November 18, 2015

Inside Afghanistan's Extraordinary DSLR Revolution

Until 2001, taking or having photographs was outlawed in Afghanistan. But after the Taliban lost their stranglehold on the country, what followed was nothing short of a photojournalist uprising. The weapons of choice? DSLR.

In their feature documentary Frame by Frame, which can now be requested through Gathr’s Theatrical-On-Demand, Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli follow four brilliant photographers at the helm of Afghanistan visual media transformation. No Film School sat down with Alaxandria and Mo at SXSW for their world premiere to talk about anything from what Afghans are shooting on, using headscarves to block glare on the streets of Kabul, or selling their truck to get halfway across the world.

NFS: One of the central themes in the film is how visual images are crucial to either your cultural identity. When you're talking about the digital camera revolution in Afghanistan, what are we talking about?

Mo Scarpelli: Photography actually had a long history in Afghanistan. There were these box cameras that we show in the film, the pinhole camera. These beautiful little portraits that they do in the streets was a part of that culture. All that was ripped away basically during the Taliban regime. When the Taliban banned photography, it was this situation where basically photography was a hot button thing. If you owned photographs, they were ripped up. If you took photographs, you could be beat up or put in jail or even killed. A lot of Afghans were not okay with the Taliban being in power at all, let alone instituting these laws that would stop them from expressing themselves. When the Taliban was ousted from Kabul in 2001 and photography because legal again, along with music and other things that were banned, a lot of people for sure were excited that photography was a possibility again.  Many people wanted to be able to photograph their own lives and photograph the lives of their friends and their family. Journalism had this huge upsurge and this, "Photojournalism revolution" we call it, unfolded.

If you owned photographs, they were ripped up. If you took photographs, you could be beat up or put in jail or even killed.

At the same, to be expected, there is some precariousness around photography because it was banned for a while, and it was considered blasphemy by the Taliban. And while it’s not pervasive across all of Afghanistan, there are also some parts of the culture that doesn’t want women to be seen -- showing a woman's image is considered distasteful, and not respectful of a woman's image and her own modesty. Women are still figuring that out, and the culture is still figuring it out after having this oppressive regime tell them what to do with women, what to do with their media. 

We were in Kabul and saw, for the most part, this very excited feeling around photography. It's being captured by phones. Everybody's taking pictures of everything all the time. Journalists are excited to be using imagery. The people are excited to be seeing imagery. One of the photographers in the film, Najibullah, actually has this massive following on Facebook and he posts pictures every single day that he takes. People are so excited about seeing their country documented that way.

...images are just such a huge way we associate ourselves as humans with our identity. From there, I basically sold my truck that pulled the Airstream, so that Airstream's not moving right now, and emptied the bank account. In 2012, that got Mo and I to Afghanistan for two weeks to meet the photographers.
    

Credit: Frame By Frame

NFS: How did you first get interested in the subject of photographers in Afghanistan?

Alexandria Bombach: I was handed some b-roll footage for a project of Afghanistan. I was watching some b-roll of a shot, someone just stuck the camera in the middle of the street, pointed it down the street, and I got to sit there for 20 minutes and just watch people walk down the street. It was peaceful. Someone was walking their dog and had a belly laugh, someone was drinking tea. It just make me sit back and thing, "Whoa, what is my perception of this place?" It's something that I focus on a lot in the films that I make. What is our perception of this lifestyle, or this idea, or what are we doing with this place? I questioned my own perception of Afghanistan, and got curious. Photography and images are just such a huge way we associate ourselves as humans with our identity. From there, I basically sold my truck that pulled the Airstream, so that Airstream's not moving right now, and emptied the bank account. In 2012, that got Mo and I to Afghanistan for two weeks to meet the photographers. I thought it was going to be a short, but once we got back and heard all the interviews and everything, it was like, "Okay, this is definitely a feature length film."

Then we did a Kickstarter campaign to go back the following fall for 2 months. We tried to raise $40,000 on Kickstarter and ended up raising over $70,000. It was really, really great. Allowed us to travel in country and everything like that. It was awesome.

