Spotlight on the Amazing Phototheca Afghanica

Decades of turmoil and conflict have destroyed many elements of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, including the vast majority of historical photographs of the country. Today, a visual record of the time before Afghanistan’s troubles is all but non-existent, leaving the country with very little visual heritage to look back on with pride or to pass on to future generations as a record of the past.

However, not all photographs were lost, and one unique project is working to ensure that those photographs that were saved from destruction are safely preserved and made publicly accessible. Read on to learn more about the Phototheca Afghanica and its work to preserve and restore Afghanistan’s visual heritage.

What is the Phototheca Afghanica?

old photosThe Phototheca Afghanica is a project initiated and maintained by the Swiss Afghanistan Institute (SAI), a politically and religiously neutral institution that has been systematically researching and documenting the history and culture of Afghanistan for more than 35 years.

The image archives of the SAI have served as the primary source of material for the Phototheca Afghanica; these archives contain approximately 50,000 photographs derived mainly from collections that were lodged with the SAI or entrusted to other safe individuals and institutions for protection during Afghanistan’s conflict years. It was a common practice during this time for important cultural artifacts to be hidden or sent out of the country for safekeeping, as objects that remained in the country were at great risk of destruction.

At present, the aim of the Phototheca Afghanica is to make roughly 5,000 historical photographs available for research and accessible to the general public through exhibitions, publications, or online.

Why were so many of Afghanistan’s photographs destroyed?

Afghanistan’s photographs—again, like so many other cultural artifacts—suffered from two waves of destruction. In 1978, pre-revolutionary photographs were destroyed by communist activists attempting to erase what they viewed as the country’s bourgeois past. Then, from the mid-1990s onwards, images depicting living creatures were destroyed as the regime believed them to be blasphemous.

What has the Phototheca Afghanica been doing to preserve photos?

The practical work being carried out by the Phototheca Afghanica is all about ensuring that the photographs are preserved in as good condition as possible, and that it is easy to access and search through the collection of photos. Practical steps to this end include: preparing a comprehensive inventory of existing photographs, including albums, prints, negatives, and glass plates; scanning and digitizing all available material; physically safeguarding the photographs by mounting them in special acid-free paper folders and then storing them in acid-free boxes; compiling individual descriptions of each photograph, including the identification (as far as possible) of the people and places featured and the date of the photo; and assembling searchable databases so that photos can be found based on selected criteria such as photographer, location, etc.

What kinds of photos can be found in the Phototheca Afghanica?

The Phototheca Afghanica has already made a select number of images available online from the following collections:

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880)—Photos from this collection are some of the earliest photos of Afghanistan in existence, as photographic technology was unknown in the country prior to the late 1870s, when it was brought over from Europe. These particular photographs were taken by the British Royal Engineers during the Second Anglo-Afghan War; the aim was to photograph military action on Afghan territory to supplement conventional military documentation of the time.

Souvenirs d’Afghanistan—This intriguing series of photographs was initiated by the Afghan ambassador in Paris in 1924. At this time, the recently independent Afghanistan was a relatively unknown player on the world stage. The ambassador’s intention was to introduce people to his country through a series of photographs depicting Afghanistan as a modern, up-and-coming nation. The collection primarily featured buildings, cars, and bridges, with very few people appearing—and then only members of the royal household dressed in Western apparel.

Why is preserving these photos important?

Photographs provide a vital record unlike any other of a country and its culture. Particularly in a country like Afghanistan, which has seen so much change over the years, photographs stand as an important reminder of a past that has been all but lost. For example, many historic buildings that feature in some of the photographs have since been demolished or destroyed, and the photograph is therefore the only reminder of their existence.

In addition, while preserved photographs have a cultural importance all their own, they can also serve a very practical purpose in helping with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. According to the Phototheca Afghanica, photos from its collections have already been used in the reconstruction of Bagh-e Babur, the famous gardens in the heart of Kabul, as well as the buildings of the Afghan National Museum, the Afghan National Gallery, and some of the oldest parts of the Presidential Palace.

