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Afghan Photojournalists' Eyes
"Afghanistan through Afghan eyes" -- those words summarize the spirit of the Aïna Photo agency, where I currently work as the Chief Editor. More than a project, Aïna Photo is a new concept developed by renowned photojournalists (and brothers) Reza and Manoocher Deghati.
Reza explained the project to me in 2003, and it immediately caught my interest. When he offered me the opportunity to actually work on the project, I was so enthusiastic that I was willing to immediately grab my luggage and board a plane for Kabul. I arrived here in last September.
"Training journalists in new technology is an essential means of contact with the people."
In October 2002, 25 students -- men and women ranging from age 13 to 40 -- were selected from a list of 400 candidates and began training at the Kabul-based Aïna Media and Cultural Center. The goal was to train a young generation of Afghan photojournalists, and Aïna Photo became the first photojournalism school in Afghanistan.
"Most of my students had never even touched a camera," said Manoocher Deghati several months ago. "They didn't speak any English and they didn't know how to use a computer." For a year and a half, the students were given instruction in journalism, English, and computer skills, such as how to use the Internet and how to process pictures through Photoshop. In succession, they began practicing with traditional Afghan box cameras like those used in the streets of Kabul for portraits, were given 35-millimeter cameras to shoot scenes from across Afghanistan, received training on how to process their photos in a darkroom, and recently, after they had developed a solid foundation in photography, were equipped with digital cameras. The project has captured the imagination of more than a few foreign photographers, and many professionals who regularly publish their work in the pages of magazines such as Newsweek, Time, Geo, Stern, Paris Match, and National Geographic have visited Aïna Photo to offer instruction to our staff. Dozens of other people have offered material support, providing cameras, lenses, flash units, film, bags, and other essentials.
As a result, thanks to the help of friends, professionals and partners, Aïna Photo proudly offers its Afghan photographers access to some of the most modern equipment in the field -- which was one of the original goals of the agency when it was founded. "The creation of independent cultural organizations and the introduction of journalists to new technology and foreign languages are essential means of contact with the people," concluded Reza, highlighting his strategy towards preparing Aïna Photo for the future. And it is the result of looking towards the future that all of our photographers now use digital cameras.
The contrast between technology at work and at home is stark -- most photographers do not have access to electricity or running water in their homes. Despite that fact, the Aïna Photo team is used to the rugged land that is Afghanistan, and none complain. In fact, most are at work or on the streets taking photographs every day of the week, even on days off. The Aïna Photo team is proud of its homeland, and is eager to educate the world about the people, lives, and experiences of Afghanistan.
Though Aïna was created in 2002, it was the fruit of long reflection and a career's-worth of experience by Reza. "I started to give my first photojournalism course in Afghanistan in 1983," he explained, "and in teaching, I learned much. Following this experience, I had the desire to multiply the lessons. As a result, in 1985, I trained the first black photographers in South Africa." The creation of Aïna Photo is the embodiment of Reza's numerous ideas to give his educational efforts a solid and permanent structure.
The future at the end of the camera
Much as the photographers of Aïna Photo seek to share their experiences in Afghanistan with others, the urge to pass along my own experience is what motivated me to come to Kabul. Like me, many journalism professionals have passed through Aïna Photo, and they continue to give their time to this agency, taking a break from their own careers in order to donate their time and energy to a new generation of Afghan photojournalists. In response, the Afghans make it worth our time. You only need to see the quality of the work they produced while covering the recent presidential elections.
None of them have had easy lives, and whether directly or indirectly, they are all victims of 23 years of war in Afghanistan which left the country destroyed and impoverished, and which pushed many of them into exile with their families. For them, the future was bleak and hope must have seemed like a dream. But now that the bombs stopped dropping and the peace has held through the fragile opening stages of democracy, our Afghan colleagues are starting to build for the future, especially in terms of career development. On a daily basis, Aïna Photo helps facilitate this development for our photographers.
Until the fall of the Taliban, many Afghans found the force and energy to fight for liberty despite the risks that often accompanied it. Much like their photographic mentors, Reza and Manoocher, the majority of Aïna Photo's eight photojournalists want to be humanistic photojournalists, and many have already taken great risks for their medium.
For example, Najibullah Musafer, 40, the oldest member of the agency, was the only person to successfully film a documentary on the Taliban regime in the Hazara area. Himself a Hazara born in Bamiyan, Musafer spent seven months in prison as a result of photo-related crimes. Had the Taliban discovered his film, he would have certainly been sentenced to death.
Ali, another Hazara, recently graduated from Fine Arts at Kabul University. When he was younger, he survived a Taliban attack that killed almost 2,500 people in the province of Bamiyan. In spite of this, the 26-year-old looks forward: "It is important to take pictures for history's sake because Afghanistan is a changing country."
Fardin Waezi, who learned photography in his father's studio, was arrested by the Taliban five separate times by the age of 18 as a result of photo-related crimes and because he cut his beard. "I want to show my country's beauty," says Fardin, now 22. "I want to reflect Afghan society through pictures."
