I took slides almost exclusively, partly because I was thinking ahead to the need to demonstrate the music "back home" in pre-digital days. Slides are more durable than paper prints, but archivable negatives would have been an advantage. The Centlivres did all their still field documentation in black and white, perhaps a more "neutral" documentation medium.
Afghanistan is a consistently beautiful, highly photogenic country, as was poignantly seen in the widespread news coverage of the 2001 war. Well before that year, "National Geographic" and "coffee table" images of the country and its people were widespread in the west and always made me queasy. I find the aestheticization of poor, powerless, and vulnerable people truly offensive. Some ambivalence creeps in when I see how the visual attractiveness of the land and people of Afghanistan has worked to foster support for their cause in world public opinion. The country has been a media magnet, dating back to the struggle against the Soviet occupation in the early 1980s.
For this website, I scanned the slides into web-friendly compressed files using Nikon CoolScan 2.5, trading quality for the benefit of easy processing and transmission, and adjusting for brightness and contrast.
I deeply regret that some people remain anonymous due to my underdeveloped graduate training in the importance of impeccable documentation and to the general western observer's tendency to view people as representing types rather than individuals.
Generally, people were not upset by having a foreigner take their photograph. They were not very used to cameras in general, or, probably, to their possible abuse. I used a Polaroid camera sparingly (again, due to film shortage) to offer instant feedback, which was always greeted well. Even at a large, charged, public religious event, the annual pilgrimage festival at Mazar-i Sharif, which attracted many thousands of people from around the country, photography was not a problem, as my fieldnotes show: "We wandered about-magician (man tied with ropes), man with snakes and trained crow, story tellers (about Ali), many tawiz-stands [amulet-sellers]-everyone open about taking pictures."
Of course, the main limitation was the photographing of women. I did not ask my wife to get photographs of women when she was in their quarters. Once, when we had the rare occasion of watching a nomad wedding, I wrote: "I took pictures of the men, but would have loved a telephoto lens for the women, who were splendidly dressed in chapan-ish [northern silk] robes with gold trim." Would I have done more clandestine photography with a telephoto lens?
My own experience in Afghan photography can be bounced off two types of work from the same period. One is the approach of photographer-travelers like Roland and Sabrina Michaud, whose many gorgeous color images were published in attractive books and are still in circulation. They "captured" many of the same places and even people as I did. While clearly sympathetic to the hard life and humanity of the Afghan population, these photos are driven by a need for aesthetic gratification and present a distanced beauty. I am reminded of a story told by an anthropologist friend who had worked in Turkey, partly with Roma people, when he was approached by National Geographic for a contribution to their book on "gypsies." At first, he was excited by having his informants included. Then they asked him if all his photos were of people dressed in red against brown backgrounds. Taken aback, he said "yes," after which they lost interest in him, since they had so many images of that description already. People as design elements remains a common trope.
The other large body of images from the North can be found in the work of the husband and wife team of anthropologists, Pierre Centlivres and Micheline Centlivres-Demont, who have worked in Afghanistan for nearly forty years. Their Portraits d'Afghanistan (Michel Albin, Paris, 2002) is a masterpiece of ethnographically responsible black and white photography, filled with insight and commentary on the people's lives and also on issues around taking pictures of Afghans. Some of their photos overlap the topics of my slides, so offer a useful counterpoint in method and style.