It was in June 2011 that after a deep and meticulous research, Lukas Birk & Sean Foley, on their trip to Afghanistan discovered that it was one of the last extant places on earth where Box Cameras or ‘kamra-e-faoree’ (as they call it) is put to use to keep the spirit of photographic evolution alive and to make a living as well.
Here is the conversation with them that beams at their experiences and ideas behind the project:
Q- Tell me a little about your plans to re-visit Afghanistan this coming June?
In June we are planning to go to small cities in Afghanistan. We are hoping to find some working box camera photographers in Fayzabad in North-East Afghanistan. We also have connections in Herat. And we are planning on re-visiting the photographers we previously interviewed as with time, more and more questions arose in our heads.
Q- What exactly was the chief reason for the dawn of ‘The Afghan Box Camera Project’? When was your first encounter with box cameras?
Sean: I had my first encounter with an Afghan box camera photographer, like Lukas in Mazar-e-Sharif in 2006, though I came across the photos in Kabul in 2002. It was on a winter trip to Pakistan in 2007 when I met the last working Afghan box camera photographer in Peshawar and he realised some record of this photography had to be made. It was clear that a way of life was vanishing – with having been recorded – and he wanted to redress that.
Lukas: I saw my first camera in 2006 in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan and made the first plans to build my own camera in 2007. I have built several since. Being trained as a photographer and having used the medium of photography in many different fields, the simplicity of the camera and its aesthetics appealed very much to me. The stories connected to the photographers and applied techniques passed on, over generations seemed a fascinating subject to know more about.
Essentially, we both are story tellers and the story of the Afghan Box Camera is a fascinating story to tell.
Q- “Kamra-e-faoree”- Can you please elaborate the meaning of this word/phrase?
Kamra-e-Faoree – literally means Camera – Instant. It is Farsi/ Dari
Q- How did you manage to ascend the family tree of the passage of the art of Box camera photography in Afghanistan?
The family tree is a result of many interviews conducted primarily in Kabul. Muhammad Usman whose father was a famous photographer, was of great help to establish a base family tree of important photographers.
Q- Did linguistic mismatch ever come out to be a problem for you whilst communicating with the people and photographers there? How did you get across it?
Both the translators we worked with are fluent in Dari (the Afghan version of Farsi) and Pashto. Especially in Kabul the languages get mixed very often. In some of our interviews we have both languages used by the same person. Somebody who might primarily use Pashto in conversation might mix it frequently with Dari as many words are more used in Dari.
Q- What other types of cameras and photography equipment did you come across among the Afghani photographers?
Nowadays most photographers use digital cameras to take portraits. But in former days people used different kinds of 35mm camera on the market. We came across Canon, Nikon, Zenit, Yashica and other brands. Previously, large format photographs were popular among those who could afford it. These photos might also been hand-coloured. One of the large format cameras we came across was the Indian Vageeswari camera.
Q- Apart from procuring a record of the both of Box cameras and their evolution in Afghanistan, what other aspects do you think need to be tapped in the country?
Last year as we shuttled about Kabul meeting photographers we drove by a strip of grass between the laneways on one particular road every-day. On that strip, in the middle of the bustling traffic we saw a turbaned, old man with a long white beard tending a bunch of rose bushes growing in the middle of the strip. Every-day we saw him: pruning them, watering them, cultivating beauty amid the noise and mess of the traffic.
Afghanistan is a place where beauty is cultivated on many levels. It would be good for people to know that.
Q- A ‘Box Camera’ is a camera and a dark room in the same set. Is that what lured you to research more about the same or was there any other factor that lured your attention?
The box camera has many fascinations besides being somewhat of an instant camera. It is the people and stories linked to them which make it so interesting.
Q- The easy step by step guide provided by you for making a box camera might have needed meticulous and deep research. Tell me a little about the resources that helped you do so.
Firstly we talked to many photographers about their camera and studied their tools. Secondly Lukas has built several cameras and is knowledgeable about the field which gave us a first-hand experience on how to build them.
Q- What is so instant about a box camera? Talking technically, do you find any advantage in a box camera over the modern DSLRs?
Technically speaking there is no advantage over a DSLR. If one has a small portable printer it is faster with sharper images and in colour. But like an LP cannot be compared with an mp3 player, it is all about the feeling attached to the production and the end result. The manual shutter, development, cutting of paper, texture of chemicals on photographic surfaces leads to a result that bears a lot more natural development and life compared to a hyper sharp and precise digital photograph. If you don’t have access or can’t afford electricity, it’s the way to go. It’s relatively uncomplicated to repair if it gets broken, and traditionally in Afghanistan, it’s been an accessible form of technology for unlettered individuals as you don’t have to read anything to use it.
Q- Your website features portfolios and works of several photographers. How did you manage to come across all of them?
We spent weeks running from one photography studio to another. Following leads, driving for hours through the city with our translators. Luckily the photographers were very helpful in locating their colleagues.
Q- What are your future plans to carry forward this mission and spread the word to save this brilliant and antique form of photography?
One of the reasons for our upcoming research trip is a book publication next year. This will feature the main parts of our research as well as manuals on how to build a camera and take a photograph. Furthermore we will keep adding material to our website. We are also planning box camera workshops around the globe accompanied by exhibitions. We also want to expand the research into Pakistan and ultimately India, which we know has a long history of box camera photography.
Interviewed by: Manik Katyal and Sahil Sharma
Photos and Video by: Afghan Box Camera Project, Lukas Birk & Sean Foley