SCOTT SIMON, host:
Photography is one of the best tools by which we can trace and mark our time in contemporary history. National Geographic ran a signature portrait of a young Afghan woman on its cover in 1985. Her haunting green eyes spoke wordlessly from the page. That face becomes the face of the Afghan people during the Soviet occupation. But it is a new era in Afghanistan now and there are new stories to tell. Masood Kamandy is an American photographer who believes that Afghan artists deserve the opportunity to tell that story in snapshot after snapshot. He was living in New York City last year when it came to his attention that Kabul University in Afghanistan did not have a formal photography program. Mr. Kamandy, whose parents are Afghan, decided to start one. Masood Kamandy joins us from Kabul.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. MASOOD KAMANDY (Photographer): Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: And what did you find when you got to Kabul?
Mr. KAMANDY: I found a School of Fine Arts at Kabul University that was in tatters.
Mr. KAMANDY: The room that we chose for the department of photography was initially a storage room for extra wood to be burned in the wintertime.
SIMON: Now during the time of the Taliban, photographic portraits, or all kinds of photographic depictions of the human face, were banned. That would cut down on serious interest in photography, wouldn't it?
Mr. KAMANDY: Exactly. Right, right. People had to hide if they were photographing and there were no photo stores in Kabul. They were all closed.
SIMON: So how did you begin to bring equipment in and how did you begin to get people to think in terms of photographs again?
Mr. KAMANDY: Well, I had a talk with my department chair at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and we decided to organize an auction at Christie's and were able to raise some money.
SIMON: You had an auction at Christie's? This is the fancy auction house?
Mr. KAMANDY: Exactly, yeah. There were 56 photographers who donated their photos and we were able to raise enough money to start this program.
SIMON: What, in your mind, identified the need for a photography program? What about the place that you saw said, `This is something that has to be documented'?
Mr. KAMANDY: Well, I mean, it is documented a lot by people who come in and leave with their photographs. But I felt very strongly that when I first came that it would be very easy for me to come and take my photographs and leave, but what would be more important is to give the Afghan students here a voice and the ability to show their country the way that they see it and not the way that the foreigners see it.
SIMON: Some of the pictures that some of your students took are on a Web site. Now I want to ask you about them. There's a picture of a young gentleman, seems to be, standing on--I guess in this country what we'd describe as a pretty rickety wooden balcony of what looks like a battle-scarred building. What is this picture?
Mr. KAMANDY: I think what he's doing is starting to motion at the kid not to take his picture, but in the process he captured this moment, a very simple moment. But the student that took the photograph was very interested in showing Afghan culture and, in his words, he said, `the unluckiness of the Afghan people.'
SIMON: Why did the gentleman not want his picture taken? Do you have any idea?
Mr. KAMANDY: I'm trying to teach my students to ask. The people are very sensitive about it here. Either they really, really want you to take their picture and they come and drag you over, or they're very defensive about it.
SIMON: Another picture I'm looking at is a woman in an outdoor kitchen; looks like she's preparing water for tea, perhaps.
Mr. KAMANDY: Yeah. It's on the university campus. It's a place that people go to get tea. And I saw it on several of the students' contact sheets, but that image in particular was one that I felt captured sort of the--like a gentleness of this--about this person and a gentleness about the teapot and the act of making tea.
SIMON: You know, it's interesting, looking at these pictures, because they're in black and white, with the exception of--it looks like kind of an industrial food can that's visible in one of them, these are pictures that could have been taken 150 years ago.
Mr. KAMANDY: Yeah. They're almost like dreams, I think. That's the way that I see them.
SIMON: And what's this experience done to your work?
Mr. KAMANDY: My biggest hope is that it's given me a deeper understanding of Afghan people because it's a part of me that I've always wondered about, being Afghan-American. And for the last three months, I've been able to really get to know kids who are essentially trying to do the same thing that I did so easily in the United States but they have so little and they really make the most of it.
SIMON: Well, Mr. Kamandy, nice talking to you. Good luck to you and your students.
Mr. KAMANDY: Thank you.
SIMON: Masood Kamandy, speaking with us from Kabul, where he's heading a collaboration between Kabul University and The Visual Arts Foundation to start a four-year photography program.
If you'd like to see pictures taken by Masood Kamandy and some of his students, you can come to our Web site at npr.org.