Photojournalism, at its highest level, is an art, but it can also be a way of opening up a world. In rare cases it can change it. The four Afghan photojournalists profiled in the excellent documentary “Frame by Frame,” directed by Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, are all artists, but their images are also calls to action. These photographers want the world to know what their country has been through, and what awaits. Their images are both testimonials and harbingers.
In war-ravaged, post-Taliban Afghanistan, there is no lack of material to photograph. During the Taliban’s reign, all photography was banned; family photo albums were seized and torn up. No wonder the photographers in Afghanistan now feel the urgency to document everything. They don’t want the world to forget this country. The fear that the Taliban will once again come into power underscores the urgency.
Najibullah Musafer spends much of his time teaching the next generation of photographers. For him, teaching is much more a calling than an avocation. Speaking of the Taliban’s ban, he says, “If a country is without photography, without historical, artistic, or cultural photos, that country is without identity.” Photos, for him, “are a part of human life.”
Wakil Kohsar uses his images in the cause of social activism, photographing election booths in outlying areas or drug addicts lighting up on the street – just about anything that catches his eye. (His activism doesn’t end with his imagery. We see him, for example, visiting addicts in rehab.) “There are things,” he says, “that we pass by every day with our eyes closed.” He carries his camera with him at all times, as if it were an extension of his body. He is an idealist without illusion, filming the best and the worst in society. “I’m certain a photograph can lead to change,” he says.
Massoud Hossaini, who grew up in Iran before returning to his homeland, won a Pulitzer Prize working for The Associated Press for a photograph of a wailing girl in a green dress – dubbed “the girl in green” – standing amid the human carnage of a bomb blast. Like the other photographers we hear from, he has a fierce love for his country and shares the belief that “we can serve Afghanistan through photography.” Toward the end of the film we see him attend an anniversary of the bomb blast and visit the family of the “girl in green,” whose younger sister, disfigured by the explosion, has essentially been mute since that day. Their mother says, “Every day our wounds get fresher.”
Hossaini’s wife, Farzana Wahidy, a remarkable photographer in her own right, has perhaps the most galvanizing story to tell. Her girlhood under the Taliban was brutal in the extreme, and she has made it her cause to open up on camera the lives of Afghanistan’s women. Even in the post-
Taliban era, the resistance she meets from such a patriarchal society is ferocious. But she is impelled by the belief that the photographic portrait of Afghanistan is “not complete” without the faces of women.
In one scene, she travels to a hospital intending to interview and photograph women in the so-called self-immolation ward but is met with stiff resistance from a physician there. Many of the women, whose stories have not readily been told, did not, in fact, set fire to themselves; rather, they were often set on fire by vengeful men within their own family circle.
The physician, fearing reprisals from the local mullah, blocks Wahidy’s access. It is not until later that we see her talk to such a woman, whose father-in-law torched her while her husband, laughing, looked on. Now divorced, she has not seen her daughter since she was taken from her as a baby. The woman carries with her a composite image of herself holding her baby, both smiling. “I have no one,” she tells Wahidy.
In the face of such sadness, Musafer’s words, as he describes the photographing of the Taliban’s genocidal rampages, are apt: “My eyes were dry, but my heart was crying.” I doubt there will be many dry eyes in the audience for this film. Grade: A- (Unrated.)