It was just the two of us in a white Corolla with our fixer and driver the whole time, and so we were really low key. A lot of people travel around in convoys and stuff like that, and they see a completely different Afghanistan. Even the one we saw in 2012 was completely different than the one we saw in 2013...

Overlooking Kabul in this still from "Frame By Frame." Credit: Frame By Frame

NFS: What was this production like over the course of the two trips you took to shoot? Did you have fixers? 

Mo: The first year we went we were in this foreigner compound. While we were still going out in the streets, and filming in the streets, and filming with the photographers as much as we could, but the sense of Afghanistan was there was more of a tension there security-wise. We were new to everything.

The second time we went back, it was a lot easier to go out to film. We had the longest days. Every day was like a 16-hour day of filming, filming, filming with all the characters. We were able to be that efficient because we already had a relationship with our fixer, and that time we were staying in a place that was super low key and easy to get in and out of. Our gear was really minimal. We used DSLRs and we were on Mark III's the second year. The first year we had used a Canon C300, and even though that's not that much bigger than a Mark III, it felt more invasive. It felt harder and clunkier to jump around with the photographers and kind of navigate the scene.

Alexandria: People noticed it a lot more.

Mo: The second year we had a super efficient production. We had access at that point. The photographers had done interviews with us before; we got to know them a little bit. They understood what we were doing by the time we came back the second time, and they knew that we were serious because we were coming back for a lot longer. We just tried to stay small and nimble and use that access.
Alexandria: It was just the two of us in a white Corolla with our fixer and driver the whole time, and so we were really low key. A lot of people travel around in convoys and stuff like that, and they see a completely different Afghanistan.

Even the one we saw in 2012 was completely different than the one we saw in 2013 because of the way we interacted with Afghans. Because we were staying in an Afghan guesthouse, they were making us dinner, lunch, or breakfast every morning. It was just such a different experience when you meet someone who's in this huge bulletproof vehicle that's traveling around and in an international hotel. They never really see the outside; they see all the guards and the gates. It's actually much safer to be low key versus putting all these things with bells and whistles around you. It was important for us to stay low key for safety, but also for filming our story. It was a really great experience.

I think the same way that a digital camera revolution has happened here, it's also changed how accessible photography is in Afghanistan too. All the photographers we met are all using digital -- and it's all DSLR.

Afghani photographer Wakil Kohsar in a still from "Frame By Frame."Credit: Framy By Frame
NFS: In the film you meet a lot of different photographers with different camera kits. What are Afghani photographers shooting on? What were the different cameras that these guys are using?

Alexandria: These guys are real professionals. Massoud is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, he worked for AFP, now he works for AP. Farzana is a multiple national award-winning photographer. Both of them are on Nikon and Najibullah and Wakil were on the same cameras we were.   The same lenses. We could have interchanged stuff! Wakil now works for AFP and Najibullah works for multiple magazines, teaches at multiple universities, has one of the only photojournalism centric organizations in Afghanistan. We also met younger kids, everyone's on Instagram, everyone's on Facebook. We met such a strong next generation of photographers. They have smaller sensor cameras, but they're all out there with stuff and the same kind of thing you would see at a college in the States.

Mo: I think the same way that a digital camera revolution has happened here, it's also changed how accessible photography is in Afghanistan too. It's not separate from that. It's cheaper to shoot on digital, and if you're working for a newsroom it's a given that you're going to be digital. All the photographers we met are all using digital -- and it's all DSLR.

When you shoot in a culture that is not your own, you could storm in there, be really just worried about your gear and about the technical stuff of shooting. You'd probably get okay shots. But a lot of the beauty in the shots we use in the film happened because we had someone like our fixer or our characters who could get us that access. That really put us in a place that was completely different no matter what kind of gear we had.

Credit: Frame By Frame
NFS: What sort of gear challenges did you face that were unique to shooting on the streets of Afghanistan? You wore headscarves while shooting, right?

Alexandria: It was actually really nice because you wear a dress that comes mid-thigh and that was really nice because I hate it when I have to squat down everywhere and butt crack showing. It's great.