What You Need to Know About the Aga Khan Development Network

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is one of the most important philanthropic organizations currently working in Afghanistan. To date, with the support of various donors and partners, AKDN has channeled nearly $750 million into Afghanistan’s rebuilding process.

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Read on for a look at some of the diverse areas of activity that have been supported by these vital contributions.

Education

AKDN works to prioritize all levels of education in Afghanistan, from pre-school and early childhood development through post-secondary learning. Some of the many educational initiatives that AKDN has helped implement in the country include the establishment of more than 200 government and community based pre-school centers in remote and rural areas as well as the corresponding establishment of two Teacher Resource Centers to provide support and training to local early childhood educators.

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Additionally, AKDN established an intervention program for the government of Afghanistan to help increase and expand national capacity to deliver, support, and promote quality education. It also provides scholarships to assist students at the post-secondary level in gaining a quality university or college education.

Health

Providing even basic health care for all of Afghanistan’s citizens has been a challenge in recent decades. With health care facilities having been damaged or destroyed by conflict, to say nothing of a doctor-patient ratio of just two doctors for every 10,000 people, it is extremely difficult for many Afghans to get the care they need. AKDN began work to address this problem in 2002, when the organization launched a program dedicated to building a more effective health care delivery system.

This program has taken a four-tiered approach to care delivery: volunteer community health workers are trained to provide health education and minor treatments; Basic Health Centers, typically established in remote or rural locations, offer essential curative care as well as maternal and child care; Comprehensive Health Centers offer diagnostic, treatment, and referral services as well as emergency maternal care; and Referral Hospitals provide secondary care and other specialized services.

Rural Development

The majority of Afghanistan’s citizens still live in rural areas; however, residents of these areas are often left behind by development activities that concentrate on less isolated and more densely populated regions. AKDN works to support and connect these rural communities through a range of different programs and activities.

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These efforts include: participatory governance programs, which aim to empower local communities to identify their own needs and create and implement their own development projects; programs on agriculture and natural resources management, which move beyond simply distributing agricultural commodities and instead focus on providing farmers with the tools and education they need for a sustainable livelihood; and initiatives to improve access to finance, so that rural communities and families without basic financial services can save for the future and protect their existing assets.

Humanitarian Assistance

Unfortunately, war and conflict are not the only difficulties that affect Afghanistan; the country is highly prone to multiple natural disasters as well. Earthquakes are a frequent occurrence in Afghanistan’s mountainous northern regions. Additionally, landslides often follow earthquakes, and floods are common in the spring due to heavy rains and melting snow.

AKDN works with Focus Humanitarian Assistance, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 1996, to help provide disaster relief efforts and to assist at-risk communities with preventative measures. Specific initiatives in this area include avalanche preparedness, which trains local villages on avalanche safety and establishes weather monitoring posts to gather data needed to predict the likelihood of avalanches striking; the management of emergency stockpiles, which can currently provide food and relief for over 2,000 families in some of Afghanistan’s highest-risk areas; and the creation of community emergency response teams, which help get relief as quickly as possible to areas hit by disaster without having to wait for mobilization efforts from farther away.

Cultural Development

AKDN takes its role in helping conserve and restore Afghanistan’s cultural heritage very seriously. To date, through its Aga Khan Trust for Culture branch, AKDN has restored and rehabilitated dozens of historic public buildings, public open spaces, pedestrian walkways, houses, and monuments in three Afghan cities, including the famous Babur’s Gardens in Kabul.

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Another important cultural initiative recently launched by AKDN is the establishment of two schools of classical Afghan music, one in Kabul and one in Herat. These institutions help revitalize Afghanistan’s rich musical tradition, which is currently in danger of disappearing.

Microfinance

As of 2013, it was estimated that only 9 percent of adult Afghans held an account at a formal financial institution. To address this challenge, AKDN was working to establish microcredit programs in Afghanistan as early as 2002.

In 2004, the organization launched First Microfinance Bank. It was the first of its kind under Afghanistan’s then-newly-developed regulatory structure as well as a pioneering force in connecting underserved Afghans with innovative and flexible microfinance products. These, in turn, help drive vital economic development, particularly in rural areas.

