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.

5 Things You Need to Know About Turquoise Mountain

turquoise mountain logoEstablished in 2006 by Prince Charles in partnership with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, the non-profit, non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain aims to preserve historical areas and revive traditional artisanal activities in Afghanistan. In just over a decade, the organization has already achieved remarkable success, garnering an international reputation and transforming the lives of thousands of Afghans. Read on for the five things you need to know about this unique organization that are helping to revitalize a cultural industry and rebuild a country.

  1. Turquoise Mountain is bringing traditional Afghan arts and crafts back to life.

Due to decades of civil conflict and political instability in Afghanistan, many traditional arts and crafts practices were, until recently, all but abandoned. Turquoise Mountain is helping to bring these activities back to life at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Afghanistan’s premier vocational training institution for arts and crafts. Students receive a world-class education in some of Afghanistan’s most culturally rich crafts. They can select from disciplines such as woodwork, jewelry and gem cutting, ceramics, calligraphy, or miniature painting. Around 15 artisans are selected for each craft every year. The students learn from some of Afghanistan’s most renowned and skilled master craftsmen, thus reviving the traditional practice of knowledge transmission from master to pupil. At the end of three intensive years of training, students at the institute graduate with a City & Guilds accreditation that is internationally recognized.

  1. Turquoise Mountain completely revitalized an at-risk historic district.

Looking now at the magnificent setting of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul’s historic Murad Khani district—once an ancient silver bazaar—it’s hard to imagine that just a few short years ago the entire area was buried under several meters of accumulated garbage. (Not surprisingly, the district was featured on the World Monuments Fund Watch List, which keeps track of the world’s most endangered historic sites). Turquoise Mountain worked to completely restore Murad Khani, digging through the garbage to reveal the beautiful centuries-old structures and courtyards below. The process was also a learning opportunity for artisans, focusing on the traditional skills of architectural woodwork and mud-plastering. Today, the beautifully restored old city is a vibrant artistic and economic hub.

  1. Turquoise Mountain plays an important community role.

The Murad Khani district is not only the home of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, it’s also an established community of long-term residents. Community development was an integral part of Turquoise Mountain’s restoration activities in the area. In partnership with the Murad Khani community, Turquoise Mountain has worked to provide employment, education, and healthcare programs to local residents, including a public school and an out-of-school education center that is free of charge. The Firuzkuh Family Health Center, which focuses on maternal and child health, welcomes thousands of patients every year. The center also hosts regular events and gatherings where the entire community can come together and celebrate their culture. Due to Turquoise Mountain’s work, and the active presence of the institute, residents of Murad Khani are feeling a renewed sense of pride in their district and their community.

  1. Work from Turquoise Mountain has been exhibited internationally.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s main goals is to train artists in Afghanistan and revitalize the country’s arts and crafts industry. The organization also believes in the importance of international connections. As a result, Turquoise Mountain works hard to showcase the work of its students and artisans not only at home, but also on the global stage. The work of Turquoise Mountain artisans has been exhibited in Bahrain, Qatar, Italy, the UK, and, most recently at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. In addition, Turquoise Mountain works to find international buyers and retailers for its artisans’ work. Some of the individuals and organizations that Turquoise Mountain has partnered with include Kate Spade Fifth Avenue and London’s five-star Connaught Hotel.

  1. Turquoise Mountain by the numbers.

Some of the most important statistics associated with Turquoise Mountain are:

  • 112—The number of historic buildings, such as those in Murad Khani, that Turquoise Mountain has restored worldwide. (Turquoise Mountain operates in Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.)
  • 36,000—The number of cubic meters of garbage that were excavated from the Murad Khani district during the old city restoration project.
  • $5 million—The dollar value of traditional crafts that have been sold through Turquoise Mountain to international markets and customers.
  • 1,100—The number of artisans who have received training in the restoration of heritage buildings (including activities such as traditional architectural woodworking) through working on Turquoise Mountain restoration projects.
  • 80%—The percentage of Turquoise Mountain Institute graduates who go on to own their own businesses (entrepreneurship and business training are an important part of the Turquoise Mountain curriculum, in addition to craft work).
  • 17,000—The number of patients who obtain primary health care annually through Turquoise Mountain’s community development projects and health care initiatives.
  • 10,000—The number of artisans whose lives that Turquoise Mountain aims to transform over the next decade.

