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Using a nearly disappeared homegrown art form to document life in Afghanistan

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Photographer Rodrigo Abd, based in Lima, spent months on assignment in Afghanistan in the years after the dispersal of the Taliban government in 2001 and learned how to use a traditional Afghan “box camera,” a handmade camera and darkroom in one. Abd returned this year with an idea: to employ the nearly disappeared Afghan art form to document how life has changed in peacetime, for better and worse, two years after U.S. troops left and the Taliban returned to power. 

Along with reporter Elena Becatoros and videojournalist Bram Janssen, and with generous support from a Pulitzer Center grant that made the project possible, the team spent weeks in Afghanistan, crisscrossing the country from Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south to Bamiyan in the center and Kabul in the east. In a country where the Taliban opposes the depiction of faces as anti-Islamic, spraying out faces on billboards and covering store mannequin’s heads in bags, the old-style Afghan camera evoked nostalgia and curiosity and opened doors for the team. Even some senior Taliban officials were willing to sit for portraits. Though Afghan women have been virtually erased from public life, the team managed to document their stories. What resulted were hundreds of unique and arresting black-and-white images with a vintage, timeless quality. Along with stories and a mini-documentary, the project presents an original and intimate portrait of daily life in a country that has been globally isolated and is hard for journalists to access. 

With an innovative, multi-chapter layout designed by the digital presentation team, the story innovated immersive presentation for the AP. It’s been used by customers from ABC News to the Washington Post, and it has attracted attention and praise from Afghanistan experts inside and outside government in Washington as well as from exhibition spaces interested in showcasing the original storytelling.

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