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More than a Kodak moment

Storay Karimi
The Ebony Photo Centre in Herat trains women to be photographers and film makers, bringing critical new eyes into the frame, empowering new voices in western Afghanistan. Earlier this year the centre co-ordinated…
29.05.2013  |  Herat
Founding mothers: staff at the Aabnos Photography House in Herat discuss priorities at a weekly meeting. (Photos: Storay Karimi)
Founding mothers: staff at the Aabnos Photography House in Herat discuss priorities at a weekly meeting. (Photos: Storay Karimi)

As western observers paint scenarios for the future of Afghanistan’s female population after 2014, a pioneer group of sharp-eyed Afghan women is busy cementing its own perceptions photo-by-photo, reel-by-reel.

The Aabnos (‘ebony’) Photography House in Herat, the country's first centre for digital image training for women, opened its doors only three years ago but has already made solid strides. 

“We have trained more than twenty women in graphic design, Photoshop, film editing, filming and photography,” says Aabnos’ founder Jaheda Sadat, who has several years experience as a professional photographer and film editor.

Self-starters off the funding radar

Located in a rented house in a quiet quarter of Herat, the centre has a small staff of volunteer women aged mainly in their twenties. Sadat started the ball rolling with 25,000 US dollars of her own capital and with support from filmmaker Reeka Fahim and Kabul-based production firm and Aabnos co-founder Roya Films.

But the initiative must go it alone - despite its unique status and requests for government support, it is not deemed eligible for any state funding.

“The Provincial Department of Women Affairs in Herat cannot provide financial assistance to this centre since it is a private entity and is in no way related to the work of the Department of Women Affairs,” said Mahbooba Jamshidi, head of the Provincial Department of Women Affairs in Herat, without elaborating further.

So the group takes on film and photo work projects to survive, relying on nothing more than three digital SLRs, two HDV camcorders, three laptops and the dedication of its members.

“We have edited eleven films in two years,” says Sadat. Most work is editing short films of religious ceremonies, weddings and birthdays for private clients.

Learning and earning

AabnosA work station at the group's studio in Herat.

Another significant chunk of the centre’s revenues comes from printing and enhancing people’s private photos. On a recent afternoon, 21-year-old staff member Laeqa Eftekhar sat engrossed in a Photoshop assignment, having first trained with the centre for a year before being given a full-time role.

"The reason why I work here is my passion and understanding of the real value of pictures and the art of photography," says Eftekhar,

Beside her sits Mozhgan, 20, who is also earning on the job, mainly through editing films for private clients. As crucially as anything else, the Photography House is "a safe environment for women who want to learn the arts of photography, filming and editing," says Mozhgan, her eyes fixed on the editing software before her.

Going public

Aabnos' has held two exhibitions: one show called Street children was displayed in The Gardens of Babur in Kabul. Another, The life of nomadic women, was exhibited in Italy and even won an award.

In March, the centre organised the first International Women's Film Festival in Herat. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), The Armanshahr Foundation, a Kabul-based NGO, and over 40 domestic and international media houses collaborated to help Roya Films and Aabnos found the cinema gala. Dozens of national and international filmmakers were in attendance, said the organizers.

AabnosCreating networks: Aabnos' attention to detail ensures a small yet regular clientele.

"The films focused on the problems of women and most were directed by women," Roya Sadat, founder of Roya Films, co-founder of Aabnos and the director of the International Women's Film Festival, told Afghanistan Today.

The three-day cinema event screened films from over 35 countries, free of charge, with at least five Afghan productions represented in the programme.

Given the security considerations in the region, just hosting the festival was a success. But the nascent group is clearly proud of its distinctive 'can do' attitude.

“I want to show that women have superior capabilities and that they can economically be self-sufficient, just like men,” says 18-year-old Nastaran, who has been training with the centre for four months. “With these women, I can learn photography, this precious art I hold very dear to my heart.”

Fame, glory - and opposition at home

On the white-washed walls hang portraits of past exhibitions; there is a framed picture of a local girl, taken from The life of nomadic women exhibition, that awarded in Italy. Clay pots and a rubab traditional stringed instrument round out the studio's creative air. 

Yet the dark curtains that hang over the windows are a reminder that outside these walls, women photographers must put up with gawping, occasional harrassment, and entrenched attitudes that cameras, photos and filmwork are not a woman's affair. Just as Herat, despite being a major city, still counts just a few dozen female motorists on its roads. In fact, taking photographs in public can have violent consequences for Afghan women, something Jaheda Sadat has experienced first-hand.

"Once I was beaten several times while snapping pictures of the people in the bazaar," says Sadat. “Another time I was beaten while trying to snap a picture of a woman in Herat city. They tried to break my camera,” recalls Aabnos' founder.

Sadat says it is often women themselves who are the most abusive. "I am often mocked by other women and told I shouldn't be taking pictures."

Aabnos staffer Nastaran says her family is also not supportive of her photographic work. And for security reasons, she and several others interviewed for this story declined to be photographed.

Gender-friendly cuts and snapshots

AabnosThe studio allows local women to be adventurous in their portraits without breaking taboos, and to exclude any worries that strange men may peruse their photos .

But there are clients at least. Shahla, a 26-year-old recent bride, has come to collect her wedding photos.

“Everybody who works here is female and I am completely comfortable as far as the editing of film and pictures is concerned, since no man has access to them,” Shahla told Afghanistan Today. “My family is also perfectly okay with this, since they know that women edit the film and pictures.”

Sarah, sat next door in the dark room having her picture taken for her passport, is another regular customer at Aabnos.

“In the past, when I needed to have a picture taken, I was not as comfortable because I had to be photographed by a man somewhere in the city. But now, my family and I can come to Aabnos Photography House with peace of mind and have our pictures taken,” said the 40-year-old, radiating beneath two lights in a studio filled with combs, jewellery, robes and trinkets.  

In a society where the entertainment industry is geared towards men, the Aabnos business model definitely has an alternative market. Yet the centre relies on word-of-mouth marketing, limiting its public appeal.

The Life of Nomadic Women, AabnosAn Aabnos Centre wall shows images from 'The Life of nomadic women' exhibition alongside more modern work.

“I’ve never heard of it,” said Samira, a female resident of Herat interviewed in the street. But rather than frowing at the idea, Samira urged Aabnos do more PR.

But it is not even a matter of security and prudent low profile. Jaheda Sadat, Aabnos’ founder, counters that there is simply no money for marketing. The only funding the centre receives is from Roya Sadat of Roya Films, which covers the rent. She blames “a lack of assistance from foreign organizations and government institutions," particularly the Provincial Department of Women's Affairs.

But the new generation of camera-wielding women seems undeterred and determined to make its mark. Last year Afghan photographer Masooud Hossaini was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, but Laeqa Eftekhar has dreams of challenging for the throne. “I want be the most famous Afghan photographer,” she declares resolutely.