Photo exhibition: Afghan Box Camera

April 26 - June 6, 2019  Centre Culturel Français Freiburg

Afghan Box Camera Project

by Lukas Birk and Sean Foley

Until only a few years ago, people were still taking pho­tographs in the streets of Afghanistan with a simple type of camera called a kamra-e-faoree (Dari for instant camera). Gen­er­a­tions of Afghans have had their pass­port photos and por­traits taken with this wooden box that is both a camera and a dark­room at the same time. Under the rule of the Tal­iban, this hand­i­craft was pro­hib­it­ed and many pho­tog­ra­phers had to hide or destroy their cam­eras. The artist Lukas Birk and the eth­nol­o­gist Sean Foley doc­u­ment­ed this fas­ci­nat­ing pho­to­graph­ic prac­tice, which is dying out, over a period of many years, cre­at­ing port­fo­lios of indi­vid­ual pho­tog­ra­phers from Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Herat. These col­lec­tions pro­vide a detailed insight into their rou­tines, their impro­vised stu­dios, their loving and inven­tive assem­bly of their cam­eras, and the whole analog process of pic­ture-taking, up to the final print. Their biogra­phies are often inter­est­ing and telling – some were already in high demand as teens, because fam­i­lies wanted young pho­tog­ra­phers, and not grown men, to take pic­tures of their female mem­bers. Pass­port photos made up a good deal of their busi­ness. The cura­tors Birk and Foley col­lect­ed a mul­ti­tude of photo pos­i­tives and assem­bled mon­u­men­tal col­lages. Fur­ther­more, the exhi­bi­tion in the CCFF presents art­ful­ly hand-col­ored and enlarged prints – and last but not least, an orig­i­nal box camera from a museum in London.

In these glob­al­ized times, this archa­ic art of analog pic­ture-taking has found imi­ta­tors, too. The Galerie Alter Wiehre­bahn­hof is pre­sent­ing the works of pho­tog­ra­phers who, inspired by the AFGHAN BOX CAMERA PROJECT, have built their own box cam­eras and take pic­tures on the streets of Malaysia, Myan­mar, France, and the US, thus offer­ing a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of this unique pho­to­graph­ic tradition.

Lukas Birk, stud­ied art and pho­tog­ra­phy at the London Col­lege of Music and Media, as well as print­mak­ing at the Rhode Island School of Design. He is a Ful­bright Fellow and a recip­i­ent of mul­ti­ple awards and grants. The multi-dis­ci­pli­nary projects by the sto­ry­teller, artist, and col­lec­tor have been turned into films, chron­i­cles, online archives, books, and exhi­bi­tions. A large part of Lukas’ work deals with archival mate­r­i­al he col­lects through travel and is con­nect­ed to sub­jec­tive, in parts fic­tion­al, ele­ments. His book pub­li­ca­tions are usu­al­ly based on prior exhi­bi­tion projects, such as Kafkanistan (2007); Afghan Box Camera (2013); Polaroids from the Middle King­dom (2014); Photo Peshawar (2018). He co-found­ed the Austro Sino Arts Pro­gram in China, and SewonArt­Space, a res­i­den­cy pro­gram in Yogyakar­ta, Indone­sia. Cur­rent­ly, Lukas is work­ing on a Myan­mar Photo Archive (“Burmese Pho­tog­ra­phers,” 2018).

Sean Foley is an Irish ethno­g­ra­ph­er spe­cial­iz­ing in visual anthro­pol­o­gy who also works as a researcher on art projects. He first trav­eled to Afghanistan in 2002, where he later real­ized the exhi­bi­tion and book project Kafkanistan (2005-07, with Lukas Birk), which explores tourism in Pak­istan and Afghanistan. He has researched and filmed boaters on the Ganges as well as cul­tur­al ecol­o­gy in the south of Greece. For the Afghan Box Camera Project, he col­lab­o­rat­ed with Lukas Birk again to com­bine his­tor­i­cal back­ground and pho­to­graph­ic tech­niques with an artis­tic approach.