Frame by Frame: Photojournalism in Afghanistan

October 21, 2015

By Anna Speyart

On Tuesday 20 November 2015, the Frontline Club hosted a packed screening of the documentary Frame by Frame, followed by a discussion with filmmakers Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli. The film follows four Afghan photojournalists who have the challenging task of helping to establish a free and diverse media landscape after years of repressive Taliban rule in Afghanistan, during which photography – and a free press – was prohibited.

On the origins of the project, Bombach said: “9/11 happened when I was 16. I didn’t really think about Afghanistan too much.”

But while shooting a different short film, Bombach and Scarpelli became increasingly curious to hear from Afghan journalists and Afghan storytellers. Bombach said, “In 2012, I emptied my bank account and sold my car for Mo and I to go there.” After which they started actively engaging with and following local journalists.

Regarding the choice to focus on the four main characters, Scarpelli said: “We didn’t have a lot of time with them the first time we met them… We got to know them over the course of these interviews.”

Access was not a significant issue as the protagonists were journalists themselves: “They understood what we were trying to do. We wanted to do not just a story about them shooting or a profile piece. We wanted to tell a story about human beings.”

Bombach commented on one of the photojournalists featured: “[Najibullah] is such a force and so well respected. He naturally became this form in the film that guides us through.”

The directors are still discussing the way in which they will bring the film to Afghan audiences. “The security of the subjects is really the most important thing,” Scarpelli said. “Of course, if we had it our way, all Afghans would see this film.”

Regarding the presence of American armed forces while shooting the film, Bombach said: “You can obviously feel the presence,” although they weren’t always visible.

Scarpelli added: “I was surprised that [the photojournalists’] lives weren’t affected on a day to day basis by the US forces.”

In response to an audience question on the technicalities of shooting, Scarpelli said: “Alexandria and I were the only ones shooting the entire film.” The filmmakers agreed with an audience member’s suggestion that they “filmed endlessly and cut out the golden bits.”

In the end, the directors had more than 300 hours of footage. “It took a year and a half to edit,” said Scarpelli.

Language was an important part of the editing process, especially because some of the characters in the film spoke in English and others in Farsi. “We do feel that you can describe so much better what happens when you are speaking your own language,” said Bombach. “We put a lot of time and effort into translations (…) to make sure that the nuances of the language were represented as much as possible.”

Access to the Afghan women featured in the film was largely provided by the photojournalist Farzana Wahidy, who had developed a wide and trusting network of female contacts. Bombach commented: “As foreign women you are allowed into the room with the men because you are not held to the same standards as Afghan women… You are also allowed into the room with women – so for us it was a great scenario.

She added: “People are so historically hospitable. They are curious about what you are doing.”

Bombach and Scarpelli then discussed AINA, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to educating Afghan journalists.

Bombach said: “Farzana wanted to be a journalist but she didn’t know anything about photography.” She was educated by AINA and now teaches young Afghan journalists both in Kabul and in rural areas across Afghanistan.

“Farzana focuses on teaching the business side of being a photographer,” added Scarpelli. “There is a gap between the basics you know and how you actually become a professional.”

Worryingly, Scarpelli commented, “the situation in Afghanistan security wise is deteriorating,” highlighted by the Taliban’s recent capture of Kunduz. The four photojournalists featured in Frame by Frame, however, continue to work on their projects despite the increasingly difficult conditions.

Visit the Frame by Frame website for further details on the film and upcoming screenings.