We were there in the fall so we weren't too hot, and the headscarves were nice sometimes. We were shooting on DSLR and I hate those LED screen attachments. It was great for glare and we looked like eighteenth century photographers with our headscarves over the camera.

It was really easy to shoot in Afghanistan because we had such a great Afghan team. Our fixer and our driver were constantly surveying the scene, getting us great access, communicating, bringing the right graciousness to the table. They’d say, "we should bring a bag of apples to so-and-so because he's sick," or "we should have some tea with these guards because they let us film in this old theater.”

We were there in the fall so we weren't too hot, and the headscarves were nice sometimes. We were shooting on DSLR and I hate those LED screen attachments. It was great for glare and we looked like eighteenth century photographers with our headscarves over the camera.

Mo: I think the access thing is huge. When you shoot in a culture that is not your own, you could storm in there, be really just worried about your gear and about the technical stuff of shooting. You'd probably get okay shots. But a lot of the beauty in the shots we use in the film happened because we had someone like our fixer or our characters who could get us that access. That really put us in a place that was completely different no matter what kind of gear we had.

Alexandria: Afghanistan is so beautiful and the light is always so good, it's golden light a lot of times. We were shooting middle of the day sometimes, it was just gorgeous.

...it was a part of our goal to show another side of Afghanistan that people hadn't seen before, and also match, attempt to match, the beautiful work of the photographers. In just a single image from one of the photographers we followed, everything is conveyed. We wanted to be just as elegant and graceful with our shooting and editing.

Credit: Frame By Frame
NFS: There is definitely a lot of beautiful light and color in the film.

Alexandria: There were days we'd just look back at each other and be like, "This is ridiculous!" It was just like, point the camera!

Mo: It was helpful to have a monopod instead of a tripod. There were lots of situations where we were just moving quickly to try to keep up with the photographer and stuff like that, and then less was more. This is one thing I love about No Film School actually – often pointing out how you can kind of strip back. You don't have to have this super expensive gear; you don't have to have film school training.

Some of the most beautiful shots in the film were handheld, or were in the car where Alexandria's panning up as we were driving to Panjshir. That's on a monopod in a car. She didn't have a dolly or some crazy contraption on the car; she was just in the car with Wakil driving to Panjshir. The shot of Farzana photographing those women was completely strapped on the neck, Alexandria trying to hold it and not breathe. A lot of the stuff in the film we were setting up quickly and just using what we had.

It was helpful to have a monopod instead of a tripod. There were lots of situations where we were just moving quickly to try to keep up with the photographer and stuff like that, and then less was more.

Alexandria: We wanted it to be a beautiful film because it was a part of our goal to show another side of Afghanistan that people hadn't seen before, and also match, attempt to match, the beautiful work of the photographers. In just a single image from one of the photographers we followed, everything is conveyed. We wanted to be just as elegant and graceful with our shooting and editing.
Mo: We did use the Mark III to record sound. Even though we had Zooms with us and stuff, because it was just the two of us and because we really don't like using booms, we didn’t use them. Neither of us in our work have ever used a boom and been comfortable with what happened if we had to use one.

We knew we weren't going to completely disappear, but we wanted people to at least not have a fuzzy thing hanging over their head all the time. A huge part of the film being intimate was the fact that we could sit in the corner in our headscarves and they would just do life, and kind of forget we were there in a way. Because we didn't use external audio, we were recording straight into the Mark III's. It was the best situation for us because we were moving quickly and we were both running sound at the same time.

We did use the Mark III to record sound. Even though we had Zooms with us and stuff, because it was just the two of us and because we really don't like using booms, we didn’t use them...A huge part of the film being intimate was the fact that we could sit in the corner in our headscarves and they would just do life, and kind of forget we were there in a way.

NFS: So did you have the photographers mic'd with a wireless setup?

Alexandria: Yeah. We had a 2XLR input and one would be shotgun, one would be wireless. It ended up working out really well. Our mixers were pretty impressed with the sound quality, so it was nice.