What You Need to Know about Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

The creative arts have long served as an important tool for empowerment and social development all around the world. In Afghanistan today, the not-for-profit NGO Bond Street Theatre is harnessing the transformational power of the arts to bring hope and change to Afghans seeking to rebuild their lives and their communities after decades of conflict. Read on to learn more about Bond Street Theatre and its role in Afghanistan’s development.

What is Bond Street Theatre?

bondstreettheatrelogoFor more than 40 years, Bond Street Theatre has been using the uplifting powers of the arts to respond to global humanitarian crises. Founded in 1976 with a mission to promote peace and understanding through the arts, the New York-based organization operates around the world, working with local artists and civilians to develop creative programming and performances that illustrate and address important social issues.

Through its theater and theater-based programs, Bond Street Theatre helps inspire and educate youth, promote human rights, give space to marginalized voices, and provide peacebuilding and healing tools for communities recovering from conflict. The organization has worked in more than 40 countries around the world in a variety of settings, including schools, prisons, refugee camps, remote communities, and urban centers.

A history of Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

2003—Bond Street Theatre’s first project in Afghanistan—a healing program targeting the thousands of refugee families pouring back into the country—is undertaken in collaboration with Exile Theatre, a local company composed of professional theater artists who were formerly living in exile. In addition, Bond Street Theatre works with Afghanistan-Schulen, a German nonprofit dedicated to education in Afghanistan, to support educational initiatives reaching an estimated 25,000 children in the rural regions of the northern part of the country.

2005—Bond Street Theatre spends two semesters in residence at Kabul University, teaching students and developing Beyond The Mirror, a collaborative production devised with Exile Theater. Beyond The Mirror marks the first-ever theatrical collaboration between Afghan and American companies. The production enjoys its world premiere in Kabul and later tours the US and Japan to resounding critical and public acclaim.

2006-2009—This three-year period sees the launch of the US-Afghan Arts Exchange and Conflict Resolution Project, a bold new initiative intended to foster and facilitate artistic exchange and dialogue among artists from Afghanistan, India, and the US. Participating artists work together to create A Kite’s Tale, a play about children’s rights in India, which is presented together with inspirational and education workshops for women in rural communities, street children, and other marginalized groups.

2007—Bond Street Theatre partners with Aschiana, a Kabul-based organization dedicated to supporting Afghan children working on the streets, to deliver workshops on self-expression, self-confidence, and group cooperation. In addition, the company spends time at the Mediothek Center in Kunduz training a local theater group.

2008—Bond Street Theatre’s partnership with Aschiana continues, this time in Mazar-i-Sharif, where the company delivers theater technique-based workshops to build self-confidence and improve education for street children.

2010-2012—The year 2010 marks the launch of the Theatre for Social Development Project, in which Bond Street Theatre works to train and support Afghan theater companies. The project’s broad goals are to use theater to bring new information and ideas to rural areas with very low literacy rates. It also aims to help build the capacity of local theater companies to serve as an educational and inspirational resource for their own communities on an ongoing basis.

Four Afghan theater companies participate in the project: Simorgh Film & Theatre in Herat creates two shows that focus on conflict resolution and family issues and are presented in correctional centers, drug rehabilitation facilities, and schools and youth centers; Kabul’s White Star Company produces two shows that use audience participation to explore alternative solutions to critical social issues; Nangarhar Theatre in Jalalabad develops two performances addressing women’s rights and rule-of-law issues; and Kandahar Theatre introduces two shows, one of which is performed directly in family homes for audiences who have never before seen live theater.

2013-2014—Funded by the United States Institute of Peace, Bond Street Theatre launches the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project in the months leading up to Afghanistan’s presidential and run-off elections. Working together with local partner theater companies, Bond Street Theatre’s touring performances help educate more than 150,000 people on voter rights and related issues.

2014-2016—Bond Street Theatre continues its focus on young people with the launch of the Youth-Led Community Improvement Project. In this country-wide initiative, 375 youth from 25 provinces come together to receive intensive training in leadership, community service, and the arts. Theater-based workshops focus on creative problem-solving, improved communication skills, and identification of key issues in the participants’ home communities.

The project culminates with each participant creating a community Action Plan, and then returning to his or her home community to implement those plans. The Youth-Led Community Improvement Project participants are now a vitally important part of Afghanistan’s growing network of young people committed to creating lasting change.

2017—Bond Street Theatre works with youth leaders from eight Afghan provinces to help inform and engage communities across the country on issues and questions around access to justice and legal rights.