In 1996, the Taliban banned photography in Afghanistan. Taking a photo was considered a crime. When the regime was removed from Kabul in 2001, their suppression of free speech and press disappeared. Since then, photography has become an outlet for Afghans determined to show the hidden stories of their country.
I had not given much thought to the idea that photography could or would be banned or what that might mean for people affected. I was intrigued by the premise and made an effort to fight the crowd and get into a screening.
The main goal of the film is not to delve into the meaning of a photography ban in very much depth; instead, it uses this episode in Afghan history as a kick-off point for exploring Afghanistan as a place and to put the work and lives of four Afghani photojournalists into context. Much of the documentary focuses on the struggles of the photographers themselves and the importance they give to their work, especially the ability to make visible to the world the struggles that could otherwise go unnoticed.
At the same time, the reality of photography being absent or limited in a culture underlies the entire narrative of the film, particularly in shaping identity. A particularly moving example includes one of the photographers, a woman named Farzana Wahidy, holding up a book with a photo from the 70s showing a group of smartly dressed women at the university in Kabul. Wahidy comments on how difficult it is to imagine that this photograph represents the way life ever was in Afghanistan.
Wahidy’s work, we find out as the film progresses, focuses on the experience of women in her home country. Throughout the film, almost at every turn, she is blocked in her efforts and told repeatedly that photographing women is a very sensitive subject and one that she ought to avoid. But she persists, and though she captures a quiet beauty in her subject, most women withdraw from the gaze of the camera even as they allow her to photograph them.
Wahidy’s photographs show a very different world of women in Afghanistan than the 1970s photo she proudly held up for the camera and seemed to resemble in her own demeanor. I couldn’t help wondering how knowing about that lost history - seeing it for herself - impacted her own identity. Whether it did or not, I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since.
We are all impacted by the identities that advertisers try to sell us, and photography plays an important role in that transaction. My job as a photographer isn’t only to watch the light and capture the moment, but to work with those photographed to craft an image that they want to share with the world – and to eventually use as a gauge for future onlookers to reference for themselves when trying to understand their own identity.