These Unclaimed Afghan Studio Portraits Bear Witness To Decades Of History
Last month, hundreds of Afghans flooded into small photo studios in Kabul, seeking photographs for passports and ID cards before the last of the previous government's institutions closed their doors.
The Taliban have now taken Afghanistan, the U.S. has left — and thousands of Afghans are also trying to leave. As the international evacuation window narrowed, there was a rush to fill out visa applications for countries that many knew very little of, but hoped would offer them safety and a new home.
Afghans who were able to fly out before that window closed left with one small bag filled with carefully chosen possessions, the ones most important to them. Some took family photographs reminding them of happier memories; others chose pictures of loved ones lost to decades of conflict.
At one photo studio established in the capital in 1978, the owner held the honorable position as an Afghan box camera photographer. Now retired, his sons run the studio. NPR is not publishing their names to protect their security.
The Afghan box camera — also known as a kamra-e-faoree, meaning "instant camera" in Dari — has been used in Afghanistan for decades. The unique, handmade device is a manual camera and darkroom in one. The lenses are shutterless and the camera uses an internal focusing system.
The photographic process is analog, using only natural light to expose the paper, which is stored within. Chemicals are also stored in small trays inside. With the aid of an eye hole on top, the photographer can follow the development process in real time. To develop a negative by hand, he inserts an arm through a sleeve of cloth to access the camera's interior.
The owner invited a mix of Afghans to sit before his camera, and his bustling photo studio had all manner of props, from wooden guns to capes, sunglasses and iron crowns — keeping him one step ahead of his fellow photographers' competition.
We first met in 2019. He told me about his work, flipping through a stack of photo albums that he had kept in a secret hiding place. He pulled shots from his military days from the era when Afghanistan was still ruled by King Mohammed Zahir Shah, showing jet planes at Shindand Air Base in Herat province, gleeful young soldiers posing with rocket launchers and tanks and enlisted men sprawled out in poppy fields.
He and his box camera have survived upheavals from the Soviet invasion in 1979, the ensuing civil war, Taliban rule and successive conflicts in the years following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
He described the golden years of the Afghan box camera, the Taliban's repression and the reemergence of the industry after they fell.
"Back then, in the early years, there was peace," he says. "We didn't have to worry about much. I would go door to door to invite Afghans to sit in front of my camera and every day was so busy, I had many customers. When the Taliban came, many people were scared and didn't come to the studio. When the U.S. came to Afghanistan, my customers started to return and some foreigners wanted their photographs taken also and would invite me to come to photograph them."
When the Taliban came to power in the 1990s, they banned photography, calling it un-Islamic. Hanging a portrait, making or displaying an image of any living creature became a crime punishable by beating or imprisonment.
And so most Afghan box-camera operators hid or destroyed their equipment to avoid punishment. Taliban leaders, however, decided to make an exception for themselves. Their desire for their own photo IDs allowed the trade to continue, and they permitted him and a few other Afghan photographers to keep their box cameras for this purpose.
In 2001, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban's subsequent fall helped the Afghan photo industry flourish once again. Old studios went back into business, new studios opened; all were quick to cash in on the fresh demand for personal and family portraits.
Today, treasured away in the back rooms of Kabul's photo studios is a colorful mix from over the years of of charming portraits, never collected or paid for. They're photographs of Afghans left behind — soldiers and their generals, nervous children captivated by the camera, popular singers, female police officers, poets, scientists and artists.
Other unclaimed images show historic monuments and elegant palaces surrounded by idyllic gardens. Most of those sites were destroyed in the years of conflict. Colorized images show red-lipped friends in flared trousers, men with thick mustaches and flowers in their hair. They had come into the studio to pose together but never returned.
Some are bizarre, showing Taliban members crowding into a frame with crowns on their heads and guns in laps, or refugees in costumes and posing with instruments.
Over the years, studio owners stuffed unclaimed photographs into drawers under their desks. Perhaps their subjects would remember, and return someday to collect the photographs. Other pictures are duplicates that the studio owners just didn't have the heart to discard.
Photography was banned before, and whether these studios will survive another period of Taliban rule remains to be seen.
But they have borne witness to the past half-century in Afghanistan, and the photographs left behind comprise a social history of Afghanistan, a portrait of an age that speaks of a diverse people who, despite all the decades of war, embraced their lives, ambitions and love for one another.