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This Photographer Shoots Portraits on a Hundred-Year-Old Camera in Afghanistan

Shooting a hundred-year-old camera that is also a darkroom is unusual but this fascinating story becomes more remarkable when you consider that the photographer earned a living for decades creating portraits in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. 65 years later, he’s still taking photographs.

“Kamra-e-faoree” means instant camera in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages and spoken by around half of the population. The camera was likely built by a carpenter with designs probably originating from India and catered to the sudden need in the 1950s for Afghan’s to have national identity cards. It wasn’t unusual to find portrait photographers working in Kabul, all using these large devices with a sleeve hanging off the side to prevent light leaks when manipulating the film stock. Smaller images were made by cutting the photographic paper — typically coming from Japan, Russia, or Germany — into pieces. 

It’s said that box photography had a second spike in popularity in the early 2000s when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) ran a scheme to repatriate refugees back from Pakistan. Identity papers required accompanying photographs meaning that photographers in Peshawar — across the border from Afghanistan — were suddenly in demand.

Photography was banned in 1990s when the Taliban came to power and many box cameras were destroyed by photographers in order to avoid punishment in the event that their equipment was discovered.

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5 Comments

Peter Mueller's picture

I think this documentary is one of the most moving items I've experienced on a photography related website. On-topic, relevant, historical, and deeply meaningful to any photographer interested in the "story" of photography. Well done; kudos to Drew Binsky.

iris-imaging's picture

It is a great story, a footnote The King of Afghanistan Mohammed Zahir Shah hobby was photography. A rarity in this conservative Islamic nation.

Michelle Maani's picture

Mohammad Zahir Shah was trying to modernize Afghanistan during his reign. Under him people gained civil rights, free elections, women's rights, a parliament, and univeral suffrage. My father happened to be traveling through Afghanistan the day the Shah's cousin overthrew him. He was sequestered in a hotel and his passport taken away from him. For some reason his passport was returned to him a couple of days later, although he was told to stay in Kabul. Instead, he took a taxi and paid the driver to take him to Pakistan. This was in 1973, and the country wasn't as dangerous then as it is now. My father had acquaintances in Pakistan and so had a place to go once he reached the border.

iris-imaging's picture

It is an interesting thing about the country Afghanistan and the region is the leaders have one set of values while the people of the countryside have a different set of values. It has had a lot to with the conflicts in the world today. Your father's story has to be really interesting.

Another footnote British photographer Sir John Gunston actively supported Mohammad Zahir Shah in his quest to bring peace to the country. Gunston had more trips into the county than any other photographer that I know of, and given John's appearance, it was quite an accomplishment. He was also worked to help establish the Rory Peck Award & Trust. I am sure that that the love of photography must have had played a role.

David T's picture

Turns out he is a gearhead too! Nobody is immune :D