NFS: You mentioned how beautiful the light and colors were naturally, as far as the final look in the film, how much did you depart from the in camera settings, if any?

Mo: We cranked it down a little bit in saturation and contrast but that's about it. We had our own defined setting. I shot in CineStyle.
Alexandria: We talked about this documentary style with Brian Hutchings, our colorist. He colored Twenty Feet from Stardom and all these amazing films, so we were just kind of putting it in his hands. It was great to hear him say, "Well I think we should stay pretty true to what it is." That's what we wanted too because it is already so impressive. You didn't really have to push anything too much.

NFS: What would you guys say is the biggest challenge you faced making the film and how did you overcome it?

Alexandria: I think the hardest part was wanting so badly to cover Afghans in a way where there was dignity and respect in their stories, because we had such utmost respect for the photojournalists that we were covering. It was a constant pressure to do their stories’ justice. The access that they gave us was such an honor to have. They're essentially risking their lives to give us access and also for us to put this film out. Everyday we felt that. [We spent] a lot of sleepless nights thinking about that. I think that was the biggest pressure for both of us is just trying to navigate that emotionally.

For people looking to do international stories, I think it's good to just cut through the bullshit and say that anyone can buy a ticket to Afghanistan. The important thing is to have someone on the ground you trust, anywhere you go in the world, and in your own community anywhere in the US.

NFS: What advice you would give other filmmakers trying to tell compelling stories?

Alexandria: My advice to filmmakers, trying to be filmmakers…aren't we always trying? We're going to be trying for the rest of our lives. Just start now. A lot of people are waiting for the opportunity to start or waiting for the right thing to get you going or the right story or being precious about story.

Mo: Or money.

Alexandria: Or money. Waiting for money. It’s never going to happen. You're not going to shoot it on the camera you want. Just get out there. With the first project I did, 23 Feet was very, very shoestring. Unbelievably so. If you don't start somewhere, you just have to take the leap. Every film project, every step of the process of a film project is taking a leap, always. You just have to really embrace failure because failure is the only thing that's going to make you grow. It's not very helpful if you do a project and you didn't fail once, because you're not growing. It's important to not be afraid of failure. Get after it and fall on your face, basically.

Mo: For people looking to do international stories, I think it's good to just cut through the bullshit and say that anyone can buy a ticket to Afghanistan. The important thing is to have someone on the ground you trust, anywhere you go in the world, and in your own community anywhere in the US. You need someone who can give you that access or at least help guide you through what you're trying to do. Doing your homework on those people is really important. Even approaching a community without the camera. When we first met the characters, we weren't going to shoot with them right away. We had a conversation with them and eventually talked them in to coming for an interview. Before that we had looked at their work and had been working with the fixer already. Shooting internationally is not as crazy. It's more expensive. If you're passionate about getting out into the world and telling stories in other places, sell your car. Make sure you have the right local connections in order to make that happen. You'll find that people want their story to be told, and they'll open their hearts. Jumping out there is the most important thing.


Thank you Alexandria and Mo!

Frame By Frame opens in NYC this Friday at the IFC Center for a seven day run. You can get tickets here. If you'd like to see the film but don't live in New York, you can now request the film to come to a theater in your town through Gathr. You can see the film and support your fellow independent filmmakers, not to mention get some schwag from the team if you are one of the first fifty people to request it on the Gathr platform!     

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4 Comments

Cultural revolutions almost always start with violence . . . it's sad. The proverbial light at the end of the dark tunnel is always the art and expression that come afterward.

November 18, 2015 at 1:14PM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
362

This looks exceptional and is a wonderful article. Nice work, Oakley Anderson-Moore.

November 18, 2015 at 1:21PM

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John Ryan Sullivan
Writer, Editor, Director
99

Thanks for reading, John!

November 19, 2015 at 2:28PM

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Shooter/Editor

Really interesting interview, can't wait to see the doc.

November 18, 2015 at 1:38PM, Edited November 18, 1:38PM

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Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor
1962

tldr

November 18, 2015 at 6:09PM

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putin
post-pro / Editor
91