From photography’s earliest days, enterprising practitioners realized they could take their services directly to the people. This lead to the horse-drawn wagons called “Daguerreotype Salons” and then to portable, darkroom tents that allowed wet-plate photographers to make pictures outside. As technology advanced, the tents morphed into a single apparatus that combined both camera and darkroom, which allowed photographers to work anywhere. Afghanistan is one of the last places where street vendor photographers still use such a hand-made, wooden camera called kamra-e-faoree or “instant camera.” Observing this practice lead Lukas Birk to undertake the Afghan Box Camera Project. The following are highlights of our email conversations.
Robert Hirsch: What is the project’s mission?
Lukas Birk: The purpose is to provide a record of the kamra-e-faoree, which is on the brink of disappearing in Afghanistan. We tell the personal stories of these photographers who make identity portraits on the street, many of which were trained by their fathers. Our information is based on a visit between April and June 2011 that focused on Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, plus previous visits and ongoing research. Also, the website provides instructions and videos on how to build a kamra-e-faoree, how to tint and hand color prints, background data about the camera and photography in Afghanistan, plus photographer portfolios and links to additional resources. Our online material, afghanboxcamera.com is open-source so anybody can utilize it.
RH: Tell me about your background.
LB: I was born in 1982 in Bregenz, Austria where I trained and worked in journalism and radio before studying media art in London. After meeting Sean Foley in India in 2002, we began collaborating. I provide the visuals and Sean, whose background is in anthropology, writes. We went to Afghanistan in 2008 to research tourism in conflict zones, resulting in a book, two films and a traveling exhibition: Kafkanistan (lukasbirk.com).
RH: How did the project originate?
LB: I encountered the Afghan box cameras in 2006 and I built my first one in 2008. Since then I have constructed four different cameras with internal and external focusing systems and started experimenting with them. During this process Sean and I decided to go back to Afghanistan to document the last active box camera photographers.