For over a century, Afghani photographers have used a homemade, all-in-one camera and darkroom to document the people and places in their country. The kamra-e-faoree or “instant camera” is the quintessential tool of Afghani photography and was the primary camera for ID and portrait photographs for the past 100 years. Now, faster, easier, and cheaper digital methods are supplanting this photographic tradition. If a photographer’s role is to record time, events, and memories for future generations to discover and learn from, what happens when their own stories are left undocumented and not preserved—what important knowledge and history will be forgotten?
Austrian artist Lukas Birk and Irish ethnographer Sean Foley are making sure that never happens. In 2005, while working on a project about tourism in Afghanistan, the duo first encountered the karma-e-faoree (box camera), a bulky wooden box that resembles a large format camera without bellows. Though its outward appearance is unremarkable, the camera’s inner workings are quite advanced, serving as both a camera and a darkroom. The box’s interior houses an entire darkroom where photosensitive paper and small trays of chemicals are stored. Using a sliding wooden dowel to focus the lens, the photographer makes an exposure then slides one arm into a light-tight sleeve to manually process the prints. The methods may be a bit primitive, but the results are stunning. Birk and Foley thought so too.
The digital revolution has come slowly to Afghanistan, but as it gains momentum, an increasing number of photographers are moving away from the box camera in favor of the faster methods of digital technology. In 2011, Birk and Foley returned to Afghanistan to create the Afghan Box Camera Project (ABCP) with the purpose of documenting and preserving this unique photographic culture. Bringing along their own box camera, they were quickly welcomed into the photographers’ community and given demonstrations where, by comparison, the duo’s technique seemed a bit shoddy. This show of camaraderie helped the Afghani photographers to realize that the interest in their work was genuine. Over the next few years, Birk and Foley returned to Afghanistan and visited Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e-Sharif, as well as Peshawar in Pakistan.
This research has culminated in an expansive record of the karma-e-faoree and the photographers who use it. To present this information to the public, Birk and Foley created AfghanBoxCamera.com, a comprehensive website that includes a history of the camera, tutorials on how to use and/or make the camera, biographies of Afghani karma-e-faoree photographers, a gallery of images made with the box camera, and list of resources for those interested in conducting their own research. They have also produced a book, Afghan Box Camera, published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, that includes images from the 1950s to present day. Through this archive, both in book form and on the web, Birk and Foley have ensured that this photographic tradition will not be forgotten.