Another photographer, Gulbulddin Elham, was forced to postpone his studies at Kabul University's Faculty of Journalism during the Taliban regime. The 30-year-old father of three chose a career in photography because "photos are records of history, so I want to be part of that."
"Don't take my picture. Shame on you."
Aïna Photo has also attracted former soldiers who took up arms against the Taliban. Wakil Kohsar also fought as a member of the Northern Alliance for two years because he disagreed with the Taliban's treatment of women and felt it was his duty to defend his "motherland." But today, at age 24, he has traded his Kalashnikov for a camera, a tool he says he finds more effective at fighting for peace and liberty in Afghanistan.
In the same way, 32-year-old Mohammed Reza Yemak retired from his position as Sergeant in the Afghan National Army, where he acted as one of President Karzai's elite guards. Yemak made the move because "being a part of a free press is important to keeping my society free from regimes that withheld our freedom for years."
Fighting for freedom in general and for women in particular is what drives Freshta Kohistani. Raised in what she describes as a very conservative "mujaheddin family," she tries to slowly change society. Even when she tries to take photos of close relatives, she says that "the majority tell me directly, ‘Don't take my picture. Shame on you.'" Freshta's smile at recalling the story doesn't hide her quiet disappointment. The 20-year-old's face brightens again when she recalls that at 14, she already dreamed of being a photographer. "I even wanted to take photos of the Taliban, but I didn't have a camera. Today, when someone tells me not to take their photo," she says with a glint in her eye, "I try to pretend that I don't understand them and that I come from Europe. Often, people are surprised that a woman can take photographs. But I hope to improve the conditions of Afghan women by telling them about my work and my experience.
"In my family," she continues, "there are nine girls, and I'm the youngest. I tell the others that it is important that they work, because we have rights. And since my family wants to see me get married as soon as possible, I always tell them that my husband will have to accept that I work and will love me for who I am."
Farzana Wahidy is also driven by a strong sense of conviction. At age 11, Farzana was teaching mathematics to 60 students. She secretly attended school during the Taliban's reign. Under the guise of seamstress, she learned subjects like chemistry, math and English with 20 other girls in a small apartment. She had to hide her books under her burqa when she was in public. Now, though, she doesn't hesitate to take pictures everywhere she can in Afghanistan, covered only by a scarf for her hair. Her motivation cuts across borders and cultures: "Many people in Afghanistan can't read," she points out. "I want to be a photojournalist because photography is a universal language."
After propaganda, hope for freedom of expression
Only 15 years old, Massoud Wasiq doesn't share the same concerns as his colleagues at Aïna Photo. The youngest member of the team, known affectionately as "double click" for his frightening dexterity on the computer, derives his passion for photography from the time he met Reza, when he was only 11 years old. At the time, he was working to support his family and teaching other children to speak English, which he learned as a refugee in Pakistan during Taliban times. "Reza offered me my first camera and some film as a thank you for helping him on a project about Afghan children," says Massoud. Since then, he has never lost his passion for photography. Spending half his time at school and half with Aïna Photo, he is currently a reporter for Parvaz, a full-color, multi-lingual, educational magazine published by Aïna and designed for children.
The other Massoud at the agency -- Massoud Hossaini -- spent 20 years in exile in Iran before returning to Afghanistan the day after the fall of the Taliban. After studying political science at Kabul University, a meeting with Reza convinced him to go into photojournalism to "fight for human rights in my country," he says, "even if it's hard to achieve. I want to deal with religious conservatives, the opium business -- which is one of my current big projects -- and the warlords. I think that photojournalism can help heal the wounds of the Afghans after all the suffering we have been subjected to, but only if we get international help."
Kawa Aahangar, as Director of Aïna Photo, sees the creation of the agency as a sign of hope in his country. "Before, all the media was political and made propaganda," he says. "Now, several types of media exist and we can start to talk about the reality of Afghan civil society. Aïna Photo is definitely one of those places in the country that supports the freedom of expression."
In this spirit, Reza is accustomed to saying that Aïna, which includes Aïna Photo, is a "new type of NGO." He explains, "It's an organization of humanitarian media, a bridge between journalism, culture, and humanity -- it supports the media in order to help cultural reconstruction and heal broken souls."
From Reza and Manoocher, whose sense of duty to public service prompted them to found the agency, to Freshta, Massoud, and the other photographers the brothers trained who carry their creative torch, all of us here at Aïna Photo share the same passion for telling stories which not everyone could otherwise access. To date, many magazines and international organizations have given us their trust and supported our work, including USAID, UNDP, Paris Match, Le Monde 2, The Sunday Times, Days Japan, La Vie, Reuters, Asia-Pacific Development Review and others. For all of us at Aïna Photo -- especially the first Afghan photojournalists -- it is only the beginning of what promises to be a great adventure.
© Dimitri Beck
Chief Editor of Aïna Photo
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