Daily Picture Show

Instant Street Photography, Afghanistan-Style

Austrian-born, London-schooled and now Beijing-based artist Lukas Birk has a project that needs funding: a documentary about Afghan box cameras. What's a box camera? Here's Birk to let you know:

Basically, it's a giant, light-proof, instant camera, inside of which an image is processed on the spot. By reaching through a cloth-covered hole into the box, the photographer unwraps light-sensitive photo paper and, once exposed, dips it into little tubs of developing chemicals.

  • Lukas Birk's friend Sean has his photo taken by a street photographer in Mazar i Sharif in Northern Afghanistan.
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    Lukas Birk's friend Sean has his photo taken by a street photographer in Mazar i Sharif in Northern Afghanistan.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • The resulthing image, produced on the spot.
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    The resulthing image, produced on the spot.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • Birk has his photo taken. After the first exposure, the photographer mounts the resulting negative image to be photographed again, creating the positive image.
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    Birk has his photo taken. After the first exposure, the photographer mounts the resulting negative image to be photographed again, creating the positive image.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • The result of the double negative exposure is this positive image of Birk, in Mazar i Sharif.
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    The result of the double negative exposure is this positive image of Birk, in Mazar i Sharif.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • The initial negative image and two subsequent positive images of Birk and his friend Sean, taken by a street photographer in Mazar i Sharif.
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    The initial negative image and two subsequent positive images of Birk and his friend Sean, taken by a street photographer in Mazar i Sharif.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • Birk and the first incarnation of his box camera, at an exhibition for some of his other work in Beijing in 2009. The black cloth hanging from the side covers a hole through which he can reach his hand to mount and develop the photo paper while preventing light from entering.
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    Birk and the first incarnation of his box camera, at an exhibition for some of his other work in Beijing in 2009. The black cloth hanging from the side covers a hole through which he can reach his hand to mount and develop the photo paper while preventing light from entering.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • Birk peers through the open back of his box camera. To focus the camera, he moves a translucent glass plate toward or away from the lens until the image projected on the glass is sharp. This is where he will mount the photo-sensitive paper once the light is sealed out.
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    Birk peers through the open back of his box camera. To focus the camera, he moves a translucent glass plate toward or away from the lens until the image projected on the glass is sharp. This is where he will mount the photo-sensitive paper once the light is sealed out.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • A picture taken with Burk's box camera at the Beijing exhibition.
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    A picture taken with Burk's box camera at the Beijing exhibition.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • A photo of an exhibition visitor trying on a Burqa.
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    A photo of an exhibition visitor trying on a Burqa.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk
  • Another image made with Birk's box camera.
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    Another image made with Birk's box camera.
    Photos courtesy of Lukas Birk

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The first exposure is a negative; to get a positive print, it is photographed again. The whole process takes about 10-15 minutes, which is a little longer than what you'd wait for a Polaroid — and it's a heck of a lot less portable — but you can make one of these yourself. Just don't shake it.

Learn more in the Los Angeles Times article: Afghanistan's Street Photographers Fading Away

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