Arts, Culture & Media

The Afghans' new-found freedom to shoot photos could disappear again when the US leaves

In Afghanistan under the Taliban, it was against the law to take a photo. The US invasion in 2001 brought with it more freedom of press and created a revolution in photography there.

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Now, Afghanistan is going through another major transition — this time, as the US prepares to leave. And that has journalists and photographers wondering if things will go back to the way they were.

Two American filmmakers — Mo Scarpelli and Alexandria Bombach — traveled to Afghanistan with funds raised on Kickstarter to document the country's photojournalism and reflect on its future. They produced the documentary "Frame by Frame."

"What better way to tell the story of a country than through the people who are storytellers — the journalists and photographers?" asks Alexandria Bombach. So she and Scarpelli followed four Afghan photojournalists: Farzana Wahidy, Massoud Hossaini, Wakil Kohsar, and Najibullah Musafer.

The first, Farzana Wahidy, is the only female photographer in Afghanistan. Scarpelli says she is also the only one of the four who has stayed in Afghanistan her entire life.

"She went to school in secret, hiding her books as she walked in the streets to get to a secret school at someone's apartment," Scarpelli says.

Wahidy also helped raise her family. She wanted to become a powerful, independent woman, and, in 2001, she heard about a photography program that was funded by non-governmental organizations from around the world.

"She was 17 years old and said, 'I have to do this,'" Scarpelli says. She was so determined to attend the program, she lied about her age, since she had to be 18 to enroll. And then she started her career.

"It’s very hard to work as a woman in Afghanistan," Scarpelli says. "She faces a lot of backlash. She can't drive to her own assignments."

But being female also gives Wahidy unique access in Afghanistan. Women in Afghanistan, for the most part, don’t want to be photographed. Wahidy builds relationships with them to overcome that barrier.

While Wahidy faces  many challenges to do her job, Scarpelli and Bombach — as Americans — say, for them, filming in Afghanistan wasn't very difficult.

"Foreign women in Afghanistan have a really interesting level of access," says Bombach. "It’s almost like you are considered a third gender, where you’re respected as a professional by men and you’re also allowed behind the closed doors where men are not allowed to go with women."

Afghanistan is such a beautiful country, she says, it is easy for filmmakers to shoot there. "You just fall in love with the place, the dust, the beautiful pigeons everywhere, the mosques ... the people are so colorful." But, Bombach added, security was always on her mind.

As the US prepares to leave Afghanistan, the four photojournalists in "Frame by Frame" worry about what the future holds. "It’s really a time when people don’t know what’s going to happen," Bombach says.

Some of the Afghan photographers are hopeful. Massoud Hossaini is not.

“Taliban will come back, somehow," Hossaini says in the film trailer, “and I feel I will be one of those people who will be faced with the revenge of these extremists."

Scarpelli and Bombach plan to release their documentary in early 2015.