud, Wakil, and Najibullah.

AC: Any unexpected takeaway?

MS: One, don't bring a hard drive to Afghanistan that needs continuous power to operate; two, after hundreds of hours of translations with multiple translators, you find that there is no equivalent for beautiful Dari phrases in English that reflect the true meaning. So, that's a heartbreaking, but beautiful lesson learned.

Documentary Competition, World Premiere

Frame by Frame
Saturday, March 14, 1:45pm, Stateside
Sunday, March 15, 11am, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 19, 6:15pm, Alamo South Lamar

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photojournalism, SXSW Film 2015, Frame by Frame, Alexandria Bombach, Mo Scarpelli, Afghan free press

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