Afghan Box Camera

Birk, L., Foley, S., 2013. Afghan box camera. Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, England.

Frontispiece

Gulbert would recite prayers and verses and blow on the camera, and then take out the photographs announcing, “A MIRACLE!”

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In Afghanistan in the 1950s a simple hand-made wooden camera known as the kamra-e-faoree began to be used widely in the country for the first time.

Further afield in industrialised Europe and North America, patented relations had already appeared in the 1910s; whilst the photograph process the camera used was first introduced by William Henry Fox-Talbot in 1840s England.

In contrast […] to photography as a thing of the elite, the kamra-e-faoree brought photography to the common man and quite literally, to the street.

Only a narrow pavement slot was required to fit a camera, a chair and a cloth backdrop. The chair in which the customer posed for the portrait could also serve the photographer as a perch on which to rest or even sleep in quieter times. The camera lid provided a handy platform on which to place a pair of scissors and box of photo paper as well as hold a mug of tea and a saucer of sweets.

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Requiring neither electricity (of which there was little) nor the cumbersome apparatus of the photo studio, the technology of the camera – easily repairable, compact and providing a ready-made storehouse for materials and tools in it’s chamber – was highly mobile and could be used practically anywhere out-of-doors: the caveat being that the heaviest kamra-e-faoree can weigh up to 20 kilograms and many a photographer who worked with the camera as a child still strains under the memory of lifting it.

In practice, how mobile or sedentary a photographer was really depended on bureaucratic requirements.

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(It should be noted too that from the earliest days until its eventual obsolescence, the kamra-e-faoree, as well as prospering alongside cameras of the large and medium format film variety, co-existed with 35mm film cameras and most recently, if briefly, digital photography.)

Occasionally colour seeped into the process. Airways Hakeem, as Kabuli photographer, used kite-paper of various colours to paint kamra-e-faoree photographs, first moistening a small piece of paper in his mouth, before pinching it into a ball and rubbing it onto the portrait – the paper serving as both paintbrush and paint.

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The entire process – from seating the customer to handing over the photo and ultimately pocketing the fee – could all be accomplished within a matter of minutes, particularly if the photographer was in tune with the particularities of his camera’s design – because every single camera was different. Some had rickety focus plates or were plagued by unstable tripods, others leaked light: idiosyncrasies developed through wear and tear and individual design.

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After almost 50 years in the trade, the last kamra-e-faoree photographer in Herat could finally continue no longer and he found work as a baker’s assistant.

But the building blocks of their lives are hard to dismantle and memories linger on. Mention the kamra-e-faoree to an older photographer in Afghanistan and a common response is that he will insert his arm into an imaginary sleeve attached to an imaginary camera to mimic the motions of using the camera.

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