This Is How Wheelchair Basketball Improved Orthopedic Treatment in Afghanistan

A growing sports program is providing people affected by regional conflict in Afghanistan with dignity, confidence, and hope for the future.

Since the first wheelchair basketball tournament was held in 2012, rehabilitators have found that developing organized sports programs for people in wheelchairs can change lives. Leisure activities are not always emphasized in Afghanistan, but therapists are bringing sports into the forefront of treatment.

History of Wheelchair Sports in Afghanistan

wheelchair sportsPeople in wheelchairs in Afghanistan began organizing to play basketball before an official organization existed. In 2009, a new team asked for someone from the United States to teach them how to play, and Jess Markt, a player for the New York Rollin’ Knicks in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, responded to the request. In November of that year, he went to Afghanistan with plans to work with the team for one week.

Markt, who became a paraplegic at age 19 after his spine was severed in a car crash, said the experience in Afghanistan was life-changing. He subsequently deepened his involvement with the new wheelchair basketball team there. He collaborated with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Motivation UK to have basketball wheelchairs sent to Afghanistan and publicize the new sport nationwide. The work became known as the Afghanistan Wheelchair Basketball Project.

“Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability,” Markt told the online magazine Folks. “It gives these young men the idea that they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”

Therapy through Leisure

Since 2011, Markt has worked with Alberto Cairo, who leads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) orthopedic program in Afghanistan, to integrate wheelchair basketball and therapy for people who have lost limbs or can no longer use limbs due to injury. Cairo, a physical therapist from Italy, helps people learn to use prosthetic limbs or re-use their limbs.

Cairo recently told NPR that in Afghanistan, people with disabilities are often fiercely protected by their families. While that means families are vigilant about caring for loved ones with disabilities, they may shield them from developing outside hobbies careers, or friendships. For many, developing skills on the basketball court has provided them with new purpose that spills into other parts of their lives. Many look forward to basketball practice, which provides fun and an otherwise unheard-of opportunity to play a sport.

Markt described one Afghan man who was injured as a child in the war and had “no active life” as an adult because his family did not expect him to contribute. At age 29, the man began playing wheelchair basketball and eventually joined the national team.

Wheelchair basketball helped the man envision a new path for himself. He took out a microloan through a Red Cross program and opened an automotive parts and repair business. He is now a key member of his community, and he returned his relief card that entitled him to a monthly food allocation because of his disability. He stated he no longer needed it because he had a job.

This man is not alone. Markt said that wheelchair basketball has given many players the confidence to start businesses or find jobs.

Taking on the World

wheelchair sportsThe ICRC organized the first wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan in 2012, an event that Cairo said at the time would have been “unimaginable” before. Cairo noted that the players had been transformed physically and psychologically, becoming “much stronger in many ways.”

Now, more than 500 people now play recreational basketball in seven Red Cross rehabilitation centers across Afghanistan. Players compete in tournaments across the country, and the national teams have traveled to other countries such as Japan to compete and take part in international wheelchair basketball training. The national teams are hoping to compete in the Paralympics, even though they haven’t won any international tournaments yet.

In the 25 years that Cairo has worked in Afghanistan, he has hired several hundred patients to assist in ICRC’s rehabilitation centers. Cairo has helped more than 100,000 people, including more than 150 patients who have learned to play wheelchair basketball.

The Future of Rehab

Cairo and Markt continue to partner to advance rehabilitation efforts for citizens of Afghanistan. They recently toured the United States to talk about their work, including the latest technology in their field and their expanding work in other countries in the developing world.

Innovations are being made in wheelchair design, spinal cord regeneration, and prosthetics. Additionally, the ICRC is still building centers around the world to meet a “relentless” demand for prosthetics, treatment, and rehabilitation.

In Afghanistan, ICRC centers treat thousands of patients each year while also addressing issues with security and on-going conflict. Even with these challenges, ICRC’s innovations, including its home-based therapy and wheelchair basketball, are transforming lives across Afghanistan.